New York Giants legend and NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor recently came out and said that he believed Houston Texan’s defensive end, J.J. Watt is the fourth best pass rusher of all time. Taylor insisted that only Reggie White, Deacon Jones, and himself were better than Watt in the illustrious history of the NFL. This comes as high praise from Taylor, one of the most legendary players in the history of the NFL, and the only defensive player in league history to win league MVP. In 1999, Taylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.
So the question becomes, how good is J.J. Watt? With the exception of his rookie season in 2011, Watt has been named to the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro every season of his career. He’s led the NFL in sacks twice, and he joined Taylor as the only two men in league history to have won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award three times. As the only player in history with multiple 20 sack seasons, Watt has already racked up 74.5 sacks in only five seasons. For perspective, Bruce Smith, the all-time leader in sacks, had only registered 57.5 after five seasons. In 2016, despite playing with a broken hand for most of the season, Watt still registered 17.5 sacks, leading the league and earning his third DPOTY award.
It is really hard to compare Watt to players from the past because they play in a completely different era. Deacon Jones retired in 1974, Lawrence Taylor retired in 1993, and Reggie White retired in 2000, and considering how much the league has changed even since Watt joined the league five years ago, comparing it to the 70’s is almost completely speculative.
On one hand, it could be said that Watt plays with the distinct advantage of playing in the golden era of passing, and has had more opportunities to sack quarterbacks than the other guys. On the other, the rules have changed dramatically since the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and even the 00’s. In 2016, quarterbacks have it easier than ever.
Offensive linemen get away with holding on every play, receivers can’t be touched once they’ve traveled past five yards, and are difficult to tackle in space without being penalized, and if a defender as much as smells a quarterback, it could be a fifteen yard penalty. Not to mention the type of athlete has changed. Quarterbacks are faster, smarter, and stronger than ever. Lawrence Taylor didn’t have to worry about freak athletes like Cam Newton or Andrew Luck scrambling around.
In an era where the refs act as a 12th man for the offense, J.J. Watt has terrorized quarterbacks, and he’s done it from a strange position. Deacon Jones and Reggie White were standard 4-3 defensive ends, and had the added benefit of three other defensive linemen as well as blitzing linebackers. As for Lawrence Taylor, he was the face of a new style of pass rusher in the NFL. As a 3-4 linebacker, he used his impressive size and speed to overload offensive lines and blow past runningbacks. Today, many of the NFL’s elite pass rushers, such as Terrell Suggs, Von Miller, and Clay Matthews, are derivative of Taylor’s style.
Missing from that list is J.J Watt. J.J. Watt is a 5-Technique, or a 3-4 defensive end. 5-Technique linemen are not typically pass rushers in the NFL. Typically, a 5-Technique is responsible for taking up offensive linemen and providing open lanes, or at least, one on one opportunities for pass rushing linebackers. Some examples of a 5-techniques are New York’s Muhammad Wilkerson, or the pseudo-retired Justin Smith from San Francisco. Combined, in their careers (19 total seasons), Wilkerson and Smith have combined for 123 sacks. If Watt were to keep this pace, he’d have 209 sacks by himself, breaking Bruce Smith’s all-time record, and that’s including his rookie season, where he only managed to get five and a half sacks. Ironically, it’s worth noting that Smith himself was a 5-Technique in the Buffalo Bills 3-4 during their exceptional run in the mid-nineties. Typically however, defensive ends in a 3-4 do not have as much success rushing the passer as they do stopping the run and occupying linemen.
So coming from a position that doesn’t typically produce pass rushers, for Watt to have historical success in a passing era, Watt has already staked his claim as one of the best pass rushers of all time. Whether he can continue playing at this level for an entire career remains to be seen, but there’s no question that J.J. Watt absolutely belongs in the conversation with Jones, Taylor, and White.
Main Photo: HOUSTON, TX- SEPTEMBER 28: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans smalls before playing against the Buffalo Bills in a NFL game on September 28, 2014 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)