What team wouldn’t want J.J. Watt?
Presumably, 31 NFL franchises took at least a moment Friday morning to consider what it would take and what it would mean for them to add the two-time sack champion to their defense when the Houston Texans announced that they had granted his request for a release.
Yes, Watt is a little more than a month away from his 32nd birthday. Yes, he is two years removed from his last All-Pro season. And yes, he has missed 32 games over the past five seasons.
Still, a player of his caliber and accomplishments would add immediate credibility and star power wherever he goes. Even though he is on the back end of what certainly is a Hall of Fame career there remains plenty of reasons for teams to want him.
Here’s the thing, though. The fact that Houston made this move now means Watt immediately becomes a free agent and gets a jump—by more than a month—on the start of the 2021 free agency signing period, which begins March 17. That means he has the luxury to look around, see what is out there for him and where he thinks will be the best fit.
Only Watt knows for sure what he wants most out of his next—and likely last—NFL stop. Here is a look at some things that are likely on his wish list, in no particular order, and which teams are best equipped to provide them.
HOME SWEET HOME
It is common for aging superstars in all pro sports to want to live out a childhood fantasy and play for the team they rooted for as a child. Watt has spent his entire pro career in Houston, which is more than 1,100 miles from his hometown of Pewaukee, Wisc. and from Madison, Wisc., where he played college football.
It would make perfect sense if he wanted to move back north and get back in touch with his roots.
Best fit: Green Bay. He grew up a Packers fan, and Green Bay is about 130 miles from home. If this is what he wants, it’s no contest.
The Watt family is uncommon in that it has produced three brothers who all play in the NFL at the same time. His brothers Derek, a fullback, and T.J., an outside linebacker, are members of the Pittsburgh Steelers and each is under contract for at least another year.
We’ve all seen the family star in Subway commercials and no NFL family this side of the Mannings has been as entertaining in 30-second segments. Imagine the fun the brothers would have if they played together, particularly J.J. and T.J. on the same defense.
Best fit: Pittsburgh. Just like the previous category, if this is what is most important to him, it will be no contest.
A player who has had as much success as Watt probably won’t be interested in learning a new role or a new position as part of a new defense. He will want to stick with—as much as possible, at least—what has worked for him over a 10-year career that includes five All-Pro honors, five Pro Bowl appearances and three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Best fit: Tennessee. We have seen numerous players and coaches follow coach Mike Vrabel out of Houston in recent years, and the current staff includes a defensive coordinator and a secondary coach, among others, who were Texans coaches during Watt’s time there. The scheme also includes many elements that Vrabel brought with him from Houston.
Watt is one of 35 players to record at least 100 sacks since 1982, when they became an official NFL statistic. He has 101, which means he is not going to break Bruce Smith’s record of 200. Depending on how much longer he plays, though, it is not far-fetched to think he could add another 20 or 30 before he is finished, which would get him into the top 15 all-time. That would put him in the company of such legends as Lawrence Taylor (132.5), Derrick Thomas (126.5) and Dwight Freeney (125.5).
Best fit: Tampa Bay. A second season with Tom Brady at quarterback means the offense is only going to be better and score more points, which will create plenty of pass rush opportunities. Plus, with all the talent on that defense, Watt won’t face the steady stream of double teams he has the last few years with the Texans.
POST FOOTBALL LIFE
Watt has done more than just star in Subway commercials. He is one of the handful of professional athletes who has hosted "Saturday Night Live." He also has appeared in television shows "New Girl" and "The League" as well as a feature film, "Bad Moms." His natural charisma, charm and humor shine through on the screen in a way that makes acting a legitimate possibility for a second career.
Best fit: Los Angeles Rams. He could make countless Hollywood connections as a member of the Rams, which would allow him to position himself as a west coast version of Michael Strahan. It doesn’t hurt that the Rams are a good team with a stout defense.
Watt has been paid handsomely for his services over the last decade, $118,206,498 to be exact, according to OverTheCap.com. The last contract he signed with Houston included a $10 million signing bonus with nearly $21 million guaranteed. There is no indication that he has squandered or been swindled out of a hefty percentage of those funds. So, there is no reason to think this will be a primary consideration, but pro athletes have pride and feel as if they should be paid a representative amount for their abilities.
Best fit: Jacksonville and Indianapolis currently have more salary cap space than any other teams, and both would offer the opportunity to play against Houston twice a season. New England also has plenty of money to spend and long has been a refuge for superstar players late in their careers.
Despite all of his individual success, Watt has never come close to hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He has been a part of six playoff teams with the Texans, but none got past the divisional round. Two of those teams were one-and-done in the postseason. It is reasonable to think that this will be one of—if not the—primary consideration.
Best fit: This is a tough one because it is so difficult to predict what will happen from one NFL season to the next, but this could be the one that seals the deal.
Green Bay has been to the last two AFC Championship games and offers the possibility that he could do for that franchise what Reggie White did nearly 30 years ago. Pittsburgh never seems far from championship contention. Tampa Bay is less than a week removed from a Super Bowl victory.