NFL fans were somewhat taken aback Friday morning with the news the Houston Texans had released J.J. Watt, the greatest defensive player in that franchise’s history.
Watt posted a video on his social media where he explained he asked ownership to release him from the final year of his contract – he was set to earn $17.5 million in 2021 – and the two sides mutually agreed to part ways.
Since making his NFL debut a decade ago, Watt’s 101 sacks are second-most behind Von Miller’s 106 and the 31-year-old is one of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times.
Now, is Watt the perennial All-Pro and DPOY contender he was earlier in his career? No.
Is he still among the best defensive linemen in football? When healthy, yes.
Every season J.J. Watt has qualified, he has finished as a top-10 player at his position:
2011 - 75.1 (8th)
2012 - 92.3 (2nd)
2013 - 93.2 (1st)
2014 - 92.7 (1st)
2015 - 91.6 (2nd)
2018 - 90.5 (3rd)
2019 - 87.0 (9th)
2020 - 85.5 (7th) pic.twitter.com/1OIbLqsqtR
— PFF (@PFF) February 12, 2021
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound star’s versatility along the line adds to his value. He can play on the edge or shift to the interior depending on the personnel group. That’s to say there will be a long line of teams wanting to add a talent like him.
“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity and I’ve been working extremely hard, but at the same time it’s always tough to move on,” Watt said in his video.
Joining a legitimate contending team could make moving on a little easier for Watt, so with that in mind here are eight possible fits for the future Hall of Famer.
THE OBVIOUS OPTIONS TIER
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have had the best record in the NFC in back-to-back seasons and have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers yet they've lost each of the past two NFC Championship games in large part because the defence didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Watt was born in Wisconsin, grew up cheering for the Packers and starred in the Big Ten at the University of Wisconsin for two seasons before being selected 11th-overall in the 2011 draft.
Cheeseheads would love seeing Watt line up beside Kenny Clark on the defensive line. It would be the type of signing reminiscent of when the late Reggie White joined Green Bay when he was in his 30s and on the back-nine of his Hall of Fame career.
This would be a reunion for the Watt brothers with T.J. and Derek both on the team already. In fact, it took only about 15 minutes for T.J., who many football fans felt should’ve been named 2020 DPOY over Aaron Donald, to respond to his brother’s post with a well-placed GIF.
It wouldn’t be the easiest move to pull off from a financial standpoint with the Steelers currently over the cap and needing to resolve the issue of Ben Roethlisberger being owed $41.25 million next season. Roethlisberger is owed a $15-million bonus on March 19, so expect the team to either restructure his deal or cut ties with the two-time Super Bowl champ before that date. The team’s decision on their longtime QB could have an impact on whether they aggressively pursue a third Watt.
THE 'OH, COME ON THAT'S UNFAIR' TIER
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite his credentials, Watt’s teams in Houston had little post-season success. He only suited up for eight playoff games during his tenure there and if you’re going to join a winner, why not join the winner.
The defending champion Bucs could potentially lose edge rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Lavonte David in free agency. Signing a bunch of stars certainly worked out for the Bucs last off-season. Why not go back to that winning formula – especially if Barrett leaves town.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs could use a boost to their D-line. Watt would be a short-term solution to help take pressure off Chris Jones and Frank Clark, and put more pressure on opposing QBs. One daunting hurdle here is the fact the Chiefs have more than $55 million committed to the defensive line for 2021, with Jones’s and Clark’s combined salaries making up most of that. You’d have to think Watt would also garner eight figures annually.
Hat tip to my colleague Craig Battle, who pointed out Watt to Kansas City would be shades of Kevin Durant to Golden State.
The Warriors added Durant in 2016 after failing to repeat as champs when they lost in the Finals to LeBron James, a legend who’s always in the middle of basketball’s GOAT conversation.
Kansas City just failed to repeat as champs when it lost in the Super Bowl to Tom Brady, a legend who’s always at the centre of football’s GOAT conversation. We all know how that worked out for the Warriors.
THE 'HMM…THAT WOULD BE INTERESTING' TIER
As it currently stands, the Bills have the fourth-best odds to win next season’s Super Bowl behind the Bucs, Chiefs and Packers. Watt was built to play in the cold and he’d become a fan favourite relatively quickly in Buffalo. The Bills were exposed by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. They don’t have an abundance of cap space but making room to add Watt would help close the gap on the Chiefs in the AFC.
This one’s quite simple. Cleveland is a team on the rise, they have cap space and Olivier Vernon is headed to free agency. Targeting Watt to essentially replace Vernon and play on the opposite side of Myles Garrett sounds enticing. On paper, the Browns are a great fit.
Would Watt consider reuniting with Mike Vrabel, who was the Texans linebackers coach from 2014-2016 and the defensive coordinator in 2017 before landing the Titans gig? Tennessee’s offence can be an imposing group. The same can’t be said about the defence.
Sticking in the AFC South, the Colts have a solid enough foundation that they may be only a few key pieces away from contending for a Lombardi Trophy. Obviously, they’ll need to figure out who lines up behind centre as well, but Indy has tons of cap space it could use to its advantage. Watt playing beside DeForest Buckner would be intimidating. The Colts had a respectable sack total in 2020 but DEs Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad are all pending free agents.