J.J. Watt's signing with the Arizona Cardinals in free agency sent shockwaves around the collective football world, including within the team's facility. While the franchise's players were aware of the legacy Watt brought with him, seeing it firsthand in virtual meetings and at OTAs and minicamp is a jarring experience — in the best possible way.
While some superstars develop certain attributes that may not translate well with teammates, Watt's new peers on the Cardinals have expressed the exact opposite reaction. In fact, they claim you would never know the true amount that the 32-year-old defensive lineman has achieved in his professional career and beyond.
"He's not some superstar guy that's too good to talk to someone or not acknowledge somebody," running back Chase Edmonds said on June 2. "I remember being a young guy and when you see these certain star players, you do get starry-eyed and some of them do. It's good where they come in more relaxed a little bit, kind of cool guy where it's like, 'Oh, he's just like one of the guys.'"
Not everyone in the Cardinals locker room was a stranger to Watt, as wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins spent seven years with him as members of the Houston Texans. As such, he expressed zero worry about how his old friend would assimilate in the team's culture.
"J.J., he's a likable guy," Hopkins said. "He would never have a problem in any locker room in the NFL, going in and being himself . . . I'm just excited to see him embrace this and the way he's embraced it, I think he just asked a lot of guys if they golf because he was going golfing that day. It's little things like that, that he does, to bring people together. And J.J. is obviously a great player, but the things that he does off the field is really what no one sees and that's bringing people together."
Even those who compete opposite Watt in the trenches at practice have experienced his prowess in full effect, as he has not limited his voice strictly to the defensive side of the ball.
"It's straight leadership," left tackle D.J. Humphries said. "I appreciate having guys like J.J. around because it's different from me. Having learned one way, knowing how to lead one way being the person that I am, just being my way, so seeing him come in and do things the way that he does it is impressive to watch. You see why all the accolades are attached to his name. It didn't come by accident or favoritism. He earned all of it."
Those honors have created an impressive resume for Watt, which features five Pro Bowl and first-team All Pro seasons, three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year honoree, 2011 All-Rookie Team honoree, 2014 NFL Bert Bell Award recipient, 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year honor and eight consecutive seasons included on the NFL top 100 with a career-high ranking of No. 1 in 2015.
"Everything that you've seen — and I've seen probably through the media and different outlets throughout his career — what you see is what you get," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "He's locked in all the time. He's a team guy. Incredible work ethic, incredible leadership and it's been a real joy to see him around the building.
"With J.J., it's anywhere he goes in the building, things seem to intensify and that's what you're looking for. Whether he's in the weight room working out, or he's doing a drill with some of those younger d-linemen, he lifts up the group. And so it's been impressive to see how he carries himself, the professionalism, whether he's in meetings or in drills; it's just next level."
Nearly everyone in the Cardinals facility has touted Watt's leadership in his brief time with the franchise. But how does he view himself?
"Trust me, I'm no perfect leader by any means," Watt said. "I don't know if anybody is. You're constantly evolving, you're constantly learning, you're making mistakes yourself and trying to correct them. I've learned throughout the years by things I've done right in a leadership role and I've learned from things that I wish I could do differently in a leadership role. It's all about learning and growing yourself and being able to handle yourself first. And then being able to try and lead and help others.
"It's just a matter of understanding how each guy responds and how you as a leader can get the best out of each guy. And then the most important part, in my opinion, is to be doing everything that you possibly can to help the team from your own standpoint. If I'm not working out, if I'm not putting in the time, if I'm not eating right and doing what I can and knowing my plays, how can I yell at somebody else? It's all about trying to make sure that I'm doing the right things so that then the other guys can see that example and know that when I try and correct them on something, that I'm also living what I'm talking about."
For younger defenders on the Cardinals' roster, Watt's insights have been invaluable. Many feel as if his presence, alone, has already accelerated their development.
At the very least, sharing the grass with one of the NFL's all-time greats has resonated with those on the roster.
"He's everything you see online and on TV," inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. "He's an alpha male, he's a great leader. Came in, he wasn't shy with anybody, took command and that's just something that you got to love from a guy like him. J.J., he's a guy that you'll never have to ever question. You know what you're going to get from him, you're going to get 110% every single day from him. Personally, it's just an honor for me to be able to play with him because growing up, I've always watched J.J. Watt. Everybody knows who J.J. is and how dominant of a player he is and he's also known for his great leadership and it's showed instantly."
Now, it is up to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to allow Watt to play free in a system that he has said he is already comfortable with, having played a similar style in his first three seasons with the Texans.
Since 2016, Watt has played only two full seasons due to injury (2018, 2020) and is looking to string together his second full year for the first time since doing so in 2014 and 2015.
"J.J. is J.J.," Joseph said. "He's obviously a proven NFL guy. He's been (Defensive) Player of the Year a couple times and his work ethic and his story is undeniable. And the players know that. But what he talks about, he does. He's a doer. He's first in line with the drills, he's first in every drill. He has the awareness to help young guys get through hard times. He can put out fires. We have a young d-line and to watch him work with those guys and to drag them through drills and to watch them practice with so much energy and so much life, it's just fun to watch."