Pro Football Focus posted their Top Five NFL Comeback Player of the Year Candidates list yesterday, and the Houston Texans were well represented. With so many key players going down with injuries last season, all 32 NFL fan bases could argue for a player they love to make this list. Considering the two most important players on the Texans’ roster come in at number one and two on PFF’s list, it says a lot for the superstar ability and team value these two bring to Houston.
1. J.J. WATT, DL, HOUSTON TEXANS
With two season-ending injuries in a row, J.J. Watt has become somewhat forgotten with the emergence of Aaron Donald as the NFL’s premier defensive player over the past two seasons, but let’s not forget that from 2012 to 2015, Watt produced PFF grades of 95.0 or higher across all four seasons, including a ridiculous 99.5 PFF grade in 2013. Utterly dominant as a pass-rusher, Watt has racked up 87 sacks, 159 hits, 211 hurries and 46 batted passes in his career so far. He looked dominant once again over the first four games of the 2017 season, and while he didn’t register a sack, he did manage to register a hit, hurry or batted pass on 13.6 percent of his pass-rushing snaps.
The big question with Watt is how good he can be coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries. If he’s even 95 percent of the J.J. Watt of old, the rest of the NFL better watch out.
Let’s face it: Houston’s defense starts with J.J. and ends with Watt. His presence on the field changes games, alters opposing gameplans, and eventually wreaks havoc on offenses. Even when he was less than 100%, his presence still thundered through the game like no other. The very fact that he’s had two consecutive injury-shortened seasons and still landed on the NFL’s Top 100 Players list both years screams volumes about how his peers view him.
Sure, an argument can be made that the rest of the defense steps up when Watt goes down, but shouldn’t they play at that level whether he’s there or not? And, if the defense does play at that level do when he is on the field– forget about it!
The second Texan on PFF’s list of comeback candidates was only the most excited rookie of 2017.
2. DESHAUN WATSON, QB, HOUSTON TEXANS
Texans fans have many reasons for optimism, with another key player returning from injury in starting quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson recovered from a brutal performance in the season opener to deliver plenty of big plays for the Texans. One eye-popping stat from last season was that Watson led the NFL with 11 touchdown passes off play action, despite playing only half a season due to the injury. A note of caution though, while that stat is eye-popping, success from play action is rarely a stable metric season-to-season, so we shouldn’t expect quite a dominant stat line in 2018. Keeping pressure away from Watson will be key as he returns, both to protect him from injury, and also because in his limited time on the field, he led the league with a 124.1 NFL passer rating on plays when he was kept clean. With Watson and Watt back on the field, the Texans will feel confident that they can reclaim the AFC South crown.
With the sheer unpredictability of quarterbacks who transition from the college ranks to the pros, it’s no surprise that few hyped NCAA quarterbacks in recent memory have entered the NFL Draft, fallen past a lot of teams, and then turned around to make those teams immediately and totally regret not taking them. Well, when you practically re-write the rookie record books in a severely injury-shortened season, you can bet the likes of the Cleveland Browns (twice!), Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and the New York Jets all quickly regretted their decision to let Deshaun Watson slide by them. While the Tennessee Not Oilers and Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t quite as QB-needy as the four aforementioned teams, realizing they now have to face the Texans’ defense and an offense led by Deshaun Watson at least twice a year for the foreseeable future might give them some heartburn over their 2017 draft decision making as well.
Looking forward to 2018, it’s a cherry-picked prediction to say as Watson and Watt go, so go the Texans.
In order to protect Watt, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will need to be a little more frugal in how often and how hard he lets Watt go at it on the gridiron this year. Maybe J.J. is no longer an every-down starter – an idea surely to be wildly unpopular with Watt and the fanbase – but an idea that might prolong his ability to be the defensive equivalent of the Destroyer of Worlds.
To keep Watson upright, new general manager Brian Gaine needs to make another move or two to further shore up the offensive line. Trotting out guys like Jeff Allen and Seantrel Henderson along with sophomore tackle Julie’n Davenport, hardly screams Pro Bowl O-Line. If the line isn’t drastically improved from last year – and it doesn’t look like it will be so far – Watson will once again be forced to run for his life and endure unnecessary hits to his legs, like the one he took in the Seattle game last year that led to the knee injury he suffered in practice that ended his season a few days later.
If both Watson and Watt stay healthy, and the team’s new additions and returning contributors do their thing, 2018 might just be one for the ages for Houston football fans. Time will tell.
What do you think? Can the team make a run without Watson and/or Watt? Think they can do it with only one of the two? Convinced even with them, the sky is falling for the Texans?