GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers' only taste of J.J. Watt will be a game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., next season.
Watt broke the news on Twitter, announcing he was signing with the Cardinals. According to ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter, it’s a two-year deal worth $31 million. Of that, a whopping $23 million is guaranteed. It was a huge payday – and an unexpected one in the eyes of one AFC team in the chase – for a player who spent most of three recent seasons on injured reserve.
Having been given his release by the Houston Texans a couple weeks ago, Watt’s top priorities reportedly were joining a team with a great quarterback and strong supporting personnel. Those factors would give him a chance to win a Super Bowl.
He could have had those things and been a potential hero by being the Wisconsin native who returned home to be the missing piece in getting the Packers to the Super Bowl after back-to-back losses in the NFC Championship Game.
Instead, Watt joined an up-and-coming team with the Cardinals in an absolutely loaded NFC West.
While Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP, the Cardinals have an ascending player at quarterback in Kyler Murray.
In Houston, Watt was the most-doubled edge defender in NFL, according to ESPN.com. In Green Bay, Watt would have joined Za’Darius Smith, the second-most-doubled defender in the NFL. With Arizona, Watt will be paired with Chandler Jones, who had a whopping 72.5 sacks in the five seasons from 2015 through 2019 before missing most of last season with an injury.
The Cardinals, however, had what the Packers lacked: money.
Green Bay is $11.5 million over a projected salary cap of $180.5 million. Arizona is $11.2 million below the cap.
While the Packers could have made it work financially, it was too big of a risk for a player who played a total of 16 games in 2016, 2017 and 2019, had five sacks in 16 games in 2020, and will turn 32 on March 22. Of the last five years, Watt had only one good season – though that was an epic campaign of 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2018. If Watt can deliver that kind of production, the $15.5 million average will be a steal.
Multiple sources said money would be a big factor for Watt after bypassing a $17.5 million payday with the Texans. Ultimately, Watt got close to that much money by joining Arizona, which went from 3-13 in 2018 to 5-11 in Murray's rookie season of 2019 to 8-8 in 2020.
The finances not withstanding, the interest between Watt and the Packers was real for obvious reasons. Watt is a native of Pewaukee, Wis., and rose to stardom at the University of Wisconsin.
Watt’s affinity for the state and the team was obvious with his return to Green Bay for the joint practices between the Packers and Texans in 2019. Watt was admittedly “emotional,” he said at the time, when looking ahead to the training camp tradition of riding a bike to practice.
“I'm very excited about that,” Watt said. “As a kid, 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 — not figuratively — literally live a dream that I had as a kid … I don’t have a ton of emotional moments in my career, (but) that’s going to be an emotional one. That’s going to be really cool.”