Buyer Beware: The Saints Were Wise to Avoid the J.J. Watt Sweepstakes

After learning a harsh lesson less than a decade ago, New Orleans is smart not to pursue aging superstar J.J. Watt.
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When the Houston Texans released defensive end J. J. Watt earlier this month, several NFL teams immediately started clamoring for his services. The latest reports have up to 4 teams as suitors for Watt - projecting a contract worth approximately $16 million per year.

Throughout his ten-year career, all with Houston, Watt has been All-Pro five times and has 101 sacks, 172 tackles for loss, 25 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, and has scored 3 defensive touchdowns.

Sep 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (99) is blocked by Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

Sep 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (99) is blocked by Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

While J. J. Watt seems like an intriguing addition to any team on the surface, the New Orleans Saints were wise to steer clear of the bidding war for him. The Saints have well-documented salary cap issues at the moment.

New Orleans will navigate these problems, as they always do, but will have to restructure several contracts and may have to release some of their existing talent. The Saints have also learned the hard way that making a ‘‘big splash’’ in free agency by signing a big-name talent is not necessarily the wisest path to a championship.

Midway through last decade, many felt that the Saints were just a player or two away from another Super Bowl berth. New Orleans responded by signing players like S Jairus Byrd, LB Dannell Ellerbe, CB Brandon Browner, DE Paul Kruger, and LB James Laurinaitis hoping to elevate their defense to the same level as their record-setting offense. All were former Pro Bowlers who were once considered to be among the league's better players at their positions with their previous teams. As a result, all four players needed huge contracts to secure their services.

Former New Orleans safety Jairus Byrd. CREDIT: nola.com

Former New Orleans safety Jairus Byrd. CREDIT: nola.com

All five of the above signings were unmitigated disasters. They were injury-prone and well past their prime when they got to New Orleans. When they were on the field they vastly underperformed, especially in relation to their giant salaries that handcuffed the franchise. Byrd, Browner, Kruger, Laurinaitis, and Ellerbe were all part of a defensive unit that was among the worst in NFL history between 2014 and 2016.

Watt has played a full season just twice in the last five years. Prior to last season he had missed 32 of his team's previous 64 games during a four-year stretch, mostly because of a back injury. Watt played in all 16 contests last season and led the Texans with 29 QB pressures and 14 tackles for loss but had just 5 sacks. That was his lowest total in the six seasons that he played in double-digit games.

Sep 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71) blocks Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Sep 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71) blocks Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

J. J. Watt is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, the best player in Houston Texans history, and poses a convincing argument as the best defensive player of this generation. He turns just 32 years-old next month, but the injuries have slowed him and he is in a steep decline from a once terrific career.  

Watt may prove he has some quality football left, but he is no longer the elite player that dictates a lucrative contract. After learning their lesson the hard way, the New Orleans Saints have rebuilt their roster into a championship caliber team by avoiding precisely this type of potentially disastrous signing.