Houston Texans Finally Make a Smart Move by Granting J.J. Watt His Release

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 12, 2021

FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2020, file photo, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt walks on the field before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Houston.  Watt and the Texans have “mutually agreed to part ways,” ending the tenure of the face of the franchise and adding another huge change to an offseason filled with upheaval. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith, File)
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Texans may be the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise right now, but the organization's decision to grant J.J. Watt's release Friday is not yet another indictment of the team's perceived ineptitude. 

In this particular instance, the organization did right by the individual and, more importantly, the team. 

The move itself has absolutely nothing to do with the front office's current imbroglio with quarterback Deshaun Watson. The situations are not one and the same. 

Watt's departure this year had long been foretold. 

The odds of Watt actually being a member of the 2021 Texans squad were slim to none from the start of the offseason. The soon-to-be 32-year-old defensive lineman held a $17.5 million salary-cap charge on the last year of his previous contract, though it didn't include any guarantees. 

"At the end of the day, [owner] Cal [McNair] respects J.J. too much to hold him back," a source told CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora in November. "I think everyone in their hearts already knows he is going to be moving on. He's done everything they could have ever asked for, and this chapter is closing."

Texans owners Cal and Janice McNair
Texans owners Cal and Janice McNairDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

The five-time Pro Bowl selection did everything he possibly could both on and off the field to help Houston. His body let him down in a few instances, but he remains a viable option for another franchise in win-now mode, which the Texans certainly aren't. 

"Bill O'Brien made too many mistakes for the next guy to be able to fix them all," an NFL executive told La Canfora after studying the Texans' situation ahead of a potential interview for the general manager job. "That's not happening. That process will take years, and the first step is getting what you can for older players who are making real money."

Watt's release isn't simply about appeasing a future Ring of Honor inductee. The money Houston saves in the short term has a tangible impact on what the Texans can do this offseason and beyond. Without Watt on the books, the Texans are approximately $10 million under the projected salary cap, according to Spotrac.

More movement is expected in the coming months. New general manager Nick Caserio could look to trade players like wide receiver Brandin Cooks and linebackers Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham and Whitney Mercilus to create even more financial flexibility.

While those are still possibilities (with a few others thrown into the mix), Watt's departure was always the logical starting point because of his age and previous salary-cap number. Maybe the Texans could have gotten something in return during last year's trade deadline, but potential suitors aren't forthcoming with assets to acquire an aging veteran who will likely be released in the future. 

Don't misinterpret the previous statement as Watt not drawing interest. The defensive lineman will be sought after now that he's on the open market. 

As USA Today's Doug Farrar noted, Watt managed to rack up more than 20 percent of the Texans' total pressures last season despite his performance being considered a "down year" with five sacks in 16 games. Pro Football Focus graded him as a top-10 performer at his position in eight of the last nine seasons. 


Every season J.J. Watt has qualified, he has finished as a top-10 player at his position: 🔹 2011 - 75.1 (8th) 🔹 2012 - 92.3 (2nd) 🔹 2013 - 93.2 (1st) 🔹 2014 - 92.7 (1st) 🔹 2015 - 91.6 (2nd) 🔹 2018 - 90.5 (3rd) 🔹 2019 - 87.0 (9th) 🔹 2020 - 85.5 (7th) https://t.co/1OIbLqsqtR

At this point, it's not a question of Watt's ability. The Texans knew what they were getting into and how it would affect the franchise. 

"We evaluated our options and were confident this was the right one for J.J. and the Texans. ... We started talking about this right after the season and we wanted to make sure we did right by him," McNair told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

The departure creates a leadership void within the organization. Everyone in the Texans locker room, including Watson, knows exactly what Watt meant to the team and what he'll add to another squad. 

Deshaun Watson @deshaunwatson

Salute to one of the Greatest of All Time @JJWatt I appreciate you for all the work you put in and more importantly the person you are. Any team in the league will be better the day you out on their jersey! 1OVE my brother! MORE Glory 🙏🏾

The franchise—which is now led by Caserio, executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby and head coach David Culley—is in drastic need of a reset. Watt's release jump-started the financial portion of the process. Somehow, the organization must find way to replenish their draft assets since it doesn't have a first- or second-round selection this year due to the Laremy Tunsil deal. 

Some will immediately leap to the conclusion the latter can be achieved by trading Watson. As McNair rightly stated, the team's decision to release Watt is a "separate issue" from the quarterback's current trade demands

Watt's release created much-needed salary-cap space as he enters the downside of his career, whereas Watson is a true franchise quarterback, and the organization can't possibly get an adequate return for his services in a potential trade. At 25 years old, Watson is the most valuable individual in all of professional sports: an elite quarterback in his prime capable of elevating those around him and carrying an offense. He and Watt are nothing alike at this point in their careers. 

"There is a lot of misinformation out there, I'll leave it at that," McNair told reporters. "Today we want to focus on J.J. Deshaun is our quarterback, he is a Texan, and we expect him to remain a Texan, and we'll leave [it at] that."

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Texans should be doing everything in their power to mend fences with Watson while simultaneously cutting ties with the franchise's greatest player. Both avenues are smart business. 

The breach between Houston properly building around Watson and being competitive in the short term is quite wide, though. The Texans couldn't have realistically retained Watt while trying to make the situation better. Yes, he remains an excellent player. At the same time, his presence served as a hindrance to future growth.

As the front office and staff reshape the roster, they're doing so in hopes of unburying themselves from the mess O'Brien left behind to build a situation where Watson can be happy staying with the organization despite recent complaints. 

Houston simply isn't built to win as the roster is currently constructed. Its erosion started some time ago, and those now taking up the mantle are forced to make difficult decisions, with Watt's departure chief among them. 

Much can be attributed to those now in power and how they rose to prominence. At the same time, not everything the team does is a mistake or representative of other issues found within the franchise. The Texans did the right thing by allowing Watt to leave. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.