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MAQB: Familiarity With Vance Joseph Was Key in J.J. Watt Joining the Cardinals

Arizona will run a scheme J.J. Watt already won DPOY in early in his career, making it an easy transition. Plus, notes on Tom Herman, Russell Wilson's desired trade destinations and more.

Combine week is now behind us, only without a combine. We’re on to this week’s MAQB …

J.J. Watt, Tom Herman and Russell Wilson

• The first thing to take note of on the J.J. Watt signing in Arizona is the importance of familiarity. My understanding is Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph ran point on the Watt recruitment, which makes sense, since Joseph was the Texans’ secondary coach during Watt’s first three NFL seasons. That the two had a relationship made a difference, as did the system that Joseph is running, which is virtually the same one Houston ran back then, with carryover all the way down to the verbiage. In that system, by the way, Watt was First-Team All-Pro twice, won a sack title and was named 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Throw in the fact that this offseason could be bastardized the way last year’s was—with spring OTAs and minicamps potentially wiped off the calendar—and it’s easy to see why it’d be important for Watt to be able to hit the ground running. He’ll be able to in Arizona.

• One other aspect of this singing that shouldn’t be ignored is how the salary cap played into it. The Cardinals have a healthy cap situation (they’re in the middle of the league in 2021 commitments), despite having big-ticket players like DeAndre Hopkins, Chandler Jones, Budda Baker and D.J. Humphries on their books, in large part because their starting quarterback is on a rookie deal. And this year, with the cap likely going down, that’ll matter more than ever. In this case, it put Arizona in position to bid on a veteran like Watt in a way that, say, Pittsburgh or Green Bay couldn’t, which in turn means they won’t have to overpay to keep Haason Reddick after Reddick’s breakout 2020. Read back through all that, and you’ll see the layers in which the COVID-19-fueled revenue shortfall will change the way the NFL does business in the short term.

• While we’re there, here’s one thing agents are hearing from teams as they, ahem, only talk about players on those teams’ rosters—the lack of certainty about 2022 promises to affect spending this offseason as much as the falling cap in 2021. Why? Well, if you look at most free-agent contracts, they’re done with the expectation that the cap will rise steadily over time. Here are a couple examples from last year …

Bengals DT D.J. Reader cap numbers (2020 to ‘24): $10.07M, $13.56M, $13.71M, $15.67M.

Raiders LB Cory Littleton cap numbers (2020 to ‘22): $3.47M, $13.82M, $13.82M.

And Littleton’s deal has two phony years on the back end that take care of another $4.14 million in charges, too. Not every team does deals like this (the Dolphins were good in this area last year, in balancing their cap hits), but most have, figuring that the cap would keep rising and the percentages of cap eaten up, in turn, would continue to self-correct. Now? Well, now, you can hope the TV deals and fans in the stands will take care of 2022. But can you count on it? Probably not. Which means odds are more teams are going to be more conservative in their spending.

• Seeing the Bears hired ex-Texas coach Tom Herman as an offensive analyst and to work on special projects reminded me that it was just five years ago that the then-Univ. of Houston coach was on NFL lists as a potential head coaching candidate. So that summer of 2016, when my training camp tour hit Houston, I decided to make the drive over to the school, after hitting Texans camp, to meet with Herman. I wound up doing this video story with him and then for that week’s GamePlan column, I asked him about coaching in the NFL. His answer: “Not right now. I love what I do right now and I love getting young men at this stage in their life and really being able to shape them into better husbands and fathers and employees because that’s how I was shaped, by coaches, and my teammates were my brothers. I had no brothers and sisters. Single-parent home, so my coaches were humongous mentors and influences to me and my life. It’s not about football in our program. We have a saying around here, I got it from Coach [Urban] Meyer, ‘Anybody can teach cover-two or zone-reads.’ There’s a million coaches out there that can teach that. There are. It’s not that hard. So what separates our program and our coaches and myself from the rest of the country is that connection with the player and how much we love our players.” And so now, a few years later, with his stock in a very different place, he’s moved to the pros. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes, because back then he was seen very much as an innovator, both in how he built his program and how he ran his offense.

• We did a lot to cover the Russell Wilson situation this morning. But we didn’t delve all the way into the teams the Seahawks would be trading with, if they stuck to his list. And there is an issue there—there’s no clean path to Seattle getting a long-term replacement for Wilson in the deals those teams could offer. (Or just one, if you see Raiders QB Derek Carr that way.) The Bears don’t have a franchise quarterback to trade to Seattle and pick 19th in the first round in April. The Saints don’t have one to deal the Seahawks and pick 28th. That leaves the Cowboys, who pick 10th. Dallas could potentially send Dak Prescott to the Seahawks, but if Prescott doesn’t want to go there, he’d have the power to effectively block a deal, simply by refusing to sign a new deal or the franchise tag. And that, of course, would put Prescott in position to ask for the moon and stars from Seattle if such a trade were to be worked out. This, of course, is a messy situation to begin with for Seattle. And Wilson didn’t do the Seahawks any favors by putting out that list of favored destinations, or with the teams he chose to put on that list.

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• Chiefs GM Brett Veach set a three-month timetable on QB Patrick Mahomes’s recovery from turf toe surgery. And since the procedure happened Feb. 10, that would set him up for a mid-May return. That’s good news, and even better news is that Mahomes might not be missing anything. Absent the vaccines being available to players, it’s hard to imagine teams having OTAs as they normally would in April and May—and if they don’t, Mahomes will be missing literally nothing. Also, giving him a nice physical break during a third consecutive shortened offseason (since the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl again) might not be the worst thing for him.

• ESPN Niners reporter Nick Wagoner had an interesting story on the rarity of a left tackle of Trent Williams’s caliber hitting free agency—and pointed to Branden Albert and Nate Solder as the only two situations in recent years even approaching what San Francisco is facing. Williams is 33, but his position is one players have shown can played effectively deep into their 30s (Andrew Whitworth, Jason Peters), and the Niners would almost have to draft his replacement with the 12th pick if they were to lose him. That’s how important the position is, and how vital it is for John Lynch & Co. to do all they can to get him locked up. There is, of course, good reason why top left tackles so rarely make it to the market, and it’d be wise for the Niners to try and prevent Williams from getting there, even with price tags at the position now hovering around $20 million per year.

• One item from the MMQB column I’d like expound on here was how we described the way the market will play out for top- (normally), middle- (unpredictably) and lower-tier (lots of guys will likely wind up on the minimum) free agents. One agent described a scenario he expects to be common for that second tier—with the market likely to be flooded with players cut, teams would be prone to go to those sorts of free agents and say, “Here’s our offer, you have two hours to think it over. If you don’t take it, all good, we have five other guys on our list at your position.” To me, the idea of that happening seems pretty realistic, given the conditions all these guys are about to face.

• With speculation in league circles present last year that Drew Brees made his decision to return to the Saints as a result of Tom Brady showing interest in New Orleans, it’s at least interesting (and got the attention of some) that the video of Brees working out was released by trainer Todd Durkin right on the heels of Wilson putting the Saints on his list. Coincidence? You be the judge.

• Big-time s/o to Aaron Rodgers for donating $1 million to a total of 80 small business in and near his hometown of Chico, Calif. Efforts like this, and what Barstool is doing through the Barstool Fund, are making an incredible difference as those small businesses are just starting to see what we all hope is a real light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccine distribution underway and rolling in all 50 states.