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The Fall of J.J. Watt?

The NFL Network’s list of the top 100 players in the league ranks the Houston hero a lot lower than he was a year ago.

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J.J. Watt celebrates Mizzen+Main at Nordstrom Houston Galleria on February 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Texans fans, your quarterback woes are well documented. But would you trade J.J. Watt for Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions?

The mixture of disgust and confusion on your face right now presumably answers the question. Stafford is a fine quarterback. The Highland Park native and eight-year veteran plays with grit, passes prolifically, and enjoys a respectable 86.8 career QB rating. Among NFL starting quarterbacks, he’s in the top half of players. But he’s not a game-breaking player like J.J. Watt. So why is he ranked higher than Watt on the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 Players of 2017?

The annual list, which drops during the NFL’s dead season—post-draft, pre-training camp—every summer, is mostly a distraction during the football-free months so talking heads have something to chatter about. But because the list is voted on by players, it has an air of legitimacy to it that it wouldn’t if it were just TV personalities and sports writers making the calls.

However.

The fact that J.J. Watt comes in at number 35 on the list suggests that his fellow NFL players have particularly short memories. True, Watt missed most of the 2016 season after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in his back. His numbers in the three games he played aren’t impressive—he’s credited with a sack and a half—but Watt slipped in the rankings a whopping 32 spots, down from number 3. That’s a precipitous fall for a player whose isn’t suffering from a career-limiting injury. Perhaps Watt just wasn’t on a lot of voters’ minds when they weighed in.

Coming in at number 31, Stafford isn’t the only dubious pick ahead of Watt. Former Cowboys running back Demarco Murray—a gifted ballcarrier who resurrected his career in Tennessee last year—clocks in at number 33. Seattle safety Kam Chancellor and Kansas City corner Marcus Peters also place ahead of Watt. Chancellor and Peters are both outstanding players in crucial positions, but the Seahawks and the Chiefs would ship them off to Houston along with a couple of draft picks if it meant that they could get their hands on Watt.

Watt’s was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for three seasons. When healthy, his version of an off year means he only notches ten and a half sacks, four forced fumbles, and eighty tackles. And he’s still nearly two years away from his thirtieth birthday. There are better players—or, at least, players in the NFL who mean more to their teams at their respective positions—than Watt, but there aren’t 34 of them.

Meanwhile, Watt himself has declared the list “a joke.”

Football is a forward-looking business where last year stops mattering as soon as free agency opens. Ultimately, it features the players who are likely to have a powerhouse year in 2017, and though anything is possible, it’s hard to imagine that 34 guys, including Matthew Stafford and Demarco Murray, are likely to be more formidable on the field than J.J. Watt. Go ask a Titans fan if she’d rather have Murray or Watt, and you’ll likely get the drift. Everything starts fresh each year (see also: Cam Newton, who topped the 2016 list, sliding all the way to number 44 this time out), and all you can use to assess who’s good is what we know a person is capable of. When you’re talking about J.J. Watt, the answer is “almost anything.”

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