What Would It Take for J.J. Watt to Become the Best Defensive Player Ever?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 2, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05:  J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans waits between plays against the Cincinnati Bengals during their AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Reliant Stadium on January 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is the reigning defensive player of the year, after a 2012 season in which the 24-year-old tallied 81 tackles and racked up an eye-popping 20.5 sacks.

One of Watt's teammates believes that's only the beginning.

In fact, linebacker Brian Cushing thinks that when all is said and done, Watt's name will go down alongside players such as Reggie White and Bruce Smith as one of the all-time greats.

Cushing went even farther, as a matter of fact. According to ESPN, Cushing told John Clayton on his "Inside the Huddle" podcast that Watt, who checked in at fifth in the NFL's "Top 100 Players of 2012" list, could go down as the greatest defensive player of all time.

The things that he's going to be able to accomplish are unbelievable. When you talk about the potential that he has of really being the greatest defensive player ever, he could be. I know that's very premature, but he's that kind of player. I think if he just keeps doing what he's doing and obviously stays healthy, he's on that track. He's incredible. There's no other word for him.

Cushing brings up a couple of very valid points.

First, as great as Watt was last year, it's still premature to start mentioning the youngster in the same breath as White, Smith, or an "old school" star like Deacon Jones.

Watt's sophomore season in the NFL was phenomenal, but the history of the NFL is littered with players who had one huge year and then faded into obscurity.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, if Watt is one day enshrined in Canton, then he's going to have to stay relatively healthy. He's already had a couple of fairly significant injuries, including a dislocated elbow last year that he played through.

Yes, J.J. Watt did what he did last year with a bum flipper, which is all the more mind-boggling.

A Hall of Fame career is a marathon, not a sprint. Unless your name is Gale Sayers, a career cut short by injuries can keep you from those loftiest of heights.

As great as Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis was in his prime, the fact that knee injuries cut short his career keeps him from being mentioned alongside Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and the great Jim Brown.

It may keep Davis out of Canton altogether.

However, if Watt can stay healthy and last year was any indication of what Watt's capable of, then pull up a chair and pay attention...

Because we may be watching history.

Let's take a look at Watt's first two seasons in the NFL, measured against some of his contemporaries in the only stat that people really care about when it comes to defensive ends...sacks.

As you can see, Watt has more sacks in his first two campaigns than anyone on this list.

More than Jared Allen, who is likely bound for the Hall of Fame. More than Terrell Suggs, the 2011 defensive player of the year. More than Justin Smith, who was considered the gold standard among 3-4 ends before Watt's coming out party last year. More than Jason Pierre-Paul, who entered 2012 carrying the moniker of "the next big thing."

What makes that all the more remarkable is that Watt did his damage in the 3-4. Suggs plays in a "hybrid" front and often rushes the passer standing up. Smith started his career as a 4-3 end with the Cincinnati Bengals, before switching schemes when he joined the San Francisco 49ers.

3-4 defensive ends aren't supposed to put up numbers like that. They occupy blockers to free up linebackers. They don't terrorize quarterbacks.

Apparently Watt didn't get the memo.

Now let's compare Watt's first two years to some of the greatest pass-rushers of all time.

When compared to the five defensive linemen with the most (accredited) sacks in the history of the National Football League, only one player had more sacks in his first two seasons than Watt's 26.

That player was Reggie White, whom many people consider the greatest defensive end ever to play in the NFL.

That isn't to say that there's not still a lot of work to be done. At Watt's current pace of 13 sacks a year (which may seem low given last year's outburst but is a great year for defensive ends from Earth), he would need 14 more seasons to break Bruce Smith's all-time record of 200 sacks.

At 16 sacks a season (a sack per game, every game), Watt would have to play until he's 35.

That's a tall order, even for a player as talented as J.J. Watt.

Still, Watt doesn't necessarily need the record to be considered the greatest ever. As his 80-plus tackles last year show, Watt is just as capable at hauling down running backs as he is blasting passers. His 16 batted balls last year is just a ridiculous number.

Furthermore, every football fan should want J.J. Watt to succeed, and the reason has nothing to do with the game itself.

Watt's exploits off the field are becoming just as legendary as his prowess on it, and for once with an NFL player it's for all the right reasons.

Just in May of this year, Watt visited with a 12-year-old leukemia patient according to KHOU (h/t Gabe Zaldivar of Bleacher Report). One week later, Watt did the same with Itzy Cagen, a boy who was left a quadriplegic after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as a toddler.

Those acts only scratch the surface of the kindnesses that Watt has extended to fans, many of them children. There have been a fistful more in this offseason alone.

In a day and age when an NFL player was just arrested and charged with murder and is a suspect in two other killings, we should be cheering J.J. Watt from the rooftops.

He's not a thug. He's not a spoiled child who thinks the world owes him a debt of gratitude because he plays a game for a living.

By all indications, J.J. Watt gets it.

For that reason more than any other, I'll be cheering J.J. Watt when he takes the field on September 9 against the San Diego Chargers. I hope he gets 20 sacks again this year and every year after, until he shatters every record in the book.

Is Watt the best defensive player in the NFL right now? One can certainly make the argument that he is.

Is he the best ever? Not by a long shot. Not yet.

Can he be? Assuming he stays healthy, absolutely.

We should all be hoping that he does, and that one day Watt claims the title of the greatest defender to ever lace them up. Because as great as J.J. Watt is on a football field, he may be even better off of it.

The NFL may need more of the former, but the world could certainly use more of the latter.




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