5 BEST LANDING SPOTS FOR J.J. WATT
When the Houston Texans once again waved the white flag in front of a superstar and cut J.J. Watt last week, he immediately became one of the Top Five most highly sought after free agents on the market.
If Watt was a younger, less accomplished player, this could start a bidding war for his services and many think that’s what will happen. I don’t. Watt has made, through football alone, $100.7 million in his decade long career. On top of that, he makes at least $7 million a year through endorsements, shilling for American Family Insurance, NRG, Reebok, Gatorade, H-E-B, Ford, Verizon and he does Subway commercials with his brothers T.J. and Derek.
Money is not an issue with Watt, nor is his potential Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy. If he never played another down, he’s recorded 101 sacks, 531 tackles, 409 solo tackles and 25 forced fumbles. In a sub par year for sacks in 2020 (since he played all 16 games and recorded just five), Watt still scored an 85.5 grade from PFF. His legacy, as an individual athlete, is secure.
He needs a ring. Watt has never gotten close. In fact, since he was drafted by the Texans in 2011, they’ve never even made it to the AFC Championship game.
And that simple fact will determine exactly where Watt ends up playing in 2021-22. Not the salary cap, not his own salary demands, but the simple fact that Watt wants to hoist the Vince Lombardi above his head.
For the good, well-managed teams, the salary cap is not an issue. It’s expected to be at least $185 million this season. I think it’ll be considerably higher specifically because this is a self-inflicted problem, created by the NFL. They can certainly put their heads together and fix it. As an agent told Sports Illustrated, “Why go from $175 million in 2021 and then raise it to $220 million in 2022? That just doesn’t make sense.”
But, regardless, good teams don’t care about the cap. They can manage and manipulate it as they see fit. It’s why they’re the good teams and consistently competing in the postseason.
Seeing that money is not an object keeping Watt from signing with a franchise, who would actually want to sign him? Obviously, everybody. But we’re going to settle in on a few of the more serious potential destinations for the former All Pro.
I’m going to knock two teams off the list immediately. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler feels as if the New England Patriots are in play. I absolutely, 100 percent do not. They are not a potential Super Bowl team. Their “Super Bowl team” currently plays in Tampa Bay and just won the Super Bowl. The Patriots are not close and adding Watt, while making them better, doesn’t even get them to .500. New England is not a good team and the “play for a title with the Pats” pull to free agents is long gone. Trust me on that. No one, except maybe Bill Belichick himself, feels that he’s responsible for any of their long term success in the era he shared with Tom Brady. That argument has been settled to the point it can literally be drunkenly tossed from a boat.
The Bucs, by the way, are off the list too (as proffered by CBS Sports’ Bryan DeArdo), as they need to be more concerned with signing their own free agent defense end that dominated the Super Bowl, Shaq Barrett. Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes might end up delivering his baby nine months from now. Sure, the Bucs would love to add Watt, but Barrett is the only defensive end on their minds right now.
So who, then, do I think make the cut in the search for Watt’s services?
5. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Last season: 12-4, AFC North Champions, lost to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round
Pros: The reasons this makes sense are obvious; both his brothers play in Pittsburgh. In fact, if the Steelers do manage to sign J.J. Watt to join T.J. and Derek, the famous Primanti Bros. restaurant chain says it will change its name to the Watt Bros.
Cons: How close are the Steelers to the Super Bowl? Not very, from where I sit. They could possibly repeat as NFC North champions, but as of this writing, they’re third in line in the odds to even do that at +260. Watt would probably push those up some, but with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in that division, and the Browns laying a smack down on Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season, I don’t see any reason to believe that Watt can get them over the hump.
4. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Last season: 12-4, NFC West Champions, lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round
Pros: Here’s a take you’ve probably not read anywhere else; if J.J. Watt doesn’t sign with the Steelers (and he shouldn’t), I don’t think he signs with ANY AFC team. I don’t think he wants to knock his brothers out of playing in a Super Bowl or have them do the same to him. So, to me, that means an NFC squad is much more likely to win the J.J. Watt lottery and the Seahawks desperately need him.
Seattle was No. 15 in overall defense in 2020 and recorded just 46 sacks as a team. Most of those were delivered by a safety, Jamal Adams, who led the squad with 9.5. That is both an outrageous achievement for him and an embarrassing stat for their defensive line. Defensive tackle Jarren Reed was second on the team with 6.5.
Cons: We’re going to talk more about Russell Wilson and his sudden desire to take ownership of the team later this week, but a quick version is that Wilson wants upgrades to the offensive line and, while I’m sure he’d love to add Watt to the defense, he’s way more concerned about other teams’ defenders landing atop his head.
Like the Steelers, you have to wonder how close the Seahawks are to a Super Bowl too. Watt would make them better on defense, but will it be enough to catch the better teams in the NFC?
3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Last season: 13-4, NFC South Champions, lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round
Pros: The Saints are consistent winners and, even with Drew Brees sidelined over the last two seasons, have managed to play exceedingly well. While Brees is probably done, Sean Payton will go to war with a QB he thinks he can win with, whether it’s Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston, or someone else. This is the same team that swept the Super Bowl champion Bucs in the regular season.
Cons: They play in the same division with those same Buccaneers, which could be a problem next year. Is Payton so enamored (or pig headed as the case may be) that he’ll stick with Hill no matter what when Winston (or a trade for the return of Teddy Bridgewater or, even better, the acquisition of Marcus Mariota) would obviously make the team more of a Super Bowl contender? The Saints are a very high risk, high reward pick for Watt.
2. LOS ANGELES RAMS
Last season: 11-6, NFC Wild Card, lost to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round
Pros: No team has done more this early in the offseason to get better than the Rams, who completed a blockbuster trade to make Matthew Stafford their quarterback. They’re currently tied at No. 3 with the Packers in the Super Bowl LVI odds, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay. Watt was double teamed 30 percent of the time with a win rate of around 23 percent last season. Aaron Donald was double teamed nearly 70 percent of the time with a win rate of 24 percent. If you put Watt on the same defensive line as Donald, who do you double team? My guess is, still Donald, which means Watt will face offensive lineman one-on-one consistently for the first time in his career. That sound you just heard was offensive coordinators filling their shorts.
Again, we’re not going to pretend the salary cap can’t be manipulated, because the Rams are masters at it. They’ve already put themselves in the Super Bowl conversation. They’re the returning No. 1 ranked defense in the league. And, more importantly, the play in Los Angeles and where else would a star like Watt want to finish out his career? The endorsement opportunities alone should more than make up for anything LA doesn’t pay him in a contract.
Plus, the Rams have made these deals before. They’re not scared of them in the least.
Cons: He can’t wear No. 99? That’s pretty much it.
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS
Last season: 15-3, NFC North Champions, lost in the NFC Championship to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Pros: The Packers were a game away from the Super Bowl last season. They have the reigning NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers (we’ll discuss that this week too). Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White made this same trek to win a title back in the early 1990s and it worked for him, getting the Pack over the hump in the process. And, this is more important than people think, Watt and his entire family played college football at Wisconsin. He likes it and would probably be stoked to return to the cheese state.
Cons: None. The No. 99 jersey won’t even be a problem as it was worn by rookie Willington Previlon last season, an undrafted free agent who never recorded a stat.