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Bill O'Brien seeing DPOY version of J.J. Watt in camp

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt joins Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham -- among others -- in a star-studded field of Comeback Player of the Year candidates this season.

To hear coach Bill O'Brien tell it, though, Watt has his sights set even higher: an unprecedented fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.

"Those '14 and '15 seasons were arguably two of the best seasons any player at any position has ever had," O'Brien told NBC Sports' Peter King at Texans camp. "I remember we're playing Baltimore in '14, and they're driving, and it's late, and our guys are just exhausted. I remember J.J. looked over at me and basically said, If you give me a timeout here, I'll get to Flacco. So I call time. We get a breather. That next play, J.J. strip-sacks Flacco. Game over. We win.

"That's what I'm seeing now, this summer. That's the kind of play I'm seeing from him. There's no reason he can't do it again."

The most dominant defensive force in football from 2012 to 2015, Watt has missed 24 of Houston's last 32 games due to injuries. He failed to record a sack in five games last year before a brutal left tibial plateau fracture prematurely ended his season in October.

Although fully recovered from his back and leg surgeries of the past two years, Watt downplayed a report that he "crushed" his pre-camp conditioning test.

In limited action over the past two years, O'Brien has seen a solid starter capable of stuffing the run and occasionally harassing opposing quarterbacks. It's noteworthy that he's now starting to see signs of a more disruptive Watt, the one who blew up ground attacks behind line of scrimmage, turned overmatched offensive linemen into turnstiles and stalked quarterbacks throughout the game.

Yet to see game action this summer, Watt understands the skepticism attached to his name now that he's 29 years old and 30 months removed from his last extended stretch of gridiron heroics.

"I don't expect anybody else to be convinced," Watt acknowledged to King. "I don't expect anybody outside to have any reason to believe that. The last two years were two very bad years. There were some dark moments in there. But I've also come out the other side of it better because of some of the experiences that I had.

"So I'm just taking it one day at a time. I'm not going to stand here and pretend like I can tell you exactly what's going to happen in the season or how it's going to go. But I feel very good with where I'm at right now. I'm not going to make any proclamations about comparing things to the past or what I'm going to do in the future, but I will say I feel very good."

If that mindset sounds familiar, it's because Watt is sounding an eerie echo to the quiet confidence espoused by Luck in Colts camp. Both franchise players have been forged by the fire of multiple major injuries that tested their resolve and left them to ponder their football futures during the arduous recovery process.

As long as their bodies cooperate, a pair of perennial AFC South rivals will be vying for the comeback crown in 2018.

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