There’s only one J.J. Watt.
The Houston Texans defensive end is a once-in-a-generation player who took one quantum leap after another to become the best defensive player in the NFL. A former two-star prospect in high school, Watt signed with Central Michigan as a tight end (committing to current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly) before bolting for Wisconsin and the chance to play defensive end.
Watt blossomed in two years in Madison and became the 11th pick of the 2011 NFL draft. But he wasn’t a revelation right away. Watt showed promise in the regular season as a rookie under coordinator Wade Phillips — including 5 1/2 sacks — but wasn’t in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year. The top candidates were the 49ers’ Aldon Smith, the Broncos’ Von Miller and the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson.
But it all came together quickly. Watt had a monster playoff that season — an interception return for a touchdown in a victory over the Bengals and nine tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in a loss to the Ravens. The following year, Watt led the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. He didn’t stop there, winning the award again in 2014 and last season, when he played through an injury to post 13 sacks in the Texan’s final 10 games en route to the AFC South title.
From high school to the NFL, Watt might be the ultimate story of growth — the kind of rapid player development that college coaches and NFL general managers, coaches and coordinators dream of. The draft and free agency are keys to improvement, but “growth from within” ultimately is a big part of that.
Which brings us to the Bears, who probably don’t have a J.J. Watt in their midst, but have several candidates a tier or two lower who can take quantum leaps this season — nose tackle Eddie Goldman, cornerback Kyle Fuller, safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey and running back Jeremy Langford among them. All have established themselves as starters. Now the Bears need to see more.
The focus is on defense, where coordinator Vic Fangio produced several first-time Pro Bowlers with the 49ers from 2011-14 — including linebacker NaVorro Bowman (a third-round draft pick), defensive end Aldon Smith, safeties Dashon Goldson (a fourth-round draft pick) and Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rodgers.
Fangio played it typically close to the vest when asked if he has any young players on this Bears team ready to take that kind of leap.
“Maybe here and there,” Fangio said.
Goldman, who had 4 1/2 sacks as a rookie and made two all-rookie teams, is not J.J. Watt. But he showed the kind of late-rookie-year improvement that could be a harbinger of bigger things this season. His excitement level is off the charts.
“On a scale of 1-10, I would say 11.5,” Goldman said. “The sky’s the limit. I can’t put a number on it like stats or whatever. All I can say is, we’re ready to play all-out every game.
Amos led the Bears in tackles with 108 last year and also made two all-rookie teams. Now he’s eager to be more than just good for a fifth-round draft pick.
“Last year was a stepping stone, but that’s all it was,” Amos said. “I don’t want to be just good enough. I don’t want to be just good for a second-year player. I want to help my team win.”