Watt’s peak may be the greatest stretch of dominance any defensive player has ever shown, but then injuries derailed his career, and he never quite reached that summit again.
But even though the second half of his career came up short of the first, Watt is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player. And there are so many stats — both conventional and advanced — that go some way toward proving it.
Watt still holds the record for most QB pressures in a single season since PFF began tracking that stat in 2006. In 2014, he produced 119 pressures in a 16-game season, which is still nine more than anybody has managed since. In the same year, he also had 10 batted passes, four forced fumbles, an interception and three touchdown catches on the offensive side of the ball as a red-zone tight end.
It is arguably the single greatest season PFF has recorded at any position.
Most QB pressures in a season (2006-2022)
That year was also the first season Watt began his transition from the interior defensive line to the edge, as the Texans, realizing how dominant he was, decided to put him outside where he could do the most damage on the most snaps.
Early in his career, Watt was the best interior lineman in football. But he then went on to split time between the edge and interior before becoming a full-time edge rusher. He returned to the interior later in his career when he lost some of that speed and explosion.
The statistical case for Watt will be made in a lot of places, but he was also the first player who changed the very nature of the PFF grading scale when he came along — such was the level of his dominance relative to any other player.
Early in Watt's career, PFF still used the old plus/minus system to display grades. The highest mark an interior defensive lineman had posted over a season to that point came from Justin Smith, who was consistently outstanding for the San Francisco 49ers as a 3-4 defensive end.
Smith had been posting grades of around +35.0 over a season, which meant his single-season performance was 35 points higher than the league average. When Watt had his first breakout season, his grade was in the 90s — almost three times higher than the previous high-water mark at the position.
When PFF decided to transition to a 0-100 display scale for the grading, much of the work was centered around how to accommodate J.J. Watt and regular human players on the same grading scale — If Watt was a 99.0, even Pro Bowlers didn’t belong above 60.0. And if Pro Bowl players should have a 90.0-plus grade, Watt’s should be 117 on a scale that topped out at 100.
Watt’s degree of dominance literally broke the grading scale, and we had to devise the system to essentially act logarithmically at the extremes to be able to contain Watt and any other unforeseen freaks — like Aaron Donald — yet to enter the league.
Another thing that often connects truly great players is that they break the rules of how you are supposed to play and make it work. The things that Patrick Mahomes does on the regular are the kinds of plays coaches have been pleading with their players not to attempt for years.
Watt could routinely jump out of his assigned gap and make the play in the backfield before that open space could be exploited. He was so quick, fast and sudden at the snap that he could go the long way around his blocker and still get to the ball carrier before they could do anything to cut him off. His average depth of tackle during his four-year stretch of dominance was 0.7 yards downfield. When he made a tackle in the run game, the back gained an average of just two feet — and that's over four years.
When all is said and done, Watt’s playing legacy will be a complicated one. Injuries meant that we only really saw the “real” Watt for a four-year stretch, but he was Defensive Player of the Year three times in those four years. He also won PFF’s Dwight Stephenson Award — the annual award PFF gives to the best player in the NFL, regardless of position — in those same three years.
His injury problems also coincided with the rise of Aaron Donald to take his place. The theory of generational players is that they only arrive once in a generation, but here we saw two generational players arrive in the NFL within three years of one another. Donald took Watt’s position of dominance and has been at that kind of level pretty much ever since.
None of that should take away from the unstoppable force Watt was when he was at his best. During that stretch, he was the best pass-rusher in the league. He was the best run defender. He batted passes at a rate we haven’t seen before or since, and he was able to turn his hand to becoming a red-zone cheat code as an auxiliary tight end.
J.J. Watt is one of the best players ever to play the game and should be enshrined in Canton as soon as he is eligible.
Congratulations on a great career.