At the present moment, JJ Watt is 25 years old.
Which, for the Texans, is actually kind of old.
“I know, man,” Watt said on Sunday on the practice field outside NRG Stadium, the site of Houston’s training camp. “I’m like an old man.”
It’s a strange place for Watt to be.
The fourth-year defensive end is closer to the beginning of his career than the end, just now entering his prime. But on a Texans roster with more young bucks than old heads, Watt is, oddly enough, something of an elder statesman here.
The role suits him. Whatever your preferred measure of leadership, Watt excels in it. He’s adept at leading by example, favoring soft-spoken diligence and professionalism over over-the-top speeches and rah-rah. He emulates head coach Bill O’Brien deftly, talking as much as he has to while saying as little as possible, always smiling, joking, politicking.
Watt is also a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an honor he earned just two seasons ago.
For a team that’s looking to right a ship wronged last season to the tune of a 2-14 record and coaching staff house-cleaning, Watt seems just the fix.
He’s taken it upon himself to learn the ins and outs of first-year defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s scheme, his position and everyone’s, in painstaking detail. He’s volunteered to be a mentor to this technically “younger” crowd, ushering into the league rookies like No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and taking under his wing anyone who’ll let him.
“When you can understand the full concept of a defense of a team, it helps you understand your role better,” he said.
“Everybody needs to have a role, and everybody’s role needs to be fulfilled. When you do that, you truly have success. So I think we’ve been doing a good job, I think guys have been doing a really good job. Does that mean maybe studying the playbook a little longer? Does that mean maybe watching a little bit of extra film? Yeah, but we’re professional football players and that’s what we’ll do.”
The quintessential company line. And Watt’s practiced giving it enough to be able to sell it marvelously.
There were others.
On the pep in the team’s step so far at practice:
“I think the tempo’s been great. I think the guys have been working hard. I think we’ve been running through some things. Obviously you’re gonna have your share of mistakes. It’s early in camp. Guys are going to be working through some things. But what I like is everybody’s attitude and everybody’s intensity, and the way that we’re attacking practices is really good.”
On what he’s working on this offseason, individually:
“It’s little things. First of all, with a new defense, I want to make sure I understand it fully, because you can’t really play to your full potential if you don’t understand the defense and get all the intricacies down. That’s probably the biggest thing right now. I just want to get all the little things within the defense down so I can just get out there and let it loose.”
The unofficial title is, for Watt, evolving, with his responsibilities expanding beyond what they’ve been in seasons prior, in part because of how much he now has to do himself.
Brian Cushing, 27, is still on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. With the Pro Bowl linebacker coming off a devastating leg injury that ended his 2013 season and gives him 20 missed games over the past two seasons, it’s no sure thing that Cushing plays like Cushing again.
Antonio Smith, 32, is gone, leaving for the Oakland Raiders on a two-year, $9 million deal this offseason earned playing opposite Watt at 3-4 defensive end. Smith’s presence on the field, and in the locker room, was always a big help — to Watt especially.
As for Jonathan Joseph, 30, a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a season-ending toe injury — and carrying a $12.75 million cap hit in 2015 — even if he returns to the form that made him one of the best cover cornerbacks in football, he could still be a cap casualty this offseason, making him unavailable for leadership duties come next summer and fall.
So, as if he wasn’t already, Watt is Houston’s right guy at the right time.
In some ways, maybe its only guy on defense.
It shows on Sunday. Watt turns and leaves the scrum of reporters, now making his way over to the roaring crowd in the bleachers nearby. He’ll sign autographs, armfuls of them, taking as much time as he can with as many members as he can of this giddy mob. Middle-aged men. Grade-school kids. All holding jerseys, posters and, most creatively, a hand-made sign that reads in bubble letters: “ALL I WANT IS A SELFIE WITH JJ WATT, PRETTY PLEASE WITH A CHERRY ON TOP.”
But first, never missing an opportunity to connect with the fan base and establish the type of player and man he wants to be, he stops, his eyes meeting those of a younger fan.
Now, JJ Watt and a boy of about 7 years old are shadow boxing, bouncing and bobbing and shuffling in the type of moment that defines this Houston hero.
From every vantage point — team, player, media, fan — the scene, and the actor, is perfect.
How long does it last?
With Watt due to make $1.9 million this season, just $200,000 more than punter Shane Lechler, and with the Texans two months ago picking up Watt’s fifth-year player option in 2015 of only $6.96 million, a paltry sum for perhaps the NFL’s most terrorizing threat on defense, Watt holding out is beginning to feel like more a matter of “when” than “if.”
And in the wake of Andre Johnson’s brief standoff with the front office ending on Friday, when the guy best described as “He Would Never” showed up for work for the first time this offseason on the very day that a holdout would have become official, it makes you wonder, When it happens, will Watt’s hard line be more or less hard than Johnson’s?
Things to ponder at another time. Because right here, right now for the Texans, Watt is everything they need him to be: a leader beyond his years.
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