J.J. Watt has played tight end for probably less than 30 seconds this season. Three plays. Three routes. Three touchdown catches. Not a very large sample size. But I've seen enough to know that if the Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end ever wanted to switch to the other side of the ball and go back to his original position of tight end, he would never be as good as, say, the Patriots Rob Gronkowski.
He'd be better. Much, much better.
I'm not disparaging Gronkowski. Not even close. He's freakish and phenomenal. I just think Watt would be light-years better. He's bigger. He's stronger. He's more explosive and every bit as fast. And if you've seen Watt in training camp or before games catching passes one-handed off the Jugs machine, you know he's got great hands, too. Really, as far as I can tell, Watt's only obstacle to becoming the best tight end in football is that he's, ya know, a little busy being the most explosive defensive lineman since Reggie White.
On Sunday against the Titans, Watt did something no one in the history of pro football has ever done before. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year had three tackles, six quarterback hits and two sacks (for a loss of 24 yards) giving him 11½ sacks on the season and making him the first Texans player to have three consecutive seasons with double-digit sack totals.
In the fourth quarter, Watt's second sack led to a forced fumble and fumble recovery. He couldn't immediately return the ball for a touchdown himself, but 47 seconds later, Watt lined up as a fullback in the Texans' offense. He motioned to the slot, pushed the linebacker deep with a disciplined three-step route stem, then cut to the sideline, where he made a diving touchdown catch on a dart delivered by Ryan Fitzpatrick. "It's a blast," Watt said about his avocation on Sunday. "It's the best feeling in the entire world. I love it. I mean days like today are what I live for, literally. This is my life."
Watt's catch made him the first player in NFL history to have three offensive touchdowns, an interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble recovery returned for a score all in one season. (Let's just all thank the football gods that he hasn't followed each score with that weird, upside down cabbage patch gyroscope dance from his commercial.) Watt's impact has been so grand and stunning this season, he's actually getting serious consideration for league MVP over -- gulp -- Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
Now, close your eyes and try to imagine what he could do if he played tight end full-time.
"He would be an absolute nightmare to deal with on offense if he was out there full-time," says Ernie Conwell, who played tight end in the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf era. "If J.J. Watt played tight end full-time, he would be a bigger, nastier Gronk. He'd be Gronk but with 30 more pounds of muscle and much meaner."
Said Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard: "He is more capable and has the same ability as a tight end in the NFL when he's at the goal line. ... In that situation, he's definitely one of the best. ... He can just use his body and size. They can throw the ball up to him. He is a go-to guy when he gets in there in the end zone."
Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett isn't so sure. "He's obviously a talented athlete," says Bennett, who hasn't seen any of Watt's play at tight end this year. "But Julius Peppers and Mike Vrabel back in the day have done what he's doing."
True, Peppers, a former college hoops player at North Carolina, has six scores on defense and is the only defender in history to record 100 sacks and 10 interceptions. As a linebacker with the 2005 Patriots, Vrabel caught three touchdowns and had 10 total offensive scores in his career. But as talented and athletic as Vrabel was, he never seemed like more than a look-how-clever-I-am gimmick by Bill Belichick.
Watt, on the other hand, has real and substantial experience as a tight end. Just watch his first three steps off the line. He doesn't give away many hints to defenders. That's where you can tell the position is in his DNA. Watt, in fact, was an all-state pass catcher (and defender) at Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin and was a scholarship tight end at Central Michigan in 2007, before walking on at Wisconsin and, almost by accident, becoming a defensive lineman.
"The guy is the best football player in the world right now," says Conwell, a second-round pick by the Rams in 1996 who played 11 NFL seasons and now works with the NFLPA, "and obviously one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game."
There's plenty of proof to back up that statement. Sure, you can disregard Watt's first touchdown as a tight end. I mean, he was wide open, it was a lob, and I'm not even sure the Raiders qualify as an NFL defense. Two weeks later, though, Watt picked off a pass by the Bills' EJ Manuel and bolted 80 yards for a pick-six. Watt's 40 time was 4.81 leading up to the 2011 draft. (Although he box-jumped an unbelievable 55 inches before the scouting combine, which is like jumping from the ground to the roof of a Mini Cooper without a running start.) Manuel's 40 time was 4.7. But on the return, Watt pulled away from Manuel as if the faster, smaller QB were dragging an anchor. That's game speed. On Nov. 15 in Cleveland with the Texans at the Browns' 2, Watt lined up split wide and ran a perfect fade route capped by a diving, acrobatic catch while falling out of bounds.
That's when I knew.
None of us really appreciate how hard it is for large tight ends to sprint full speed away from the ball and at the same time turn their head and body back around in the opposite direction in order to see and receive the pass. (If you think I'm exaggerating, go ahead and try it.) It's so hard that in Indy, when a young Peyton Manning's tight ends were slow to get turned around while running out patterns, Manning would occasionally plunk them in the back of the helmet with the ball just to get the message across.
"How many teams even have a tight end right now who they'd go to as their No. 1 option on the goal line?" asks another player. "Half maybe? And Watt's better than most of those guys right now."
So, Houston, let's do this.
Honestly, when I listen to Texans coach Bill O'Brien talk about Watt on offense, it doesn't sound that farfetched that Houston might make him the first full-time, two-way player since Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik, who retired more than 50 years ago.
"It's not a circus show," O'Brien told reporters this week. "It's what is best for our team. When we get down there close, we've got a guy over here [who has] a 6-foot-7 frame, a physical player, he's got really good hands, he's instinctive, he's smart, he's got tight end experience. So why not use him?"
Exactly. Blocking? Name one defensive end or linebacker Watt couldn't block. And just think for a minute about this 290-pound tight end rumbling down the deep seam against a Cover 2. Who's going to tackle him -- a safety? Please. "That's an armored SUV flying down the middle of the field," says Conwell.
The only potential stumbling block with my plan might be prep time and mental bandwidth. I'm sure Watt's got his hands full with film study and defensive preparation. He'd have to double or even triple that to become a full-time tight end. After quarterbacks, tight ends have the most to prepare for each week because they're usually involved in pass protection, the blocking scheme, the run game, the entire pass offense and all the pre-snap motion and defensive reads that serve as the quarterback's safety valve.
Watt, though, already seems to have his eye on something even bigger than a full-time gig at tight end. Talking to ESPN Radio this week, he fantasized about moving from pass-catcher to pass-thrower.
"Quarterback ... that's what everyone thinks about," Watt said. "What could I do back there?"
Anything he wants.
ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky contributed to this report.