The mystery over where J.J. Watt will sign as an NFL free agency has been solved. Watt broke the news of his decision to sign with the Cardinals, much to the disappointment of several teams who were pursuing the services of the former Texans future Hall of Fame defensive end.
Watt, who will turn 32 on March 22, will play somewhere other than Houston for the first time in his professional career. Consider Arizona to be a mild surprise destination based on early speculation.
Here’s why the Cardinals ended up being the best possible fit for Watt following two weeks of him being on the open market:
J.J. Watt contract details
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Watt got a two-year deal from the Cardinals worth $31 million. The big part of that number was $23 million guaranteed. Watt was reportedly looking for $15-16 million annually, and that average of $15.5 million per season falls right in the middle.
In his previous six-year contract with the Texans, Watt averaged $16.67 million over six years with $51.876 million of the total $100 million contract value guaranteed. As an older player, he got 74 percent of his new team deal guaranteed.
The Cardinals showed faith in him that he still will be an elite defender and remain a healthy producer through the 2022 season. Arizona is looking at around $11 million in cap space. The big guarantee allows the Cardinals to limit the cap hit on Watt for ’21 and push the bigger number into next year.
Arizona is a good place for ex-Texans stars
Remember how Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins “recruited” Watt on social media? Turns out that might have been a real ploy.
Hopkins immediately fit with the Cardinals and picked up his big-time pass-catching production where he left off in Houston. There’s a culture of an exciting young team, led by quarterback Kyler Murray, looking for the right mix of veterans beyond Hopkins to help lead the team going forward.
Defensively, the Cardinals will be parting with long-term star cornerback Patrick Peterson in free agency. While losing his savvy on the back end, they needed an experience and execution boost in the front seven. Watt can be on that side of the ball what Hopkins was for the offense.
Why J.J. Watt was a better fit for Cardinals than Browns, Bills, Packers, Steelers, etc.
The Browns and Bills never were schematic fits as base 4-3 teams under Joe Woods and Leslie Frazier, respectively. The Packers still operate a 3-4 with former Rams assistant Joe Barry replacing Mike Pettine as coordinator, but at more than a projected $11 million over the cap, weren’t in position to adjust to afford Watt.
The Steelers were players in name only because of employing Watt’s brothers, T.J and Derek, ruled out once J.J. reportedly didn’t really want to play with them. The price of J.J. Watt wasn’t great for Pittsburgh, staring at being $19 million over the cap. Among non-playoff teams from 2020, Watt was tied most to the Chargers’ 3-4 under Brandon Staley and Renaldo Hill, but that never gained steam.
The Cardinals, who just missed the NFC playoffs at 8-8 last season, had the combination of good 3-4 scheme under Vance Joseph and a key hole to both lure and splurge on Watt. Watt, who had five sacks last season and stayed dominant against the run fronting a bad overall Houston defense, was more a need-based than luxury signing for Arizona.
The Cardinals’ starting ends, Zach Allen and Jordan Phillips, struggled to hold the edge last season. Their 32-year-old nose tackle, Corey Peters is a free agent. They were No. 21 against the run and Watt is coming off a stout run-stopping year. The Cardinals did have 48 sacks, but most of that came from the second level with Allen, Phillips and Peters combining for only 6.
Don’t be fooled by Watt having a modest sack total in relation to the monster years he had in his early prime. He was active and disruptive all-around against the pass and can set an important tone for the Cardinals.
Watt’s signing confirms the Cardinals won’t be trying to afford Peterson. Now they must turn their re-signing focus to breakout outside linebacker Haason Reddick, who had a team-high 12.5 sacks in 2020.
The Cardinals have proved under GM Steve Keim they will be aggressive to acquire potential impact veterans. Five years ago, they hit the jackpot in acquiring edge rusher Chandler Jones from the Patriots. They were smart to recognize Watt was another good investment to clean up a big lingering weakness. Most important, he can help get them over the hump and get into the playoffs.