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Scouts See Watt as Declining Player But One Who Can Put Team ‘Over the Top’

With the Green Bay Packers among the suitors, scouts weigh in on former All-Pro J.J. Watt.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers have an interest in signing former All-Pro J.J. Watt, and the Wisconsin native presumably has an interest in hearing the team’s sales pitch.

Can it happen? And should it?

Financially, signing Watt would present a major fiscal challenge unless he’s willing to play for the ultimate hometown discount. But what if Watt wants to play for something at least close to market value, which one high-ranking team executive pegged to be in the $10 million to $12 million range? Would he be worth the additional financial gymnastics required to not just get beneath the cap but to add Watt to the payroll?

On the surface, the answer might be no.

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By the official league stats, Watt had only five sacks, 17 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles in 16 games last season. For context:

- In eight games in 2019, Watt had four sacks, 21 quarterback hits and one forced fumble.

- In 2018, when he also played 16 games, he had 16 sacks, 25 quarterback hits and a league-high seven forced fumbles.

- When he played all 16 games in 2011 through 2015 as well as 2019, he averaged 15.1 sacks, 39 quarterback hits and 3.7 forced fumbles. That includes two of the dozen 20-sack seasons since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

He would have better players around him in Green Bay, which finished ninth in points in 2019 and ninth in yards in 2020. The Texans were No. 27 in points and No. 30 in yards with Watt last season.

With Watt a free agent after his release last week, scouts around the NFL are diving into the film to see if he’s worth pursuing. Is Watt, who will turn 32 just five days after the start of the league-year on March 17, still a game-changing player?

“Yeah, he’s still got it in him,” a scout said. “He’s still pretty good.”

Some other numbers provide a fuller glimpse into Watt’s ho-hum production in 2020.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Watt commanded a double-team block on 30.1 percent of his snaps, the highest rate in the NFL. So, while the production might not have been there, his play was obvious to those creating the offensive game plans. Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith was second with a double-team rate of 27.2 percent. You can’t double team everyone, especially with Kenny Clark also worthy of attention.

“Jesus (Christmas), who’d be able to block J.J., Clark, Z (Za’Darius Smith), Preston (Smith) and Rashan (Gary)? Nobody,” a separate scout said.

Despite the attention, Watt remains a strong run defender. Watt finished third in the NFL with 26 run stops. A run stop is a Pro Football Focus metric that essentially counts impact tackles, such as a first-and-10 tackle that limits the play to 3 or fewer yards. He had three run stops and two tackles for losses in the Week 7 game against the Packers.

Watt had 16 stuffs, defined as a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run. While that falls short of his 19 in 2018 and his five-year average of 24.8 from 2011 through 2015, it still tied for third in the NFL. His 11 solo stuffs tied for second. For comparison, Green Bay’s team leaders, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, had eight apiece to tie what Watt did by himself.

According to Sports Info Solutions, his average tackle limited the play to 1.4 yards. That’s better than Green Bay’s primary defensive line quartet of Clark (2.6 in 2020; 2.1 for his career), Dean Lowry (2.5 in 2020, 2.3 for his career), Tyler Lancaster (1.8 in 2020; 2.0 for his career) and Kingsley Keke (2.3 in 2020).

“He can still change a game,” another scout said. “The injuries would scare the (crap) out of me but if he’s healthy and hungry, he is capable of putting a team over the top. And we all know he’s going to be hungry. He’s not signing with the Bengals. We know that. He’s going to sign with a team that’s going to win.”

The ultimate question is where Watt will land. The Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers – the team for which brothers T.J. and Derek Watt play – are the betting favorites.

“I would assume you guys would be interested,” the first scout said. “My best bet is that he goes to Tennessee.”