GREEN BAY, Wis. – As a kid, J.J. Watt attended Green Bay Packers training camp practices and got autographs from some of the players.
Could Watt be one of those players signing the autographs at Packers training camp this summer?
Watt, a native of Pewaukee, Wis., and former University of Wisconsin star, asked for and was given his release from the Houston Texans, a Friday morning NFL bombshell.
“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity, and I’ve been working extremely hard. But, at the same time, it is always tough to move on,” Watt said in a video posted on Twitter.
Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the all-2010s team. In 10 NFL seasons, he has 101 sacks. He ranks fifth in NFL history with 0.79 sacks per game.
“Jesus (Christmas), who’d be able to block J.J., (Kenny) Clark, Z (Za’Darius Smith), Preston (Smith) and Rashan (Gary)? Nobody,” a source said.
The downside is Watt will turn 32 on March 22 and isn’t the same player who led the NFL with 20.5 sacks in 2012 and 17.5 sacks in 2015, and added 16 sacks and a league-high seven forced fumbles in 2018. Watt missed a combined 32 games in 2016, 2017 and 2019. In 2020, he started all 16 games but had just five sacks.
According to Pro Football Focus, he had 45 total pressures in 2020 compared to 61 in eight games in 2019. Of the 58 edge defenders to rush the passer on 50 percent of their teams’ pass-rushing snaps, he ranked 50th in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. He had just one pressure in 31 pass-rushing snaps against Green Bay in Week 7. However, he was double-teamed more than any other defender in the league last year, according to ESPN.
“I see a big, explosive, disruptive player that if given the opportunity will wreck the game,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said before that game. “You saw he had a sack-fumble last week versus the Titans. He had about three or four plays where he was in the backfield on some run plays for TFLs. So, there’s a reason he’s won the defensive MVP before, because he’s a damn good player. He’s one of the premier players in this league.”
Moreover, the Packers’ salary-cap problems have been well documented. The Packers are $28.2 million over a projected cap of $180.5 million, according to OverTheCap.com. While the cap might very well be greater, whatever the number, the Packers have the fifth-worst cap situation in the NFL. So, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and cap guru Russ Ball have a lot of work to do just to get below the cap for the start of the league-year on March 17, let alone carving out space for the five-time All-Pro or wrestling with internal free agents such as running back Aaron Jones and center Corey Linsley.
Still, the allure of coming home and joining a championship contender might be strong.
“I don’t have a ton of emotional moments in my career, (but) that’s going to be an emotional one,” Watt, speaking before the 2019 joint practices against the Packers, said of riding a bike to the practice field.
A few days later, he rode the bike of a 5-year-old and broke the seat. So, he flung the bike over his broad shoulders and walked with the boy to practice.
“OK, it’s not big-man approved,” he joked.
“It was pretty awesome until I broke the bike," Watt said after the practice. “The bike I was using wasn't equipped for a 290-pound man and the seat broke off. We have purchased a new bike for the boy. I apologize for that. It's one of the coolest traditions.”
In 2017, Watt won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. When devastation hit his city of Houston in late August, Watt set out to raise $200,000. He ended up raising more than $37 million in Hurricane Harvey relief.
“During a time like that, you learn so much about how the world is bigger than just the bubble you live in,” Watt says. “We always see these events on TV—a storm in Puerto Rico or Hurricane Katrina—and you feel terrible. You want to help. But there’s an entirely new level of heightened awareness when it’s your city, when you actually see the houses. It’s real. That will change you forever. That’s what we experienced. It’s an angle I didn’t even really contemplate fully until now.”
Watt’s path to fame began in Wisconsin. A lightly recruited prospect at Pewaukee High School, he started his collegiate career playing tight end at Central Michigan. A year later, he transferred home to Wisconsin as a walk-on and became an All-American defensive end.
In his farewell to the Texans, Watt said, “I came here 10 years ago as a kid from Wisconsin who had never really been to Texas before. Now, I can’t imagine my life without Texas in it.”
It’s probably easy for Watt to imagine his life in Green Bay. Watt could be the missing piece to turn a good defense into a great one, the piece needed to get the Packers past the NFC Championship Game and into the Super Bowl. Watt, meanwhile, has reached the playoffs five times in his career but never played in a conference championship game, let alone a Super Bowl.
“I'm very excited about that,” Watt said of the joint practices. “As a kid, I grew up, and I went to Green Bay Packers training camp, and I watched the kids ride the bikes. I stood outside in the parking lot asking for autographs, and I watched them throw balls and play and practice football for a living. I looked through that fence, and I thought that was the coolest job in the whole world.
“So for me to be able to go up there and for them to let us ride the bikes, literally live a dream that I had as a kid ... that’s going to be really cool.”