On Thursday, the IDP world was dealt a seismic blow. News comparable to Friday’s announcement that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell faces a four-game suspension for missing a drug test. Perhaps even bigger.
As ESPN’s Tania Ganguli reported, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a herniated disc in his back. Original reports pegged Watt’s recovery timetable at about six weeks, which would have allowed the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year to be back before Week 1.
However, as Thursday evening progressed the news became less and less optimistic. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network tweeted that, “I’m told the recovery time is 6-8 weeks & it happened very recently. Puts him right up against the start of 2016.”
Later that same night, Rapoport’s colleague Mike Garafalo chimed in. “On JJ Watt,” Garafalo tweeted. “Texted with a source informed of his prognosis who pumped the brakes on early optimism. Cautioned it could take up to 10 weeks.” A 10-week recovery that would essentially wipe out September for Watt, as the Texans have a Thursday night tilt with the New England Patriots in Week 3.
It’s at this point that Houston fans and Watt’s IDP owners curled up in the fetal position, slammed a thumb in their mouths and just began muttering “no” over and over.
Ganguli did her best to paint an optimistic picture regarding Watt’s injury by reminding readers of Watt’s remarkable durability as a pro. “Watt’s track record has earned him the benefit of the doubt,” Ganguli said. He has played in all 80 regular-season games since the Texans drafted him 11th overall in 2011. He’s had double-digit sacks in four of those seasons, and more than 20 twice. And he’s done that through plenty of pain. When he missed a practice with an unidentified groin injury last season, I asked about it and he dismissed the idea that a mere physical ailment could prevent him from playing.”
However, Ganguli also allowed that, “Now that back surgery has landed him on the physically unable to perform list and he will miss the preseason, it’s worth wondering if he is entering a period when his body becomes less than cooperative. Football’s brutality doesn’t spare even the greatest to play the game.”
Craig Zumsteg of Football Guys painted an even less rosy picture, using recent history as his canvas. “JPP had back surgery for a similar issue 6/4/13,” Zumsteg tweeted. “Missed preseason, and didn’t have a great year. That was with an extra 6 weeks to recover.”
For those who blocked out the memory, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who exploded for 16.5 sacks in 2011, suffered through something of a down 2012 thanks in part due to a nagging back injury. The following June Pierre-Paul had surgery (like Watt) to repair a herniated disc. Pierre-Paul did make it onto the field for Week 1, and even had a sack in that game. It was one of two Pierre-Paul would get in an 11-game mess of a season.
Now, I’m not saying that’s Watt’s fate. No two surgeries or patients are alike. Watt has shown to be incredibly tough and durable. He played much of the second half of last season with torn abdominal muscles, and at times was as unblockable as ever. He had four sacks in the season’s last two games — including three in Week 16, when most IDP championships are held.
Of course, he also had a three week dry spell from Weeks 13-15 without any, which means many of his owners may have missed the title game. Watt at 70 percent may be better than 90 percent of the NFL. But that isn’t the same as full-on Watt-zilla.
Former San Diego Chargers team doctor David Chao tweeted we may not see Watt-zilla for a good long while. “Confirmed to be herniated disc,” he wrote. “Surgery recovery is quick but rehab is extended. Unlikely to be 100% until midseason.”
And that’s the thing. One of the things that made Watt such an appealing fantasy option — the No. 1 overall IDP by a MASSIVE margin — was that the risk involved in drafting him was so minimal. He’s never missed a game. His floor was the No. 1 defensive lineman. His ceiling was the No. 1 player overall in some scoring systems.
Now? That risk has skyrocketed. Yes, it’s possible that Watt could heal relatively quickly and still finish the year as the No. 1 defensive lineman by a sizable margin. But something that was once essentially inconceivable is now also a real possibility. A “down” year from Watt. Single-digit sacks. A performance from a first-round pick that would be comparable to what we’ve seen so many running backs do in recent years.
Looking at you, Eddie Lacy. Right…at…you.
Unless we hear for certain that Watt will miss multiple games, he remains my top defensive player regardless of position. And it would take a season-opening trip to the PUP list (and six games on the shelf) for me to elevate Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions ahead of Watt on the defensive front.
But as things stand right now it’s hard to justify spending a first-round pick on Watt in most IDP leagues, and even a second-rounder isn’t a choice for the faint of heart. You have to square yourself with the fact Watt may not be 100 percent (or especially close to it) until well into the season — if at all in 2015.
Because as it turns out, J.J. Watt is human after all.