USA TODAY US Edition
Class of ’11 strikes fear in QBs
Draft produced reigning sack leader Houston, two-time defensive player of year Watt, others
There’s an un-highlight reel that flashes through Justin Houston’s brain whenever he thinks about the NFL sack record — and how he came up a half-sack shy of tying it and one full quarterback takedown short of breaking it last season.
There’s the way Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill slipped through his grasp last September. And how he and Kansas City Chiefs teammate Tamba Hali collided just before Houston could get a hand on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in November. And when he sacked Russell Wilson and forced a fumble in a game against the Seattle Seahawks, only to see it wiped away by a penalty away from the play.
Those were the moments that kept a great season from becoming historic, the moments Houston must somehow avoid this season as he prepares to make another run at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 221⁄2,
set in 2001.
“You can’t give up anything,” Houston told USA TODAY Sports. “Every chance you get, you better make the best out of that opportunity.”
Houston is one of a handful of talented players from the 2011 draft class whose pass rushing prowess makes it seem inevitable Strahan’s record will be broken — soon.
“It’s a matter of time,” Denver Broncos general manager John Elway told USA TODAY Sports. “There are so many great athletes, and I think the game is changing, too. There are more opportunities to rush the passer. There is more passing. It’s not the same game as it was in the ’90s. There are more opportunities for it to get broken.”
The smart money is that Houston or another member of his 2011 draft class — the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt, the Broncos’ Von Miller or the St. Louis Rams’ Robert Quinn — will be the one to do it.
Through four seasons, Watt (57), Miller (49), Houston (48 1⁄2) and Quinn (45) had amassed enough to move into the top 30 active players on the career sack list and stacked double-digit sack seasons before age 26.
Watt and Quinn each recorded a pair of sacks in Week 1, while Houston had one. Miller is looking for his first sack in Thursday’s game against Houston’s Chiefs.
A fifth member of the 2011 class, Aldon Smith, would seriously be in that conversation if not for a string of off-field incidents, including a third drunkendriving arrest last month that led to his release from the San Francisco 49ers. Smith signed with the Raiders last week but could face another lengthy suspension for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
“I don’t know if anyone could have predicted the way that it’s gone so far,” Watt told USA TODAY Sports. “I mean, it’s truly been an incredible draft class, and the guys that have come out of that class have really gone above and beyond.
“The thing I’m looking forward to most is to see what’s next for everybody, because the bar keeps being raised and everyone is doing such a great job and working to push it even higher. It’s a lot of fun to be part of a class like that.”
Watt’s defensive domination — with two NFL defensive player of the year awards in his first four seasons — leads to an interesting debate on what would happen if teams were given a do-over of that 2011 class. Just how high would Watt go? Would the Carolina Panthers have changed tactics and picked Watt instead of quarterback Cam Newton?
Would Elway, who held the No. 2 pick in his first year of running the Broncos, pass on Watt? Elway told USA TODAY Sports that he drastically underestimated the type of NFL player Watt would become but said if he was faced again with the scenario he had in 2011 his choice would be the same.
“I mean, even though Von had some growing up to do and obviously he experienced some tough times, he’s grown up and really come on,” Elway said, referring to Miller’s six-game suspension in 2013 for a second violation of the NFL’s drug policy. “There is no question that if we were in the same spot we were then we’d still take Von.”