Is JJ Watt Overrated, or Truly the Best Defensive Player in the NFL?

Ryan Alfieri@Ryan_AlfieriCorrespondent IIIJuly 10, 2013

Dec 16, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Texans won 29-17. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

When the Houston Texans drafted J.J. Watt out of Wisconsin 11th overall in the 2011 draft, they obviously thought he could be a huge boost to their paper-thin defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2010.

Fast-forward nearly two years, and Watt has already claimed his place on the throne as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. At the age of 24, Watt has already surpassed every expectation both the Texans and the hordes of fans who booed him on draft day could have had for Watt in just his second season.

Now, J.J. “Swatt” is the biggest sports star in Houston—but does his play live up to his budding reputation as a young Bruce Smith?

Watt’s “basic” stats are off the charts (20.5 sacks in 2012) and give merit to Brian Cushing’s claim that Watt could go down as the best defender of all time. His “Swatt” nickname is derived from the 16 passes he batted down during the regular season.

In the rare occasion in which he is not able to generate a pass rush, he is just as dangerous batting down passes with his velociraptor-like wingspan.

Watt’s dominance goes beyond the sack and tipped-pass totals. Football Outsiders has developed its own statistic, the “defeat,” that accounts for any play that stops a conversion on third or fourth down, whether it be a sack, a tipped pass or a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Year Player Position Defeats
2012 J.J. Watt DE 56
1999 Ray Lewis MLB 45
2012 Von Miller OLB 39

Not only was Watt head and shoulders above everyone else in this category last year, he also beat out the 1999 version of Ray Lewis, perhaps the most dominant year for a linebacker in NFL history.

These stats are beyond impressive, but they only account for 56 plays out of his 957 snaps—just 5.9 percent. Is Watt living up to his reputation of dominance on the other 901 snaps, or is he just a SportsCenter highlight machine?

Pro Football Focus, an advanced statistics site that bases their grades on individual film study of every snap of an NFL season, ranked J.J. Watt as not only the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, but the highest-rated player in the NFL by a significant margin.

Watt’s final grade on the 2012 season was a staggering plus-101.6. The next highest player was Geno Atkins, who could have easily won the Defensive Player of the Year award in a “normal” year at plus-80.0.

By comparison, Peyton Manning graded out at plus-53.7 (read here for a full explanation of PFF’s grading system).

The scariest part is Watt, at just 24 years old, has the athleticism to continue to get better. Take a look at this simple running play Watt blows up all on his own:

Once the ball is snapped, Watt, even at his gargantuan size of 6’5”, 295 pounds, is able to move as nimbly as a 240-pound linebacker. He swims right by the tackle—notice how little everyone in the frame has moved because it is still so early in the down.

Watt’s excellent closing speed takes care of the rest, and the play is done before it ever had a chance.

Still believe Watt is overrated? All things considered, it would be easier to make the argument that Watt is actually underrated.

If Watt is this good and can only get better, who can possibly dethrone him as the league’s premier defensive player?

The Return of Revis Island

No player is dominating the line of scrimmage in today’s game like J.J. Watt. However, as impressive as his sack totals are, Watt is primed to define a new era of dominant pass-rushers, following a long lineage of dominant defensive linemen.

After all, he is not the first player to breach the 20-sack threshold.

Darrelle Revis, on the other hand, has redefined the gold standard of playing cornerback in the NFL.

Prior to his ACL injury, Revis had as good of a three-year stretch (2009 to 2011) as a cornerback has ever had in NFL history. His ability to shut down elite receivers week after week is even more impressive when you consider how difficult it is to play defensive back in the modern game, which is littered with rules designed to prevent defenders from doing their job.

Just how good is a healthy Darrelle Revis? In 2011, he allowed 10 completions in eight games (dubbed “The Revis 10” by PFF). None of them were touchdowns, but Revis managed to score a touchdown on his own in that time.

This league has seen great cornerbacks limit the success of great receivers, like when Deion Sanders had his epic bouts with Michael Irvin in the 1990s, but no one has been able to shut down the league’s best receivers on such an incredibly consistent basis with barely any help in coverage.

Revis’ greatness cannot be quantified with simple statistics. After all, teams have a tendency to avoid him altogether to prevent him from racking up huge interception or pass-breakup numbers.

The impact Revis has on the game can best be summarized by how he was used in the 2011 season-opener against the Cowboys. After watching Dez Bryant tear apart the Jets defense, Revis was moved to cover Bryant.

Revis proceeded to match Bryant’s reception total after the coverage shift with the game-saving interception:

Notice how long Revis is in single coverage with Bryant (eight seconds) at the 2:15 mark—an eternity in the realm of an NFL secondary.

However, even a player as immortal in coverage as Darrelle Revis was not immune to the ever-present threat of injury in the NFL. After suffering an ACL injury in Week 3 of the 2012 season, it remains to be seen whether Revis Island will remain an inhospitable, barren place or become a popular vacation spot.

Despite Adrian Peterson’s post-ACL-injury MVP season in 2012, there is no predicting how each individual player will react to such an injury. Some come back even stronger than they were before, such as Peterson and Wes Welker, but for as many success stories as there are, there are even more tales of diminished careers.

Rashean Mathis, Dominique Foxworth and Greg Toler are just a few recent examples of cornerbacks who were never the same after an ACL tear.

After all, if Revis faced better odds of making a full recovery, perhaps the Jets would not have been so eager to trade their best player.

Revis could very well make a full recovery—after all, he is an elite athlete with a body that is capable of seemingly inhuman things. However, until he proves he can be the same player he once was, Revis faces an uphill battle in terms of reclaiming his position as the NFL’s top defensive player.

The Terror Known as Von Miller

Selected nine spots higher than J.J. Watt in the 2011 draft, Von Miller is the face of a new generation of dominant edge pass-rushers.

Miller is the “SAM” linebacker in the Broncos’ 4-3 scheme, but he is hardly a traditional outside linebacker who chases down running backs for a living. Miller is used in just about every way possible, whether it is in coverage, picking out running backs or rushing the passer.

While J.J. Watt does most of his work terrorizing quarterbacks from the interior, Miller is a traditional edge rusher who possesses incredible explosiveness and balance to get around the edge.

On this obvious passing down against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, Miller moves from his traditional spot at outside linebacker near the line of scrimmage, instead standing up in a two-point stance like a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Miller explodes off the ball and gets a step on the offensive tackle. He uses his hands to keep himself at a distance and not get tangled up in a hand battle.

The most impressive aspect of this play is Miller’s body angle as he gets around the tackle. He is able to keep himself at a near 45-degree angle, allowing him to maintain leverage without slipping.

Miller is able to easily bend around the edge and close on Big Ben for the sack.

Like Watt, Miller is going into his third professional season and should only continue to improve on his athletic gifts.

While it would be easy to peg Miller as strictly an edge pass-rusher, he more than holds his own in the run game. In fact, Miller was the most dominant 4-3 outside linebacker against the run by a rather significant margin.

According to PFF, Miller graded out as plus-31.9 against the run among 4-3 outside linebackers. The next best player at this position against the run was Jerod Mayo, who came in at plus-9.6.

Throw in the fact that Miller has the athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs when needed. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who does so much so well on the defensive side of the ball.

Is J.J. Still the King?

Is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year truly the game’s leading source of offensive kryptonite?

With all due respect to Von Miller, no one is a more dominant player on the front seven than J.J. Watt. Miller does bring a little more to the table in terms of versatility and his ability to play in space, but Watt is arguably the most dominant pass-rusher since Bruce Smith.

The real debate lies between J.J. Watt and Darrelle Revis. Assuming Revis is healthy, there is no single player, in any sport, as consistently dominant as Revis on a week-to-week basis.

Revis doesn't just avoid having bad games altogether. He rarely has a bad snap. When Revis lets up a completion or two, it is newsworthy.

Watt is a dominant player, but in part due to the nature of his position, even he is prone to an ineffective series every now and again. Watt commands double-teams, but he does not change the game as dramatically from an X's and O's standpoint as Darrelle Revis.

However, because of the nature of Revis’ injury, there is no defender who is currently a more valuable asset than J.J. Watt, especially when you consider his age. The fact that Watt, who is already playing at a Hall of Fame level, will continue to improve over the next five or so years is a scary proposition.

As things stand now, there is no disputing the fact that J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the game. However, counting out a player of Revis' magnitude this early in the process would be irresponsible.

In either case, watching all of these players blossom into all-timers will be a joy for football fans everywhere. 

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