Potential Landing Spots for J.J. Watt in 2021 NFL Offseason
Sources previously told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo that Watt "deserves clarity on his situation" as the standout defensive lineman entered the final year of his current contract. James Palmer added, "The belief with teammates and coaches I've spoken to is that Watt has played his last game as a Texan."
All proved to be true.
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora noted: "He knows he only has so many games left, and he is ready to go and try to win."
Potential landing spots will be based on two factors.
First, Watt will want to play for a winning franchise. Second, the soon-to-be 32-year-old won't come cheaply, even if he no longer holds a $17.5 million salary-cap charge in 2021. A contracting salary cap due to revenue lost this season will limit potential suitors.
For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a winning organization with a need along the defensive line. Plus, Watt playing alongside his two brothers would turn into one of the league's best offseason stories. However, the Steelers aren't in a financial position to make that type of move work. Not yet, at least.
The latter point is important considering the financial restrictions that accompany many winning franchises. Even if the salary cap doesn't decrease all the way to the agreed-upon $175 million, it won't leave much wiggle room. As of now, 11 organizations are in the red even at a projected $185, according to Spotrac.
Obviously, moves can be made. But will they be enough to add Watt? Probably not.
Options may be limited with four squads—all among the top 12 in projected salary-cap space next season—as strong possibilities. But the Texans allowed the franchise's greatest player to leave, thus allowing him to continue his Hall of Fame career elsewhere.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All it took was one season with Tom Brady at the helm to change expectations within the organization.
"The belief he gave to this organization that it could be done. It only took one man," Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told reporters after Tampa Bay's 31-26 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Clearly, Watt has great admiration for the Buccaneers' 43-year-old signal-caller.
"Tom's unbelievable," the defensive lineman said during an appearance on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (h/t Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Christopher Kuhagen). "He's the greatest of all time."
But this potential pairing isn't simply about two all-time greats possibly playing alongside one another. The Buccaneers will need defensive line help once the current campaign is complete.
Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are free agents after this season. Watt has the flexibility to play multiple positions in the front to replace anyone who might depart.
Obviously, the Buccaneers aren't afraid to add aging veteran pieces when they can contribute at a relatively high level in the short term. Besides, Tampa Bay is surprisingly well-positioned for the next two offseasons with the 10th- and fifth-most salary-cap space, though the team does have other free agents to address in Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski.
New England Patriots
The once-pristine exterior of the New England Patriots organization has been tarnished a bit after a 7-9 campaign and the organization's first missed playoff appearance since 2008. Bill Belichick even admitted the roster eroded after years of chasing championships, and the franchise didn't have the financial flexibility to make anything of substance happen.
"I mean, it's obvious we didn't have any money. It's nobody's fault," the head coach said during a SirusXM NFL Radio interview (h/t Boston Sports Journal's Greg A. Bedard). "That's what we did the last five years: We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth and played in an AFC Championship Game. This year, we had less to work with. It's not an excuse. It's just a fact."
A slight downturn shouldn't be viewed as a dismantling of the previous Patriots dynasty because New England is now positioned well to make some moves and return to competitive football.
The Patriots own the league's fourth-most available salary-cap space, per Spotrac. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, running back Brandon Bolden, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, wide receiver Marqise Lee, fullback Danny Vitale, tight end Matt LaCosse and offensive lineman Najee Toran are expected back after opting out of the 2020 season.
Quarterback remains an issue, but the Patriots can add a player of J.J. Watt's caliber and grind toward victory. Belichick has repeatedly praised Watt over the years.
"Everything with him is kind of at the top of the chart—powerful, strong, very instinctive. He's a smart player, he's got great quickness for his size (and) a lot of people miss him trying to block him," he once said, per the Houston Chronicle's John McClain.
Watt may not be quite as good as he once was. But he's still a quality performer, and Belichick tends to get the most out of veterans.
The Cleveland Browns reset expectations in 2020 with an 11-5 campaign and an appearance in the divisional playoff round, during which they were within striking distance of a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
With a talented roster, as well as the league's youngest general manager in Andrew Berry and the likely NFL Coach of the Year in Kevin Stefanski, the Browns are trending upward, which now makes them a desirable destination.
Typically, the addition of an aging veteran like Watt may not be preferred for a squad built around young up-and-comers who are primarily on their rookie deals. However, the Browns searched far and wide for defensive end help last season before settling on Olivier Vernon at $11 million.
To his credit, Vernon played well. But he ended the season on injured reserve due to a torn Achilles tendon in Week 17. He may not even be an option for the start of the '21 campaign.
Cleveland could build an imposing defensive front with Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Andrew Billings and Watt. More importantly, that lineup could draw some attention away from Garrett, who was in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation before he contracted COVID-19.
Plus, Watt would get the added bonus of playing his brothers twice per year in the AFC North.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers may have been 7-9 last season before firing head coach Anthony Lynn, but two factors play in their favor regarding a potential J.J. Watt trade.
Justin Herbert's emergence as the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year certainly helps the organization sell itself to interested parties. He broke the league's rookie record with 31 touchdown passes and fell just 38 yards short of Andrew Luck's first-year passing yardage mark.
The numbers are great. But the fact Herbert is now in place settles the entire organization and gives it a quarterback worth building around.
Second, the announcement of Brandon Staley as the new head coach would certainly make Watt comfortable.
While Staley didn't work directly under previous Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, he took the previous setup and improved upon the scheme. The Rams finished first in scoring, passing and total defense this past season. Watt spent his first three seasons playing under Phillips, so some system overlap should exist.
Melvin Ingram III can also test free agency after nine seasons with the Chargers. His potential departure leaves a void opposite Joey Bosa.
The Kansas City Chiefs aren't going anywhere anytime soon atop of the AFC West, but the rest of the division is wide open, allowing another team to emerge as a playoff contender. Watt could help build a talented defensive front and provide the Chargers with an identity during Herbert's continued development.