It’s never a surprise to see Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt at the top of some list somewhere. Whether you’re talking about the best defensive players, players most likely to be played by Dolph Lundgren in a movie or just the best players in the NFL period, you’d expect to see Watt’s name at No. 1 more often than not.
So when Pro Football Focus counted down their Top 101 players of 2014 in the NFL, it’s no surprise that Watt’s name surfaced once again as the most productive player in the league. It’s the third consecutive year that Watt has earned the highest grade of any player in football and it hasn’t even been close.
Of course, it doesn’t take advanced analytics to understand that J.J. Watt is an incredible football player. Traditional metrics will certainly do the trick, too.
In 2014, Watt had 78 total tackles, 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries (one of which he returned for a touchdown), an interception he returned 80 yards for a touchdown and three catches on offense that all went for touchdowns. Those are numbers that you’d expect to see from the AP Defensive Player of the Year (except maybe the touchdown catches, those are worthy of another 800 words entirely) and they tell enough of the story to make you say, “Wow, that guy is really good.”
However, that’s where the advanced analytics step in to paint an even more complete picture. Because you can’t even begin to scrape the surface of understanding how great of a football player J.J. Watt is until you can reconcile the fact that you don’t even know what Watt is to begin with.
In an era of the NFL where we’ve become obsessed with labeling our defensive linemen as 3-4 defensive ends, three-technique defensive tackles, edge-rushers and nose tackles, Watt isn’t somebody you can nail down with any conventional wisdoms. The Houston Texans run a 3-4 scheme, so we see Watt on the line of scrimmage with smaller, faster players on the outside and we jump to the conclusion that he’s your typical five-technique defensive end.
To an extent that’s true, he spends more time there than anywhere, but that alignment accounts for less than half the snaps he plays according to this graph from PFF. Watt also happens to spend about 25% of the snaps he plays inside in a one through four-technique alignment, but what’s most surprising is how often we see Watt out wide.
We’d never consider Watt an edge defender in the traditional sense. We reserve that title for jack linebackers in the 3-4 and weakside 4-3 defensive ends, but Watt actually spent an astonishing 15% of his snaps in 2014 lined up outside in a wide nine-technique, outside of the outside shoulder of the tight end.
That’s where you expect to see the 240-pounder that runs a 4.55-second 40-yard dash but doesn’t give you much else other than speed, not a 6’6″, 300-pound monster of a man who could just as easily bulldoze a guard or tackle as run by them. Yet, Watt spends as much time in that alignment as many of the dynamic edge rushers we’ve come to associate with that alignment, and he does it effectively.
There aren’t many (if any) players in the mainframe to compare Watt to because there aren’t many (if any) players that can do what Watt does, but to try to give you some frame of reference to how dominant Watt has been regardless of where he lined up, let’s look at his Pro Football Focus grades over the last three seasons against those of the recently retired San Francisco 49ers DL Justin Smith, who won Sports Illustrated’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2011.
When Smith was at his best in 2010 and 2011 with the 49ers, Pro Football Focus graded him out at No. 2 on their Top 101 list in both of those seasons with a positive overall grade in the 30s. In Watt’s last three seasons, he’s registered grades of 94.8, 99.8 and 107.5. To determine those numbers, they chart every single play in every game and determine whether or not each player accomplished what he set out to do.
Even if you know nothing else about those numbers, that’s enough to realize that Watt over the last three years was up to three times more effective than Justin Smith, whom we widely consider among the best of his generation. In short, J.J. Watt is a comic book villain come to life, and he won’t stop short of world domination.
And for NFL quarterbacks playing against Watt, it will never be as simple as setting up to take the snap and looking left and right to see which tackle he’s lined up over as a five-tech, which makes it even more terrifying.
We’ve gotten used to seeing Watt’s name at the top of lists, but when he’s lined up on Sundays, he’s never as easy to find.