In 2012 Watt had one of the best seasons that an NFL defensive lineman has ever had, putting up 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 23 stuffs.
That’s just 2 sacks from the NFL record currently held by former New York Football Giants‘ defensive end Michael Strahan, and it’s also just 8 tackles from tying Aaron Kampman, who had 89 in 2006.
Watt was also the top overall fantasy defender in 2012 — and it wasn’t close. According to Pro Football Focus, his historic season saw him post an absurd 72 defensive stops last season, which was 18 better than the next best lineman.
Tim Jamison should be Watt’s backup, as he’s planning on returning this season after he was lost to the Texans with an Achilles injury in Week 7. Jamison didn’t see too much action in his seven 2012 appearances as he was playing behind Watt, but he is a top-notch pass rusher who was sorely missed by the Texans in the second half of the season. Losing him cost the Texans much of their ability to pressure the quarterback when Watt was taking a breather, so having him back will be great for 2013.
But Watt isn’t the only good player that the Texans have on their defensive line. Antonio Smith is entering his fifth season with the Texans, and has played well for them since coming over from the Arizona Cardinals. In 2012 he had the most sacks in a single season of his career (7), and almost doubled his career passes defended total.
Smith is a great pairing with Watt as he can give offensive linemen fits and wreak enough havoc on the right side that Watt can get to the ball carrier significantly easier. Most of what Smith gives you won’t show up on the stats, especially with Watt on the opposite side of the field.
Smith is now in the final year of his contract, and has made it known to the Texans (and the general public) that he wants to retire in Houston. So far he has continued to play at a high level, and you should expect him to continue long enough to get a big pay day.
Backing up Smith is Jared Crick, a sophomore out of Nebraska. He was used sparingly as a rookie, but still managed to put up 22 tackles. This season Crick showed up to camp heavier, hairier, and beardier (if this isn’t a word, it should be). Crick can play all three positions on the line, and has really improved his hand work and play against the run. Getting him into the rotation won’t be a problem.
Sandwiched in between Smith and Watt in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense is the nose tackle, which is a little bit more up in the air than expected for a line that led the Texans to be the seventh-best defense in 2012. Right now it looks like four-year vet Earl Mitchell will be penciled in as the starter, but don’t count out third-year backup Terrell McClain.
This is Mitchell’s first full year as a starter in the NFL, and he definitely earned that right by taking the starting spot from Shaun Cody, who is now an unsigned free agent. In 16 games last season Mitchell did well against the run, defended passes quite a bit better than what the Texans had got from the position before, and showed significant improvement in his technique.
McClain was originally a junkyard pick up by the New England Patriots after the Carolina Panthers moved on from him in 2011. He only played in one game with the Patriots before being cut by them and then being picked up by the Texans. He has played in three games with the Texans, but he’s got a similar build to Mitchell and will almost assuredly be his backup.
With Smith, Mitchell and Watt headlining this deep defensive line for the Texans, I truly believe Houston could be in the running to break the modern-day Pro Bowl record of 13 elected from a single team, which was set by the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. (If you’re wondering, the overall record belongs to the 1939 Green Bay Packers, who had 30 players on the Pro Bowl roster.)