J.J. Watt Is Back and Won't Let Khalil Mack Run Away with NFL's DPOY

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 5, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 30: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans runs back to the locker room before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)
Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

This past June, a member of the Texans front office got a phone call from the team's security staff. It seemed like an urgent matter.

They had seen someone on camera early in the morning, while it was still dark outside and the sprinklers were still on, climbing the fence to get to the practice fields.

How early? 5:30 a.m. Or earlier. Security hadn't even had a chance to unlock the damn gates.

It turned out the perpetrator wasn't a prankster or early-morning thrill-seeker.

It was Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, out running, rehabbing from the devastating, frightening leg injury that ended his season early last October.

Typical Watt.

Many with the Texans organization will point to stories like this and tell you they knew we would see a revitalized, dangerous Watt this year. And that's exactly what's happening.

Watt, very quietly, has again become one of the best defensive linemen in football following an injury that had people questioning if he would even play again.

He is, and indeed is playing so well that he's entered the race for Defensive Player of the Year.

As improbable as it seemed, Watt has matched, and even surpassed in some ways, the outstanding play of Bears pass-rusher Khalil Mack.

That might sound absurd, considering the national narrative that Mack is almost single-handedly obliterating offenses. But here's the thing: So is Watt. Just look at the numbers:

Texans PR @TexansPR

#Texans DE @JJWatt (3x NFL DPOY) and #Bears LB Khalil Mack (2016 DPOY) have been two of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL through four games. https://t.co/s1OM6nfNIm

Mack has five sacks, four forced fumbles, 17 tackles and three tackles for a loss.

Watt? Five sacks, four forced fumbles, 20 tackles and six tackles for a loss.

The only difference is Watt is on a 1-3 team and Mack a 3-1 team. 

And that no one has been hyping up Watt much. Yet.

Watt and Mack are part of what could be one of the most crowded DPOY fields in decades. There are a strong four or five candidates already—Mack, Watt, the Rams' Aaron Donald, the Broncos' Von Miller and the Jaguars' Jalen Ramsey—and there are likely one or two names who will emerge later in the year.

Can a player like Watt, on a 1-3 team, truly be considered a DPOY candidate in that field? Why the hell not? The Texans could easily turn their season around, and even if they don't, none of this is to say he's already earned the award. It's just that he's a candidate. So relax.

What makes Watt's re-emergence so stunning is the injury he's returning from: a fractured left leg. It was a gruesome setback, and he's battled back from other injuries, including two back surgeries.

Just when it seemed the game was wearing down Watt, he began to wear down the game. He remains unstoppable.

The NFL just named Watt its AFC Defensive Player of the Month. As Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle pointed out, it's the sixth time Watt has won the award. That ties him with Bruce Smith for the most ever.

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 23:  J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans reacts after a stop in the second half against the New York Giants at NRG Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

He is tied for first in the NFL in forced fumbles, second in sacks, and fourth in tackles for a loss and quarterback hits. He leads the AFC in sacks and forced fumbles.

We are watching one of the great stories of the year. It's not a surprise for one of the most talented, persistent players in the NFL. But it does almost feel like an honor to watch his comeback.

Of course, Mack is a great story (and talent), too: a player cast off from Oakland and a big reason the Bears are a possible Super Bowl team.

And Mack might run away with the award as the season goes.

Or another candidate might emerge and grab it for his own.

But never count out a guy who jumps security fences at 5:30 in the morning.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.