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Texans' Watt follows Long, Strahan as next great NFL defensive linemen

by | National NFL Insider
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J.J. Watt gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos a hard time Sunday. (AP)  
J.J. Watt gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos a hard time Sunday. (AP)  

J.J. Watt, a star on the rise, maybe the best defensive player in football right now, was asked about the Texans' decision to let Mario Williams go to Buffalo.

"He's a special player," said Watt of Williams. "A player like that will always be missed. My only point is there are still some great players in here."

Watt pointed at a Texans locker room that is 3-0 and the best team in football. Yet he could have easily pointed that finger at himself because, right now, there is no defensive lineman, and maybe no defensive player in football, who is dominating the sport the way Watt is.

There are some who are comparing Watt to Hall of Famer Howie Long for obvious and superficial reasons. Watt is actually more reminiscent of a young Michael Strahan. I watched Strahan slowly grow into a dominating, Hall of Fame presence, who was skilled against the run in addition to rushing the quarterback, and Watt's rapid ascension looks eerily similar.

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It's early and we've seen young stars burn bright and then burn out, but that won't happen with Watt. We're seeing something special, right before our eyes, with the best comparison being the rapid rise of the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul.

Watt represents another link in the evolutionary chain of a rapidly changing defensive end position. The gold standards remain Reggie White or Deacon Jones, who used power and speed, to dominate. As offenses got more athletic, so to have the defensive linemen. Strahan was one of the players that represented another generation after White, and Watt is the generation now: taller, lanky, lean, quicker and a stone, cold athlete. In college, he was a tight end, who turned into a devastating pass rusher while at Wisconsin.

What I saw Watt do to the Broncos' offensive line was somewhat stunning. It was like something from Gulliver's Travels; the only thing missing were puny cannons and tiny little battleships. Watt went around lineman, jumped over them, bull-rushed past them and batted down passes. He had 2½ sacks on the game but it was almost solely Watt who stifled the Denver offense and allowed the Texans to build a huge lead.

What Watt is doing is simply a continuation of last season. In Houston's playoff win against Cincinnati, Watt returned an interception for a touchdown, again demonstrating hops and athletic ability. He had 2½ sacks the following week against Baltimore.

His 5½ sacks is second in the NFL -- he has 9 sacks total in the past five games -- but a truer sign of Watt's athleticism is that he's ninth in the league in passes defended; there is no other lineman in the top 20. Give Watt a basketball, and he's Karl Malone.

"He's an outstanding player," said Broncos coach John Fox. "I think up front they're as disruptive as most teams. I'm not saying they're right up there with the Giants quite yet, but they're moving up. He's an outstanding player."

I spoke to six current players about Watt who had a great many interesting things to say about him. The main theme: he's vastly underrated and if he played for a team like the Giants or Philly or another huge East Coast media market, he'd be a household name. But because Houston is a young franchise out of the East Coast shipping lanes, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

It's likely more a case of the media and others wanting a larger body of work, but in many ways, he's the defensive equivalent of a young offensive star like Cincinnati's A.J. Green. Careers can change in an instant in the violent turbulence that is professional football, but like Green, there is stardom written all over Watt.

The scene during Peyton Manning's press conference after the Broncos had lost to Houston and Watt had pushed them around was almost hilarious. Manning was asked about Watt: "I don't see the numbers of the defensive linemen as much -- you know you're looking downfield -- so I'm probably the wrong guy to ask as to how he played. I could probably tell after the film."

Oh, Manning knew exactly who that was putting him on his butt.

It was the next, great defensive star.

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