Thoughts on J.J. Watt’s release and his potential landing spots

As if there wasn’t enough drama surrounding the Texans 2021 offseason, the team is going to be releasing the best player in franchise history as well as first reported by Ian Rapoport and confirmed by Watt himself.

The 31-year-old former 11th overall pick has 101 career sacks in 10 years despite missing two full seasons worth of games over the back half of his career in Houston. He’s certainly not the same player that he was when he ripped off 69 sacks in four years between 2012 and 2015 and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, but Watt still has some juice left, producing five sacks, 17 QB hits, and 45 total pressures in 2020 on an otherwise truly horrific Texans defense.

Before we get to what’s next for Watt, let’s talk briefly about what this means for the Texans. This move, combined with whatever happens with Deshaun Watson over the next few months, marks the end of an era in Houston. Watt arrived in Houston in 2011, joining a franchise who had just one winning season (a 9-7 mark in 2009) in their first nine years of existence and had never won the AFC South. The Texans would win six division titles and record seven winning seasons during the Watt era, largely led by a dominant defense keyed around Watt.

With Watt gone and Watson seemingly determined to follow him out the door, the Texans will be in full rebuild mode for the next few seasons. That’s got to be a jarring realization for Texans fans who had just won their fourth division title in the last five years and had one of the best young quarterbacks in football at this time last year.

But let’s get back to Watt and where he goes next. I think there are three clear destinations in play for him:

  1. Pittsburgh
  2. Green Bay
  3. Tennessee

The Steelers would give Watt a chance to play with his brothers T.J. and Derek for the first time in his football playing career. The big stumbling block here is money. Pittsburgh is currently $30 million over a projected $180.5 million salary cap according to OverTheCap.com, and while the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey will free up close to $15 million in space, the Steelers will still have to get creative to free up enough room to fit a reasonable salary for Watt.

They certainly could make it happen, especially if Watt was willing to take a discount to play there (which he might be). Ben Roethlisberger’s $41.3 million cap hit can be massaged with a restructure and the team could release veteran cornerback Joe Haden to clear another $8.5 million. However, they will also need to replace Pouncey and reinforce an offensive line that has wilted over the last couple seasons as well as trying to find space to pay JuJu Smith-Schuster.

And if Watt wants to win a ring… is Pittsburgh really knocking on that door with a soon-to-be 39-year-old Roethlisberger (I know we just saw a 43-year-old win the Super Bowl, but Ben doesn’t exactly take care of his body like Brady) under center in 2021? I’m also not sure whether Pittsburgh is the best on-field fit for Watt. The Steelers already have Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward playing similar roles in their 3-4 defense. Watt would either be bumping one of those guys or playing as a rotational piece and I’m not sure that’s going to fly with a guy as competitive as him.

The next option is Green Bay. Watt famously grew up a massive Packers fan in Wisconsin, played college football for the Badgers, and has a lot of love for the Cheeseheads. The Packers are also very much title contenders. They’ve appeared in the past two NFC Championship games and they have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers behind center. Watt strikes me as a sentimental guy, which makes me think that if he’s going to ring chase, it’s going to be at home in Wisconsin, not Tampa or Kansas City.

The Packers have a similar cap situation to Pittsburgh though. Currently over the projected cap by about $28 million, Green Bay will need to do some serious cap gymnastics just to get in compliance. Like other teams, they can restructure some big deals and possibly look at releasing a guy like Preston Smith to get there, but there are fewer “easy” moves for Green Bay to make without creating major roster holes. Would Watt take a discount here? Maybe, but it might have to be pretty steep.

I do think that the Packers make a lot of sense from an on-field standpoint. Green Bay has nice edge defenders in Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary as well as a solid defensive tackle in Kenny Clark, but the rest of their interior defensive line leaves a lot to be desired. Watt would slot in beautifully next to Clark and give the Packers another threat in the front seven.

Finally, we have the Titans. I think they’re a distant third here, but we should mention them because of Watt’s relationship with Mike Vrabel. Vrabel spent four years working alongside Watt in Houston, and while he wasn’t his direct position coach, the two would certainly have a mutual trust and have spoken highly of each other in the past.

The Titans also have a clear need, the ability to create a lot of cap space, and offer Watt the chance to rub Jack Easterby’s nose in it twice a year. Watt made it clear that he requested a release and that obviously doesn’t happen if he’s happy with how things were headed under new management.

Tennessee also offers the ability to compete for a title. They were in the AFC Championship game in 2019 and won their division in 2020 despite a defense that ranked among the league’s worst. Watt could drastically improve that defense. He would pair with Jeffery Simmons to give Tennessee two extremely disruptive defensive linemen and make defenses choose which to double.

The Titans are also far less upside down on the balance sheet compared to either Pittsburgh or Green Bay. Tennessee could afford to pay Watt a salary more reflective of his ability — which is still quite good even if he’s not the superhuman he once was — and while I don’t think money will be the first thing that Watt is chasing, I’m also not sure he’s going to want to play for peanuts.

Once his release becomes official, Watt will be free to go ahead and sign wherever he wants, meaning he does not have to wait until the March 17th start of free agency. So he will be able to use the next month to meet with teams and potentially even go ahead and make a decision while the rest of the upcoming free agent class waits for their contracts to officially expire.

The big question will be where Watt’s priorities lie. Is he willing to take a lesser role and a smaller paycheck to play with his brothers? Would he rather chase a championship with his hometown team in Green Bay? Or could he choose to maximize his payday and reunite with a former coach in Tennessee?

#WattWattch 2021 starts now…

Comments

  1. Come on JRob and Vrabel!! Let’s get Watt, a championship and the chance to stick it to the city of Houston. Bud, if you are watching, put a word in with the big guy up there to make this happen!!

  2. Good stuff Mike. Having JJ join the d-line would be amazing. Titans get a beast in disrupting the interior/edge, a great locler room guy and potentially a mentor to helo develop Big Jeff.

    I know you did your cap relief piece a month ago, but I think one thing that’s not getting enough attention right now is how this dip in the cap is going be a huge issue next offseason for the league because it’s going to shoot up so much, that all of a sudden you could be looking at what happened in the NBA in 2016. Everyone has cap, but there’s simply not enough talented players to get with it.

    I think JRob needs to create that $50 mill in space this season and sign as many guys as possible.

    1. Agreed. I think they should go for it this offseason. This team is very close and a good free agent haul could put them over the top. It wouldn’t take much to be honest.

  3. If you could have your pick, would you rather sign Watt or a younger guy like Leonard Williams to play the same role?

    Either way, you add a guy like that up front and do diligence bolstering edge, this could quickly become a pretty special defense. Our weakness at that third IDL spot last year was a whole that didn’t catch much spotlight compared to edge.

    1. I’d rather have Williams if I have the choice between the two, but I don’t think Williams is going to get out of NY. They’ll probably tag him if it comes down to it.

      Watt is very clearly the second best IDL on the market now though.

  4. I heard a discussion on the radio this morning that was attempting to compare JJ white to Cameron week based on sack production alone. They also made the case that JJ Watt injury history makes him a candidate comparable to wait in regard to yes prospective durability for the upcoming season.

    So to start with, I just wanna point out that 100 sacks from the DE position in a 3-4 is very different from 100 sacks from the EDGE.

    Still, the point about durability holds.

    What is your take about Watt’s risk for becoming an injury bust? And how does that affect his market?

    1. Absolutely some injury risk with him. He’s had back and pectoral injuries in addition to a broken leg. The back is the one thing that would give me long term pause, but he hasn’t had recurring issues with that since 2016.

      I think he’s got a little more in the tank than Wake did, but frankly, I thought Wake was a really nice piece for them in 2019. You’re also correct about the difference in production for each position. Watt is still commanding a double team at an incredibly high rate and if you put him next to Simmons and another free agent pass rusher, I think you might see him have a bounceback statistically.

      1. Yeah, you’re last sentence there makes me start thinking of the fact that Watt has done his work on an increasingly bad defense the last three years.

        I’d hate to see him added to any of the good defenses being talked about: Tampa, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh.

        1. Yeah, he’s still good enough to cause big problems for opposing teams. Houston’s defense really fell apart around him over the last two years after BOB took the GM role.

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