When it comes to naming the best defensive player of all time, most conversations -- if not all -- immediately turn to one guy: Lawrence Taylor.
The Hall of Famer (and my football idol growing up) set the standard for every defensive player. Other elite defenders have made an indelible mark on the league (Reggie White and Dick Butkus, among others), but Taylor had the most profound impact. These days, though, I think L.T. has a true challenger in the defensive G.O.A.T. conversation: Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt.
The 27-year-old interior pass rusher already has posted four double-digit sack seasons (including two in which he recorded a whopping 20.5). In all, Watt has tallied 74.5 career sacks -- second to White's 81 in a player's first five seasons -- and nearly 200 quarterback hits since 2012. With his stats and accomplishments, is No. 99 there yet? No, but he's well on his way ...
Lawrence Taylor (13 NFL seasons): 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards, 8 first-team All-Pro nods, 10 Pro Bowl selections, 1 Most Valuable Players award, 2 Super Bowl wins.
There is no doubt that Watt is capable of matching Taylor and even surpassing him in several of those categories. Here are five things Watt needs to do to move up the ladder from the best defensive player right now to the best defensive player ever:
1) Maintain good health. It's that simple. He has to stay on the field. From his diet to his workout schedule, Watt has done the necessary things to keep himself in the best shape possible because he realizes an NFL player's window to perform at a high level isn't open forever. Still, even the most in-shape and athletic players succumb to injury in this game, and he got a healthy dose of wear and tear in 2015. Watt played through a hand injury, which forced him to wear a cast for several games, and disappointingly exited the Texans' lone playoff game in the third quarter with a groin injury. Then in March, a report surfaced that Watt played through five torn core muscles. Injuries are part of football -- as a player, you just hope to avoid the serious setbacks. Watt has done that thus far, as he's yet to miss a start in his NFL career.
2) Improve his technique as he ages. At this point in Watt's career, he is strong enough, athletic enough and young enough that he can overpower nearly everyone who steps in his path. Once you get older -- and Father Time becomes your biggest enemy -- you have to rely on technique to stay consistent. We've seen what Watt can do as a pass rusher, but I'd like to see him improve against the run. When I watch his tape, I notice that Watt often likes to run, swim over and slap-and-rip, but doesn't like to stay on blocks. He is focused on getting to the quarterback, but against the run, he has to be patient and stay in two-gap position when playing in Romeo Crennel's 3-4 system.
3) Become the league MVP. In a quarterback league, it is nearly impossible for a defensive player to win this award. In fact, the last time a defensive player was named MVP was in 1986. Who? You guessed it: Lawrence Taylor. I think Watt should've been the MVP during one of his 20.5-sack seasons, but he was up against some tough performances: Adrian Peterson fell just 9 yards shy of setting a new single-season rushing record in 2012, while Aaron Rodgers' TD-to-INT ratio was 38:5 when he won the award in 2014. If Watt breaks Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5), I think he could finally get the MVP award he deserves.
4) Get help from Texans' offense. It's pretty incredible what he's done in five years with a sub-par offense -- one that has been led by eight quarterbacks and three head coaches since 2011. With the additions to the offense this offseason (QB Brock Osweiler, RB Lamar Miller and first-round WR Will Fuller, among others), Watt will be put in a position to make even bigger plays. Opponents likely will have to pass the ball more -- given that the Texans' upgraded offense should put up more points of its own -- leading right into Watt's bread and butter.
5) Be a game changer deep in the playoffs. It's no coincidence that many of the game's best defensive players are Super Bowl champions. But they didn't just play in the big games, they impacted them. Crennel has put Watt in position to make game-changing plays by moving him around on the line to match him up against an opponent's weakness. It's hard to compare Watt to some of the all-time greats when he hasn't performed on the biggest stage. Watt's teams are 2-3 in the playoffs and haven't made it past the Divisional Round. Team success highlights individual success, and Watt needs to lead the Texans to the top of the mountain to have a chance at being considered the best.