O’Brien said he does not have a timetable for Watt’s progress during the offseason.
“I can tell you he’s doing well,” O’Brien said. “He’s in there working very hard to get better. He’s been in there every day. You can see him out on the field running; you can see him doing different things in the weight room.
“So, to no one’s surprise, I’m sure that he is ahead of schedule.”
Watt played in the Texans’ first three games of the season after quickly recovering from late-July back surgery. He re-aggravated the injury and had to have a second back surgery just more than two months later. At the time, players and coaches parroted the next-man-up mentality but acknowledged that Watt is a tough person to replace.
But the defense finished the regular season as the No. 1 unit in total defense with a combination of great play from outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Mercilus led the team in sacks with 10.5 in the regular season and playoffs, and McKinney finished the regular season ranked 11th in the NFL in tackles. Clowney, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, had a breakout year, registering a career-high six sacks, 16 tackles for a loss and being an overall disruptive player for the Texans.
Players said they are looking forward to having Watt back and seeing how good this defense can be.
“The future looks bright,” Mercilus said. “Honestly, we’ve got a great group of guys that have stepped up their game this year and done a great job for us. To be in the position that we’re in to have J.J. back next year, it’s just going to be great. Looking forward to it.”
Veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who said he is considering retirement after the season, marveled earlier in the month just how good this defense could be next year.
“With [Clowney] and J.J. on the same field, with Whitney, [John] Simon and guys like that, this defense is a scary defense. It’s going to be interesting to see what these guys do once they’re all back together next year. Should be another top defense.”