J.J. Watt announced via Twitter that the Arizona Cardinals‘ loss to Tampa Bay would be the final home game of his career. Watt has been one of the mainstay faces of what good can be done as an NFL player, both on and off the field. But in a career filled with injury troubles, did he accumulate the statistics worthy of being in the Hall of Fame?
J.J. Watt’s Hall of Fame Candidacy
Sometimes, being a Hall of Famer is as easy as a first impression when asked. For Watt, that is the case. When one thinks of Watt’s career, one thinks of a gold jacket in his future. Or, at least, that would be the general sentiment.
Watt will undoubtedly be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done. His résumé as a pass rusher speaks for itself:
- Five-time All-Pro
- Five-time Pro Bowler
- Three-time Defensive Player of the Year
- Hall of Fame All-2010s team
- Two-time NFL Sack Leader
- Two 20-plus-sack seasons
- 74.5 sacks in first five seasons (second all-time)
Watt was a Hall of Fame pass rusher after just five seasons. Unfortunately, injuries ended what was starting to look like G.O.A.T. potential. His 69-sack four-year stretch from 2012-2016 is outdone by only Reggie White’s first four NFL seasons (70).
But Watt’s candidacy is not simply tied to his on-field production. Watt’s off-field contributions only add to his legend. In 2017, when the city of Houston was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, Watt raised over $37 million in relief funds while other highly-esteemed Houstonians kept their doors closed to the needy.
Watt used his fame and standing in the community to help raise funds and awareness for the cause, even with the NFL season looming.
Watt Is Viewed as One of the Two Best Players at His Position
Watt had one of the most singularly fascinating careers in football. It’s difficult to imagine a player with his accolades missing the Hall of Fame, but the injuries he’s racked up and the ascendance of another dominant interior defender made it difficult for him to cement what initially looked to be a rock-solid case.
Watt has been judged to be one of the two best players at his position five times in his NFL career, with five All-Pro recognitions. Not only that, he’s been voted the top defensive player, regardless of position, three times.
The former Houston Texan and Cardinal has had a good claim to being the best player in the NFL multiple times, a traditionally easy Hall of Fame case.
A Member of the 2010s All-Decade Team
On top of that, Watt made the Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team for the 2010s. Every single first-team player on the All-Decade teams for the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s has made the Hall of Fame.
The only three first-team players on the 2000s All-Decade team who did not see themselves enshrined in the Hall are fullback Lorenzo Neal and two players ineligible for induction until enough time passes until their retirement — quarterback Tom Brady and defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Just like the 1960s All-Decade team, the 2010s team does not delineate between first-team and second-team, but only 10 of the 38 players recognized on the 1960s squad didn’t make it in. It’s hard to imagine that Watt would be left out, especially given that his case is better than two of the other four ends selected — Calais Campbell and Cameron Jordan.
Watt ranks 26th all-time on the official sack list and 38th all-time on the “unofficial” sack list recorded by football historian John Turney and checked against dozens of team records, hundreds of film sessions with NFL films, and thousands of newspaper clippings.
That alone seems like a dud of a case, with only a few players below him on the sack list making it. Those names do tell us something important about how selectors go about making their case. Names like Randy White, Elvin Bethea, Charles Haley, Alex Karras, Andre Tippett, Willie Davis, Warren Sapp, and Bob Lilly fall below Watt on the sack list and made it as Hall of Famers.
In the case of Haley and Davis, we can attribute their impact presences on numerous championship teams — five each, in fact — as big parts of their cases. For Tippett and Bethea, it was their perpetual presence on Pro Bowl and All-Pro squads that gave them the boost.
With players like White, Karras, Sapp, and Lilly, we can attribute their presence — and regarded as some of the best of all time at their position — with the lower sack totals of interior defenders. In fact, if we look at the top 10 in sack totals, only one interior defender shows up: former Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page.
In the top fifteen, we only add one more: former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle. It’s not until one gets to White at 39th overall before we see another primarily interior player.
3 Time Defensive Player of the Year
And though Watt is listed as a defensive end, he spent the majority of his most productive seasons as an interior player. In the three seasons he won the Defensive Player of the Year award, he spent nearly 60% of his snaps aligned on the inside. In the first year he went All-Pro without a Defensive Player of the Year Award honor, he spent 79% of his snaps on the inside.
That he racked up 20.5 sacks in two separate years — 13th most in a single season all time, unofficially, and eighth-most officially — as an interior player speaks to his dominance. Watt was a weapon that was so potent that the Texans felt he was wasted on the inside, moving him to the outside. In Arizona, he finished his career back on the inside.
Injuries Took Away a First-Ballot Entrant
Watt’s statistical accomplishments are hard to parse given how flexible he was along the defensive line, but this should be seen as a reason to give him credit, not hurt him by statistical comparison.
Even so, the Hall of Fame has been quicker to recognize short peaks if they’re dominant enough — players like Kurt Warner, Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley, and Dwight Stephenson have all been recognized as Hall of Famers despite limited time on the field. Gale Sayers, inducted in 1977, also had a short playing career.
Watt, whose playing career was much longer but would make it on the strength of a short peak, should be treated the same way.
Each Hall of Fame case is different, and there’s no one criteria for voting. But it’s only natural that one of the best defensive players of all time makes the Hall of Fame.
Watt probably won’t be a first-ballot member. As fantastic a career as Watt had, being the best defensive player from 2012-2016 probably isn’t enough to get him in on the first try. It’s unfortunate that stat accumulation plays such a part in being a coveted first-ballot member, but it’s the only real distinction between the Hall of Fame tiers.
Watt ranks 38th in career sacks and, with two good weeks, could go anywhere from there to about 33rd all-time. Justin Houston is just a half-sack behind Watt, while Chandler Jones, Von Miller, and Cameron Jordan are active players with more career sacks than Watt.
If he’d remained somewhat healthy throughout his career, this could have been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Watt’s injury history reads like a CVS receipt. He missed 41 games from 2016-2021, and the glimpses of absolute dominance remained in spurts when healthy. His fifth and final All-Pro nod came in 2018 after playing in just eight games combined over the previous two seasons.
Since then, his production tanked. That is, until this season, his going-out party. In 2022, he and his wife, Kealia, welcomed their son Koa to the family. And in his final season, Watt has welcomed the opposing QB to the ground 9.5 times in 14 games, adding six passes defensed and 14 TFLs.
Watt’s career has been legendary, and the “what-ifs” only add to his allure. Like Rob Gronkowski at tight end, Watt’s peak was as one of the best defensive players of all time.
This article was collaboratively by NFL Analysts Dalton Miller and Arif Hasan.