JJ Watt leaves a rich legacy for his work on and off the field

JJ Watt’s most memorable hit required six stitches.

In Week 4 of the 2013 season with the Houston Texans, Watts’ hit on then-Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson left a deep cut on the defensive end’s face, nose and face bloodied as he walked back to the sideline.

It may be the lasting image of Watt’s career that the Arizona Cardinals star in announced Tuesday, via Twitterwent towards the end.

Watt will retire as one of the best defensive players of his generation and likely a first-time Hall of Famer in 2028. The 33-year-old is one of three players to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three times. Aaron Donald and Lawrence Taylor are the others.

And even when his hits didn’t make his nose bleed, the respect opposing teams had for Watt was shown in how they defended him. While double-team data isn’t available all the time, Watt’s double-team percentage of 29.8% is the highest among 55 qualified edge rushers with 400 pass-rush games over the past five seasons.

Although he no longer takes over plays, Watt remains the focus of opposing game plans. This season, Watt has been double-teamed on 37% of his pass rushes, the highest percentage among edge defenders in the NFL.

Although Watt spent his final two seasons in Arizona, his football career will be best remembered for the impact he made during his 10 seasons with the Texans. Away from the field, he leaves a formidable legacy of fundraising around Houston and in other communities as well.

Here’s a look at what Watt has meant and accomplished during his 12 NFL seasons.

How dominant was Watt at his peak in Houston?

From 2012-15, Watt was a rising talent. He won all three Defensive Player of the Year awards during this span, accumulating 69 sacks in four seasons. For reference, the second-highest sack total in that span was Justin Houston, who had 50.5 sacks. Watt had 20.5 sacks in each of the 2012 and ’14 seasons and remains the only player to record 20 or more sacks in multiple seasons since sacks were officially tracked in 1982. He is also one of eight players to lead the NFL in multiple sacks times, and did so in 2012 and ’15.

JJ Swat, as Watt was nicknamed, became known for his signature move: knocking down passes. His 60 career touchdown passes are easily the most in the NFL since entering the league in 2011.

And it wasn’t just on the defensive side of the ball that Watt excelled: he was so dominant that the Texans used him to score offensive touchdowns as well. Watt joins Deion Sanders as the only two players since the merger with multiple receiving touchdowns and multiple interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Watt is the greatest to ever play for the Texans and the franchise’s all-time sack leader. His 101 sacks are nearly double the next closest on the list.

What has been Watt’s impact off the field?

For as dominant as Watt was on it, it’s what he did off the field for so many in Houston that will be remembered. There are so many stories – and probably even more few know about – about how Watt took the time to help the surrounding communities.

There were the Berry family, whom he met in 2011, and Jeston Adams and Will Martinez, whom he met through Make-A-Wish. In 2018, Watt visited the survivors of the Santa Fe High School shooting and said he would pay for the funerals of the students and teachers who died. As of March 2021, when he was released by the Texans and moved to Arizona, Watt had never turned down a Make-A-Wish request.

He also helped the children through the Justin J. Watt Foundation he created while still at the University of Wisconsin. The foundation has raised more than $5 million to help underfunded middle school sports programs and after-school organizations.

But perhaps his biggest impact came in 2017, when he raised more than $41 million to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey. The fundraising effort began with a simple video on social media, in which he asked: “Whatever you can donate, please donate to help these people.” He created a page on YouCaring.com, donated $100,000 of his own money and set the goal at $200,000. He recorded it in two hours. The $41.6 million raised made it the largest crowdfunding event in history.

The funds went to help rebuild Houston, a process that Watt oversaw to ensure the money made “as big an impact as possible” and “all of the funds would be used here in Houston and the surrounding areas for those most affected by the Hurricane Harvey.”

What stands out about Watts’ two seasons in Arizona?

One of the reasons Arizona wanted Watt was because of his ability to lead, especially off the field.

In two years with the Cardinals, his impact was felt around the locker room, especially the defense. He led by example in the weight room and followed through by being a mentor to anyone who had come through his locker, especially his defensive linemen. Guys like Zach Allen, Michael Dogbe and Cameron Thomas got a front row seat to see how a future first ballot Hall of Famer operated on a daily basis. Teams can’t buy that kind of experience.

He decided to sign with Arizona in part because of the promise the Cardinals showed after the 2020 season, which included the potential to make a deep playoff run behind what was once one of the NFL’s best offenses. Watt was a big part of Arizona’s success early in the 2021 season before suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out until the wild-card round. Arizona was 7-0 before he was injured and 4-6 after.

Watt, 33, continued to play at a high level this season. Among the 48 players with at least 10 pass breakups this season, he leads the list with 28 pressures and is tied with Daron Payne for most sacks at 9.5.

His decision to walk away comes after the birth of his first child, another round of free agency on the horizon and the likelihood of the Cardinals going through a massive rebuild.

What is Watt’s legacy?

Watt is undoubtedly a Hall of Famer and will likely be inducted into the Texans’ Ring of Honor not long after he retires. His numbers show his dominance, but so do his prices. Watt has been an All-Pro five times in his career. Since the merger, it is tied with Jack Youngblood for third most such selections by a defensive end, behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White with eight apiece.

While Watt won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three times in his career, it’s not a stretch to say the number could have been higher if not for the injuries he dealt with later in his career.

After playing in every game during his first five NFL seasons, Watt played a total of eight over the following two seasons. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, Watt underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in July, forcing him to miss training camp and the preseason. He returned for the start of the regular season, but played in three games before requiring another back surgery. The following season, Watt broke his leg in Week 5, ending up on injured reserve for the second year in a row.

Watt returned in 2018 for what was the best season of the second half of his career; he was in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year for much of the season. Not only did he have 16 sacks, but he played in 16 games for the first time since the 2015 season. Since 2018, Watt has played in every game of an NFL season once.

In 2022, Watt suffered a health scare, when his heart went into atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat that begins in the heart’s upper chambers – and had his heart shocked back into rhythm. Watt played days later after speaking with cardiologists and electrophysiologists, who assured him it was safe.

Despite the injuries Watt has dealt with in his 12-year NFL career, his career numbers are impressive. Watt is fourth in the NFL with 111.5 sacks since entering the NFL in 2011. Only Von Miller, Cameron Jordan and Chandler Jones have more since then.

Although his totals were hampered by his injuries — Watt ranks 26th in career sacks with 111.5 — when he did play, he was productive. He ranks fifth all-time in sacks per game with .748 sacks per game among those with at least 100 games played.

ESPN Stats & Information Group contributed to this story.

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