It seems eons ago, but there was a time when J.J. Watt was once the face of the NFL. In 2014 he was the first and only unanimous AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award winner. A year later after winning the award again, bringing his total to three, he became the second player to win the award three times, joining Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor -- Aaron Donald joined Taylor and Watt when he won the award for the third time in 2020.
At the ripe age of 26, after four straight first-team All-Pro seasons and his third DPYA, Watt’s career seemed to be just getting started and the potential of what he could accomplish was endless. Then came the injuries that derailed Watt’s career.
Watt herniated a disc in his back that required surgery in July 2016. He recovered in time to play in the first game of the season, but his rush to return ended up costing him the rest of his season. The former Wisconsin Badger had to undergo a second surgery on his back, ending his 2016 campaign after three games. It took a few years, but Watt did eventually return to form and he was named First-team All-Pro for the fifth-and-final-time of his career in 2018.
A Decision to be Made
Fast forward to 2021 -- his first season with the Arizona Cardinals after spending his first 10 with the Texans, who drafted him 11th overall -- and Watt is seriously injured again. He needs surgery to repair a number of ligaments that were torn when he dislocated his shoulder against his former team in Week 7. He is expected to miss the remainder of the season, and it is the fourth time in the last six-seasons that Watt has ended up on the IR.
Watt has a big decision looming -- does he retire, or rehab and return from his newest injury and play in 2022. Even if he does decide to return next season, it seems his days of being a game-wrecker are well behind him. In the seven games he started this year with the Cardinals he only accumulated 1 sack, 16 tackles, 10 QB hits and one-forced-fumble.
When J.J. Watt finally hangs up his cleats will he be invited to Canton to be enshrined forever into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? I think you know the answer to that question, but let’s take a look at some details about the process and discuss his chances deeper.
What the HoF Voters are Taking Into Account
Whether Watt retires after this season won’t have much of an impact on his legacy and his chances to make the Hall of Fame. There is a strong case that he will get his bronze bust and gold jacket after he retires but will he be a first-ballot-guy is the real question? The Hall of Fame voters are believed to work with the four categories below:
Peak Performance -- Historic seasons, yearly awards including Super Bowl MVP, All-Pro, League MVP, Leading Rusher, etc.
Total Value – Players’ likeness and impact on the game (record holders).
Longevity -- Sustaining a level of excellence, measured by career stats.
Years Elected -- Being a semi-finalist or finalist previously is a bonus.
J.J. Watt in his Prime was on Another Level
Watt in his prime is arguably one of the best DEs to play the game -- his pedigree is high when it comes to peak performance. He is tied for seventh in single-season-sack-total with 20.5, which he has recorded in two seasons -- making him the first player to record 20 sacks in multiple seasons. Watt’s dominance was on full display when he won three-DPYAs in a four-season span.
In 2014, Watt became the only player to win the DPYA unanimously, and he also finished second to Aaron Rodgers for league MVP -- receiving 26% of the votes. His five First-team All-Pro selections and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award also go a long way in proving his value and peak performance. Are five very-dominant-seasons really enough for a defensive end to get into the HoF on their first ballot?
Notable Ex-Defensive Players with Five-First-Team All-Pro Selections
There aren’t many defensive players who have retired from the NFL who made First-team All-Pro five-times and are not in the HoF. There are two who come to mind that fit the above criteria and they are both LBs -- Zach Thomas and Patrick Willis. Thomas was selected seven times to All-Pro teams and Willis six times -- both LBs were 5x First-team All-Pro. Neither won a DPYA.
Willis only played seven seasons in the NFL and he was utterly dominant during his short career. Leading the NFL in tackles twice, while being a captain on a stellar defense that helped the 49ers to three straight NFC title games and one Super Bowl.
Like Willis, Thomas also led the NFL in tackles on two occasions. Thomas had a longer career but he and the Dolphins could never get past the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Due to Thomas’ sustained success there are only two players who are currently in the HoF with more career tackles than him (1,720) -- Ray Lewis (2,061) and Junior Seau (1,846).
Watt’s career has many similarities to both the former hard-hitting linebackers’ careers. Watt is similar to Willis’ in that they both were dominant for about the same number of years -- Thomas sustained his level of play for nearly 12-seasons. Watt's time with the Texans is comparable to Thomas’ time in Miami. The Texans enjoyed about the same amount of team-success with Watt as the Dolphins did with Thomas -- making the playoffs five or more times but never getting past the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
What’s the biggest difference between the two LBs mentioned above and Watt? Watt has won three DPYAs and neither of the LBs won the award.
Longevity is a Weakness for Watt
Watt’s biggest weakness that the HoF-voters will have to take into account is his longevity. Although he has played 11 seasons, he only has five-great seasons. Watt’s best season that he was not an All-Pro was his rookie season where he recorded 5.5-sacks and 56 tackles. Although he is not known for his longevity, Watt has put together enough great seasons to get him into the 100 Sack Club -- 102.0 career sacks for Watt.
But longevity does not seem all that important to the voters. DE Jim Marshall is not in the HoF and he holds numerous NFL career records -- including the most seasons played by a defensive player (20, along with Junior Seau and Darrell Green), most consecutive games by a defensive player (282), most consecutive starts by a defensive player (270), and most career fumble recoveries (30).
Marshall and Watt’s careers are on opposite spectrums of a HoF candidate. Marshall hasn’t been inducted yet probably because he never was selected as a first-team All-Pro and only made two Pro-Bowls. The voters seem to value someone with a career like Watt’s over Marshall’s.
First-Ballot? Wait and See
There are 11 out of 36-players who have won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award that are eligible for the HoF and are still not in. On the other hand, all six retired players who have won multiple-DPYA are enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame. The fact that Watt won the award three times would make it surprising if big No. 99 did not end up as a member of sports’ most prestigious club.
In most people’s eyes J.J. Watt is no-doubt going to get into the HoF. The real question is if he will get selected on his first ballot? That is yet to be determined and we will have to wait five years after he retires to know. I'm sure he will be close to getting in his first go-around if he does not make it. It would be utterly shocking if it took more than two tries for Watt to get into Canton.
Watt has been a standout since joining the NFL and has always been a leader on and off the field. It is horrible to see such a great person and player back on the IR, especially now that he is on a team that can compete for a Super Bowl. Does it really matter if he gets selected on his first-ballot -- to most people the answer is no, but to him and his peers it means a lot.