J.J. Watt's Cardinals Contract Not Worth Reported $31 Million in Base Value

Not surprisingly, the contract J.J. Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals does not have a base value of $31 million.
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The devil is in the details and that’s usually the case at this time of year in the NFL when there is a rush to be the first to report how much player contracts are supposedly worth.

The numbers normally reported at first are basic and feature years, total payout and guaranteed money because that’s all agents tell national reporters, who then don’t ask the important questions because the almighty Twitter machine awaits.

Questions like:

  • Are incentives included in the total value?
  • How much is fully guaranteed at signing?
  • Are some of the guarantees for injury only?
  • What is the cap charge for this year?

The telltale words when incentives are included (they shouldn’t be) is when the contract is said to be worth “up to” a specified total.

Those words weren’t used Monday in the haste to report the terms for defensive end J.J. Watt’s contract with the Cardinals, which allegedly was $31 million over two years with $23 million guaranteed.

It turns out those words should have been specified because $3 million of the total is payable only if Watt reaches 10 or more sacks in both 2021 and 2022. Watt hasn’t done that in two straight seasons since 2014-2015 and last season he had just five with the Texans while playing 91 percent of the snaps across all 16 games.

That makes Watt’s contract actually worth $28 million. Still unknown is how much is fully guaranteed, but we do know now that he received a $12 million signing bonus and will be paid $14.5 million this year. It’s likely that money is guaranteed and the remaining $13.5 million includes $8.5 million supposedly guaranteed, but could be contingent on him being on the roster after the start of the league year.

For salary-cap purposes, where the total available is down no more than $18 million from last year, Watt’s signing bonus is prorated over two years, so his expected cap hit for 2021 will be $8.5 million.

That’s why Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told local media on Wednesday the Watt signing won’t have a negative impact on other business the team will be dealing with in the coming days and weeks as they hope to bring back a number of their own free agents.

“I don’t feel like we’re drastically limited,” he said. “We have some flexibility moving forward and that’s why we structured the contract the way we did and in the way that we’ve done a number of other things financially.”

The one word Keim said that’s truly critical is “structure.”

Reported contract details are meaningless without knowing the structure of the deal.