Insiders

NFL AM: JJ Watt Has Surgery on Herniated Disk, Could Miss Season’s Start

on

After the franchise spent the offseason making significant upgrades to their offense, 2016 has been shaping up to be a big year for the Houston Texans, but they may have to start it without their best player.

Houston star defensive end J.J. Watt underwent surgery on Thursday to a repair a herniated disc in his back. The surgery and subsequent recovery is expected to sideline Watt for at least the entirety of training camp, and NFL Network’s Mike Garofolo reported that the timetable could extend to as many as 10 weeks, which would put the three-time defensive player of the year out of action for Houston’s first four games.

The Texans remain optimistic that Watt can return at the short end of the recovery window, 6-8 weeks, which would put him back right around the season opener. But he will reportedly start training camp on the physically unable to perform list and the team will see how he progresses from there.

It’s been a painful offseason for Watt, who, despite various ailments and injuries, has never missed a game of the 85 the Texans have played over his five-year career thus far. But he did end last season on the sidelines with a core muscle injury that became too painful to play through in the team’s Wild Card round playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The four-time All-Pro had offseason surgery to repair five torn core muscles, but was expected to make a full recovery from that procedure and be ready in plenty of time for training camp. He also dealt with a back injury last year, as well as a broken hand, but the back pain never got serious enough for him to miss time and it was reported that the back injury that caused him to undergo surgery was not related and happened recently, though a cause was not revealed.

If Watt were to miss time it would be a significant blow to the Houston defense. The 27-year-old star is the catalyst for a defensive group that ranked Top 10 in fewest points allowed last season and Top 3 in fewest yards allowed. The group really came together late after a 1-4 start to the season as Houston surged down the stretch, limiting opponents to 10 points or less in five of their final eight games, including three games in which they did not permit a touchdown. Watt finished the season with a league-leading 17.5 sacks, eight passes defensed and three forced fumbles to win his third Defensive Player of the Year Award.

The Texans wouldn’t necessarily be doomed to failure if Watt was forced to miss a few weeks, as there is plenty of talent around him on that defense, but they’d certainly need more out of everybody, particularly 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, whose career has been a bust thus far. Clowney missed almost all of his first NFL season with various ailments and was a ghost on the field even when he did play. Year Two was better, with Clowney playing 13 games, including nine starts and he started to come on strong at the end of it, recording three of his 4.5 sacks for the season in the month of December.

But Houston needs more than a few flashes in the pan from the player who was expected to team with Watt to form the league’s most formidable pass rushing duo. A consistently strong start to the season by Clowney would go a long way toward filling any hole left by Watt should he not return for the opener.

Additionally, the Texans can lean a little more heavily on their offense in 2016 to do its job and not force the Houston defense to carry the entirety of the load. The team went out and lured the top available quarterback, Brock Osweiler, away from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos to play in Houston and then signed one of the best running backs on the market, former Dolphin Lamar Miller. Those two additions, plus the draft selections of wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, to complement star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, should give the Texans the best offense they’ve had in years.

But with that in mind, the pressure is on Houston to get off to a hot start and make a move toward the top of a AFC South division that could suddenly be very competitive this season, with the Colts on the comeback trail with Andrew Luck back healthy and the Jaguars and Titans on the rise.

The Texans have a mild schedule at the outset of the season, highlighted by a Week 2 playoff rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game Watt will certainly be pining to return for after watching Kansas City end Houston’s season from the sidelines last January. The Texans open against the Bears the week prior to that playoff rematch and follow it with a Week 3 battle against the Tom Brady-less Patriots. Week 4 brings the first divisional game, a home tilt against the Titans. All of those games seem winnable for the Texans with or without Watt on the field.

The Defensive Player of the Year is certainly going to work hard to try and be back for the start of the season, but it might be worth it for him to take it slow, use the full recovery time and be back to 100 percent for the long haul of the season, rather than rushing it and exposing himself to game play at less than healthy, as he did in last year’s playoffs. The last thing Houston needs for him is a mid-season setback that further complicates their pursuit of another AFC South title, a playoff spot, and ultimately a championship run.

LEVEON BELL FACING FOUR-GAME BAN

Watt and Brady aren’t the only NFL stars looking at missing the start of the 2016 season.

News broke early Friday that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is facing a four-game suspension. ESPN’s Dan Graziano first reported that Bell could be suspended and that the Pittsburgh star if fighting the suspension. The suspension stems not from a positive test, but from several tests that Bell missed altogether. For that reason, the appeals process is ongoing and the NFL has not announced any suspension as of yet.

Of course those appeals processes rarely work out in the favor of the player these days, and the fact that Bell missed not just one but several tests does not bode well for him. A pattern of test avoidance will not be viewed kindly by the league office.

If Bell does not avoid suspension, it would mark the second straight season he has been sidelined at the start. Last offseason Bell was suspended three games for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, stemming from a 2014 arrest for marijuana possession and DUI. That suspension was later reduced to two games.

Due in part to that suspension, 2015 was a lost season for Bell, who had emerged as one of the league’s best running backs after a breakout 2014 campaign. He ended up playing just six games following the suspension before suffering torn ligaments in his knee in the team’s Week 8 loss to the Bengals, which ended his season. He was on track to return for the start of the season before the latest run-in with the league.

Furthermore, the suspension last summer put Bell into the league’s program, again making it less than likely that he’ll be able to avoid punishment this time around. The best Bell can hope for is that his excuse or excuses for missing several tests are seen as valid and he’ll have the opportunity to take and pass one before the season to prove his innocence.

More likely, his suspension will be upheld and the Steelers will be without both he and Martavis Bryant for the first four games of the season. DeAngelo Williams filled in admirably for Bell last year and will be in line to get the bulk of the responsibility in his stead this year, and the Steelers shouldn’t skip a beat. Still it’s a shame that a talent like Bell’s, possibly the best at the running back position in the NFL, is being put to waste.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys