If J.J. Watt can actually return for the playoffs, the potential impact is huge

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The Texans might have given themselves an early Christmas gift.

On Tuesday, the Texans designated J.J. Watt for return from the injured list. They now have a 21-day window to activate him. Watt can return to practice, and the hope is he would be available for the playoffs. Even if he is not 100 percent, Watt would provide a major boost to a struggling defense if he can get on the field.

At 10-5, the Texans finish the season with the Titans on Sunday. For all practical purposes, they are locked in to the four seed in the AFC, barring a surprising Kansas City loss to the Chargers. The reality is most key players should be rested on Sunday, and even if Watt is ready to go, that should include him as well. Having him healthy for a probable playoff game with the Bills would be critical to their chances.

And if he can be ready for the playoffs...

 How much impact?

Watt's impact on the defense can't be understated. Even when he is not showing up on the stat sheet, teams have to account for him, freeing up other defenders to make plays.

In the eight games with Watt in the lineup, the Texans had 17 sacks. (That includes the Raiders game where he was injured in the first half and the Texans did not register a sack). In the seven games since, they have 14 sacks, while that may not seem like a big difference, 10 of those 14 came in three games against the Jags, Patriots and last week against the Bucs. The seven games includes another game where they did not register a sack at all and two games where they only had one.

Despite missing those games, Watt remains second on the team with four sacks.

With Watt in the lineup, opponents averaged 362 yards on offense per game. Without him? The Texans have allowed 407 yards per game. With a healthy Watt, they allowed over 400 yards just once, in the opener when they gave up 510 yards to the Saints, thanks in part to a terrible scheme that relied on overmatched defensive backs. In the seven games without him, they have allowed over 400 yards four times, and nearly that - 391 - in the ugly Broncos loss.

Concern about the longterm

While some may want Watt to rest up and fully recover for next season, the simple question is why? Is he risking re-injury? Of course. But he would have all off-season to recover, and if you aren't going to risk it in the playoffs, when would you ever? Isn't that why you play the game? Watt is at the stage of his career where he may not have a lot of games left in him. Having him for a potential playoff run would be huge. Watt has appeared in just 32 of a possible 63 games over the last four seasons so anything you get out of him is a bonus. Play him now, and worry about next year next year.

The next step

Assuming Watt is able to go, even at 80 percent he should help a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league in most categories. They have rebuilt the secondary on the fly, and Watt's presence should allow Whitney Mercilus and D.J. Reader more opportunities to put pressure on the quarterback, which would help the corners and safeties in coverage.

If he can play - and after all, that is no lock - it will be great news for a team that has had minimal postseason success. Watt's presence would put the defense as currently built at 100 percent for the first time all season. Watt would join in-season acquisitions Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves and a healthy Bradley Roby in the secondary, something the Texans did not have when Watt went out. Barring a key injury on Sunday, the Texans defense would enter the postseason in as good a shape as they have been all year.

That's if Watt is ready.

We will find out if that happens soon enough.

Of course, if the offense continues to struggle, none of it will matter. But if Watt is ready, it's the best Christmas gift the Texans could have gotten.

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The Texans haven't had a burner like this in a while. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

The Houston Texans added an element to their offense they have been missing for the past few seasons when they selected Nathaniel “Tank” Dell in the third round of the 2023 draft. That element is explosiveness.

Dell starred for the Houston Cougars less than seven miles away from NRG Stadium for a bulk of his collegiate year. He caught 211 passes for 2,904 yards and 28 receiving touchdowns in his three seasons with UH.

In each one of those seasons, Dell had at least one play that went 54 yards or longer. During the 2022 season, Dell led the entire country in reception touchdowns with 17, and he also led the nation with 1,398 receiving yards.

While Dell’s 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine was 4.49 seconds, there is no questioning how he can impact any game with his speed. Dell excelled for UH when he was in the slot. It is a big reason why he played 388 snaps at slot for the Cougars during the 2022 season, according to Pro Football Focus.

With the Texans having outside receivers like Nico Collins and the expected return of John Metchie as well as the addition of Robert Woods and others, including rookie Xavier Hutchinson, Houston’s new-look receiving corps could be an underrated group.

If the Texans are able to establish the ground game with second-year back Dameon Pierce and supplement it with Devin Singletary, Dare Ogunbowale and the other running backs on the roster, Houston’s play actions with the threat of Dell taking the top off opposing defenses suddenly opens up the field for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

The Texans have not had a legitimate threat at receiver that can take the top off defenses since Will Fuller during the 2020 season. While Brandin Cooks certainly had big play ability, his speed was not as much of a weapon as it will be for Dell, which makes the offense always capable of producing a big play.

Dell is excited about that possibility as well.

“Explosive plays. I feel like that should be my nickname cause all I know is explosive plays,” Dell told media reporters on a Zoom call Friday night when he was drafted.

Not only can Dell impact games on offense, but on special teams as well. Dell returned nine punts in his final season with Houston, and he scored one touchdown in those nine attempts. He also had two punt returns called back due to penalties in 2022.

While the UH standout’s size and occasional drops (21 over the last two seasons) likely kept him from being a higher prospect, the potential for Dell is sky-high.

It also helps that Stroud and Dell already seem to be building a strong quarterback-receiver relationship. When the team's top quarterback says he wants a specific player at receiver, it tends to bode well for the connection between the two.

While Dell and Stroud have not played together at the collegiate level, the next few weeks will likely be a crash course between the two as they get familiar with each other's game.

The one thing both had in common with their pressers after arriving was that they both have the desire to turn the franchise around from the rebuild. The Stroud-to-Dell duo could be an electric one in the fall and, just maybe, for years to come.

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