My Take: Let's Tap the Breaks on 'Contender' Talk for Cardinals

J.J. Watt should make the Arizona Cardinals better, but it’s a tad early to engage in contender talk.
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While the shock and excitement has been palpable in the desert since defensive end J.J. Watt signed with the Cardinals Monday, it’s also time to take a bit of a deep breath and tap the breaks on the championship talk.

Yes, the NFL has shown on a yearly basis that teams can emerge from the darkness one year and make significant strides the next season. And yes, the Cardinals were 5-2 and 6-3 last season before losing five of their last seven games.

But they still reside in arguably the best division in the league, and it’s not as if anyone said after the season ended, “Man, this team is one player away from contending for a title.”

With 12 days until the start of the league year, the Cardinals have a boatload of scheduled unrestricted free agents (27, but who’s counting) and that includes wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back Kenyan Drake, tackle Kelvin Beachum, nose tackle Corey Peters, linebackers Haason Reddick and Markus Golden, and cornerback Patrick Peterson.

That cornerback spot needs help even if the Cardinals find a way to bring Peterson back in a year where the salary cap is dropping about $18 million. A lot of creativity will be necessary without much cap space while trying not to push too many cap dollars into future seasons.

Wednesday, general manager Steve Keim was asked if the presence of Watt makes the Cardinals a contender. Keim tried to be realistic, although we know simply being in the playoffs makes a team a contender. 

Keim said, “I don’t know if I would use the word contender. It’s hard for me to say that. What it does do is: the goal in mind was to improve our football team, and that’s what I said on the radio several weeks ago, which was, ‘Any chance we have to improve this football team, we’ll take a look at it, whether it works business-wise, football-wise,’ and it did in both areas for us in this instance. I really feel like he’s going to come in and be able play alongside (linebacker) Chandler Jones and create the type of pressure that those two can create was obviously very exciting for us.

“When you look at the Super Bowl or the playoffs, as talented as these quarterbacks have gotten across the league, the ability to create pressure and get quarterbacks off of their spot has become so critical. To have a guy like this, and again to bring in this infectious personality that can not only help young players develop but hold people accountable, which is really, really important to me.”

Meanwhile, Albert Breer’s mailbag featured on si.com this week, opened with this question: “You’re probably going to get a lot of J.J. Watt questions, but here I go anyway: Why Arizona? Are they really Super Bowl contenders?”

Breer wrote, “Let’s start with this perspective: On March 3, 2020, no one saw the Buccaneers as Super Bowl contenders. Maybe, coming off a 7–9 season with a lot of brand-name players on the roster, you thought the Bucs could sneak into the playoffs. But no one was planning the parade route, boat or otherwise, the same way no one could fathom what was coming in our country in general over the year to follow.

“The Cardinals were better in 2020 than the Bucs were in 2019. They have a promising young quarterback in Kyler Murray. They improved by two and a half games in Kliff Kingsbury’s first year, and another two and a half games in his second year, in arguably the toughest division in football.

“So, no, this isn’t signing with a team like Pittsburgh or Green Bay, that’s always in the chase. But I do think the idea that this is a championship dead end for Watt is a little off.

“Then, there’s the other part of his decision: I do think he wants to prove he can still be one of the best defensive players in football. He’s played fewer than half the games in three of his last five seasons, and really only one of those years (2018) was up to the standard that he upheld the first five years of his career. And if you’re him, and you’re looking to get back to where you were, going to a coach (Vance Joseph) and system (the Wade Phillips scheme) that you had great success with makes all the sense in the world.

“For those reasons, it really doesn’t surprise me much that Joseph was able to appeal to Watt as the Cardinals’ lead recruiter. (And it probably doesn’t hurt that he could offer the chance to play with Chandler Jones opposite him either.)”

Of course, it’s important to point out that Watt won’t technically be “alongside” or “opposite” Jones. There could be times where Jones is opposite Watt when he lines up on the line, but essentially Watt is a defensive end who can play multiple spots on the line, while Jones is an outside linebacker in Joseph’s 3-4 defense.

Still, it’s fair to believe Joseph is already in his lab devising numerous ways to use the talent on hand, especially after a season in which the line was compromised by injuries and there were many instances where the defense had as many as six linebackers on the field.

So, yes, the arrival of Watt is the first move toward improving the roster. But there remains much more to be done in the weeks and months ahead.

Read the entire Albert Breer mailbag: https://www.si.com/nfl/2021/03/03/mmqb-mailbag-jj-watt-arizona-cardinals-super-bowl-contenders