Reggie White

How great is J.J. Watt?

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Despite playing with a broken hand, J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ All-World defendsive end, will be the biggest challenge the New England Patriots’ offense will face this Sunday. Since his breakout pick-six in Houston’s playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie, the fifth-year defensive end developed into one of the league’s best defensive players. Just how good is he, and how does he compare to some of the greatest defensive players of the recent past?

Sacks, Sacks and More Sacks

The most visible number for Watt’s dominance is his sack total. He had 20.5 his second season, 20.5 again in 2014, and has 13.5 in 12 games this year. His 36.5 sacks in his first three seasons are the seventh-most since the NFL started officially keeping track of stats in 1982. His 57 sacks in his first four seasons is the third-best total. With four games left to play in his fifth season, he is already at 70.5 career sacks. The only other player with at least 70 sacks in his first five NFL seasons is Reggie White, who had the benefit of playing two USFL seasons first. Just three other players have had at least 60 sacks in their first five seasons, though Von Miller will likely join that group. By any standard, Watt is off to the best start to his career of anybody in the history of the official sack metric.

Watt’s five-year streak has been impressive not just for a rookie, but for any player at all. He is just the sixth different player since 1982 to have at least 70 sacks in a five-year period at any point in his career. (Table 1.)

Table 1. 70-plus Sacks in Five-Year Span, 1982-2015

Player Years
Jared Allen 2007-2013
Bruce Smith 1986-1990
Lawrence Taylor 1984-1990
DeMarcus Ware 2006-2012
J.J. Watt 2011-2015
Reggie White 1985-1992

More Than Just Sacks

It would be one thing if Watt was just a pure sacker, or if he was converting pressures to sacks at a particularly high rate. He is not. Even in his modest, 5.5-sack rookie season, he was tied for sixth in the league in quarterback hits. In each of 2012, 2013, and 2014, he led the league in combined sacks and quarterback hits by at least 10 each season. In 2014, he had a combined 54 sacks and hits, a whopping 23 more than second-place Elvis Dumervil. Like his 13.5 sacks so far, his 42 quarterback hits also leads the NFL. He is also getting near the passer when he does not hit him. According to Football Outsiders data, he was fifth in the NFL in hurries in 2012, fourth in 2013, and first in 2014.

Watt also excels at winning when he does not get near the passer, by getting his hands into passing lanes and deflecting passes. His most impressive season in that category was 2012 when he tipped 18 passes at the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders, more than twice as many as any other defender. In 2013, he was one back of the league leaders in that area, and he again topped the league in 2014. This season, his five passes defensed lead all defensive linemen.

His Position Makes His Production More Impressive

What makes Watt’s productivity even more impressive is where he’s doing it from. The lists of the top sackers and hurriers, both present-day and in the past, is full of edge-rushers, 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. Watt’s versatility has increased in recent years, but he has spent much of his career as a 3-4 defensive end while playing defensive tackle in sub-package situations. The interior line is the shortest path to the quarterback, but it also tends to be the hardest one. The only other non-edge rushers among the historical lists of the top sackers are Bill Pickel, a 1980s Raiders nose tackle who excelled early, and Bruce Smith.

Great Run Defense As Well

The criticism, fair or not, against many interior linemen who do get pressure, from the modestly successful to Hall of Famers like John Randle, is they are not good run defenders. Watt is almost undeniably a superb one, ranking first in the league in run tackles for loss in both 2012 and 2014 and third in 2013. His particular specialty is making plays from the backside of runs, where he excels at getting inside and forcing the runner to bounce the run to avoid being taken down in the backfield.

The Difficulty of Putting Watt in Perspective

Unfortunately, some of the stats that show Watt’s greatness make it hard to compare him to other players. Sacks were not an official stat before 1982. Passes defensed are not widely available before 2001. Quarterback hits go back to 2006. Hurries and other unofficial stats are about as old. Tackle totals still vary widely between scorers, and they were worse before the mid-1990s. This makes it hard to more precisely compare Watt to greats like Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, and Reggie White.

The most comprehensive measure we have may be Football Outsiders’ defeats, which goes back to 1996 and includes sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and third-and-fourth-down tackles short of the sticks. Watt’s 56 defeats in 2012 is the most by any single player in that time span. His 43 in 2014 ranks fourth. His league-leading 34 through 12 games this year puts him on pace to match Ray Lewis’ third-highest total of 45. By almost any measure Watt is the most consistently impactful defender of the past 20 years. His only challenge now may be sustaining that greatness for the rest of his career.