PFF’s Top 101 of 2014: No. 1, J.J. Watt
We’re running out of ways to state just how good J.J. Watt is. In fact, we ran out of ways a while ago and we’re left just repeating it and shaking our heads in wonder. He is so dominant that every time you dig into numbers and create a new set of data you hadn’t looked at before you have to check just where he falls on the scale for the fun of it.
We have created graphs before that Watt has literally broken the scale of. The entire league appears on a perfect bell-curve that peters out into nothing, then a little more nothing, then J.J. Watt, in a data point all of his own off the end of the scale.
Perhaps the best context I can think of to put Watt into is Justin Smith, who leapt back into our consciousness this week by announcing his retirement. Smith for a few years was as good as it got at his position, ostensibly the same position as Watt plays (though their exact alignment differs a bit), and we wondered aloud at PFF Towers whether he was as good as a player at that spot could get.
In both 2010 and 2011 he was second in the PFF Top 101, and probably would have been in a similar spot in 2009 if we had been running the feature that year. We were speaking about Smith in those years in the kind of awed terms we talk about Watt now, and then we saw just how much better a player could be at that position.
When Watt came along he didn’t just eclipse the average season-total grade for Justin Smith, he blew it out of the water like he was dropping depth charges on a dinghy. Justin Smith would put together a season with a PFF grade in the 30s, but Watt in 2012 broke out with a grade in the 90s (+94.2). The truly terrifying part is that grade has improved each year since, moving to +99.8, then +107.5 and shows no sign of regressing back to the norm of the human race.
Watt is completely redefining what we thought was possible at the position, and there is still space to improve. He still has ‘off’ games where he doesn’t post his usual ridiculous grade.
He has been so dominant for the Texans that they have changed his role within the defense, evolving it to allow him to truly dominate as a pass-rusher with the best possible opportunities. He began life as a ‘regular’ 3-4 defensive end, albeit one in a one-gap scheme that would see him targeting space rather than specific blockers. At the beginning of his career he would have been an analogous player to Calais Campbell, but he has never played a role like Ty Warren once did in New England – the big, two-gapping 3-4 end.
So what has JJ Watt become?
If you take a look at the above graph (click to enlarge) that shows the distribution of alignments of defensive linemen, you can see that Watt has evolved away from a defensive interior player. Kyle Williams and Calais Campbell represent the close crossover between one-gap 3-4 defensive end (what Watt used to be) and 4-3 pass-rushing (3-tech or ‘under’ tackle). The close proximity of those two lines was one of the reasons PFF has pushed for ID as a position group designation (interior defender) rather than 3-4 end or 4-3 DT, because you can see how close the alignment is between the two in this graph.
At the other end of the scale is Jason Pierre-Paul, a legitimate edge defender in his 4-3 defensive end spot. Pierre-Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time at all in inside alignments and that spike is typical of edge-rushers in the NFL.
JJ Watt occupies a third line, one that matches one player almost exactly – Michael Bennett from Seattle. Those two, despite being labeled as completely different positions and players, are essentially playing the same position when it comes to alignment distribution – an ID/ED hybrid.
Watt and Bennett still spend a lot of snaps inside, but their biggest spike is in the same area as the true edge defenders like Pierre-Paul. What makes Watt even more interesting is that he has the biggest spike of the group in the 9-technique alignment, the widest rush-alignment there is. That spike isn’t just the biggest of this group, but is one of the biggest in the league. Watt spends more time rushing from the wide-9 alignment than many of the players you would immediately think top that list.
In short, Watt is no longer just an interior force, but a player who now aligns all over the defense, and has become more of an edge defender than he is a defensive tackle.
The bottom line is that JJ Watt is still improving, evolving, and developing into one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. His numbers across the board are ludicrous, posting more combined hits and sacks than Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Calais Campbell and Fletcher Cox combined, for example, and he remains the best player in football, and the top player on the PFF Top 101. Now for a third year running.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam