The Texans released J.J. Watt last week, and we were immediately treated to reports of a dozen teams having an interest. Maybe so, but great excitement over the possibility of Watt transforming a defense should be set aside. He doesn’t seem to be the player he once was.

For a time Watt was the best defensive player in the game — a first-team All-Pro from 2012 through 2015, and Defensive Player of the Year three times. But then injuries wiped out at least half of three of his next four seasons. He had a strong 2018, with another All-Pro selection, then was hurt half the next year.

Watt played all of last season, but — not that it was his fault — didn’t have a significant on-field impact. Houston’s defense was one of the league’s worst in every respect. It was last in takeaways, last in interceptions, and 18th or worse in both sacks and fumbles (one of Watt’s dominant areas, in his prime). They were last defending the run, and bottom 10 against the pass. Sure, Watt was about the only player opponents had to account for. That needs to be considered.

But Watt turns 32 next month. Can he still play at a high level? There's some evidence that he can. While he had a modest 5 sacks last season, and just 1 in the second half, he at least had 17 quarterback hits. That’s not nothing; it ranked 28th among all defensive players a year ago. Pro Football Focus, for one, still grades him as a top 10 edge rusher.

But some of his production can be chalked up to staying healthy and playing full-time, and he was doing so in one of the league's very worst defenses. I think it remains to be seen if he can play at a high level next year. On paper, his numbers in 2020 were more indicative of an only good player than the difference maker he used to be. Back when he was winning DPOY awards, he had more than twice as many quarterback hits each season as he did a year ago -- about three times as many in two of those years.


Watt makes sense on a contending roster. Maybe with brother T.J. in Pittsburgh, or another quality defense that wants to add another pass rusher. Plenty of leadership ability, obviously, and a Hall of Fame resume.

But I think Watt is a lot closer to a merely decent defensive player these days than a DPOY candidate, and even that's assuming he's able to stay healthy. Some team seems likely to overpay him based on what he's done rather than what he'll actually bring to a defense. I think it's optimistic to expect a difference maker at his new address.

--Andy Richardson