WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Shortly after Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt broke his leg in early October, he set a goal for himself: Start training camp healthy from Day 1.
On Thursday, he did just that, taking part in drills with “no restrictions” as the Texans began training camp at The Greenbrier.
“I think I’m starting in a really good place this year,” Watt said. “It feels like I’m starting a regular training camp. I feel like I’m starting fresh. When I started the rehab process, I wanted to earn a fresh start, earn a chance to go out there, start a training camp from Day 1 [and] go out there and play.
“And I think that clean slate has come, and I’ve got a chance to once again try and write my own story.”
Watt has played in only eight total games since winning the award for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015. Three games into the 2016 season, he re-injured his back and needed a second back surgery in less than three months. Watt was healthy for the start of the 2017 regular season, but as he was getting into form, he broke his leg in a Week 5 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’m so fortunate to be out here,” Watt said Thursday. “I could look back at these last two years and say, ‘Man, those are two of the s—tiest years of my life.’ But I can also look back at them and see how much I’ve learned and how important it is for me to go back out on this field and play at the level I know I can play to show that I can overcome what I’ve been through.
“When you go through something like this, it’s a climb back to the top. And you want to climb that mountain. And I’ve had days when you take three steps forward, and then there are days when you take one step back. … I went through some very tough times. But where I’m at today because of all of those tough times is a great place. And I’m very happy, I’m very excited to be out here, and I feel really good.”
Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus tore his pectoral muscle in the same game that Watt broke his leg, and he was also ruled out for the rest of the season. The Texans hope this is the season that the trio of Watt, Mercilus and 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney can stay healthy for a full season.
Clowney played the first 16-game regular season of his career in 2017, but needed minor knee surgery in January.
Still, despite the fact that Clowney spent the majority of the Texans’ first practice working on the side instead of participating in team drills, Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he’s not concerned about the outside linebacker’s knee.
“Some guys are needing to just get back into a little bit better football shape right now, [and Clowney] comes under that category. But he’ll be ready to go pretty soon here,” O’Brien said. “I’m not concerned about him though. Because of his rehab, he wasn’t able to be in OTAs, so we’re trying to be intelligent about the way we bring him back.”
If the three defenders can stay healthy all season, Houston could once again have one of the best front sevens in the NFL.
“We have a lot of talent in a lot of places on this team,” Watt said. “We know what this defense is capable of when we’re playing at our highest level. Now it’s just a matter of making those things all come together at the same time.”