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Injuries cost J.J. Watt what should’ve been the best years of his career

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J.J. Watt is a generational talent, but by the end of 2019, he will have missed 32 games in four seasons.

Oakland Raiders v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Hop in the time machine with me for a second and think about where J.J. Watt was at the beginning of 2016.

The Houston Texans defensive lineman led the NFL in both sacks and tackles for loss (TFL) during the 2015 season. It earned him Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second year in a row and the third time in four years. Watt joined Lawrence Taylor as one of only two players to win the award three times.

Better yet, Watt was just 26. He had only played the first two seasons of the six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in 2014 — the largest deal ever for a defensive player at the time.

Not only was Watt set up to continue being a dominant force for the Texans, he was on track to make a case as the best defensive player in NFL history.

Then it all went sideways.

Watt underwent two back surgeries in 2016, with the latter ending his season after only three games. His 2017 season ended in Week 5 when he suffered a broken leg. He bounced back from those two injury-shortened seasons to earn an All-Pro nod in 2018 with 16 sacks.

But now, Watt’s 2019 is over prematurely too. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8 and announced on Twitter that he’s done for the year.

By the end of the year, Watt will have missed 32 games since September 2016. The back half of his 20s should’ve been greatness. Instead, he’ll be 31 by the time he’s back on the field again, and his star has faded significantly.

Watt’s career had a historically great start

In the first five seasons of his NFL career, Watt had 74.5 sacks and 132 TFLs.

Putting those numbers in historical context is tough, because neither stat has been tracked all that long. Sacks started being counted in 1982 and TFLs only date back to 1999. That doesn’t mean Watt’s totals aren’t great, though.

Let’s look at how Watt’s first five years stack up against the all-time greats.

Hall of Famer Reggie White is the only other player who recorded over 70 sacks, and no player other than Watt has had more than 100 TFLs in their first five seasons. Again, it’s just 20 years of data, but over those two decades, here’s the top five:

Tackles for loss through first five NFL seasons

  1. J.J. Watt: 132
  2. Aaron Donald: 97
  3. Von Miller: 81
  4. DeMarcus Ware: 80
  5. Khalil Mack: 78

The gap between Watt and the rest is outrageous, especially when you consider that all five of those players will likely easily earn spots in the Hall of Fame.

It was going to take an impressive amount of longevity and consistency for Watt to track down Bruce Smith’s career sack record of 200, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. He was on pace to get there with about eight or nine more productive seasons. Now it feels safe to say that won’t happen.

When healthy, Watt’s a destroyer. He’s a 6’5 and 288 pounds with the athleticism to play tight end and more than enough strength to stuff the run. In addition to all the plays he makes in the backfield, Watt has batted away 54 passes over the course of his career.

Losing Watt for the remainder of 2019 is devastating for the Texans, especially after trading Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks just before the beginning of the season. Watt returned to form in 2018 and was easily Houston’s best defensive player through the first half of 2019. He recorded 20 hits on quarterbacks through eight games — 12 more than linebacker Whitney Mercilus and 16 more than any other player on the roster.

Without him, a shaky defense stands to get much worse while the Texans are in the middle of a tight AFC South race. Mercilus and defensive tackle D.J. Reader will have to step up in Watt’s absence, and unheralded young players like defensive end Carlos Watkins need to shine.

Even if they do fill the void well enough to keep the Houston defense afloat, Watt is more than just a good football player. He’s central to the Texans’ identity as a franchise. Both his play and his presence can’t be replaced.

Watt can still come back from his 2019 injury to be a great player for Houston. He already proved that in 2018 with an elite year. But the time that should’ve been the peak of his career has been nullified by injuries. That stinks for anyone that likes to watch greatness in action.