The JJ Watt-ch has officially come to an end, the highly sought-after defensive lineman and former MVP has decided to take his services to the sunshine of the southwest to play for the Arizona Cardinals. On Monday Watt accepted a 2-year deal worth $31 million dollars, with a staggering $21M guaranteed. The decision surprised many, after many reports listed Green Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo as his top three choices, while Arizona was rarely mentioned as a legitimate contender. From the beginning Watt made it clear it wasn’t going to be all about the money, he had certain criteria his new suitor had to meet. Watt wanted to find the best playing situation for him, he wanted to be part of a serious contender with a legitimate QB at the helm, all requests that seemed to scream Come to Buffalo. The Bills are a perfect positional fit for Watt, he could have been paired with fellow veteran pass rusher Jerry Hughes, he could have been placed between a block eater like Lotulelei or a match up issue like Oliver and been given the freedom to flex between tackle and end and expose matchups that suited him. If it was a contender he wanted, a team that could provide him with a realistic opportunity to go to a Superbowl, then Buffalo was a perfect destination. The Bills have made the playoffs in back-to-back years and are fresh off theiteir best season in a generation, winning the AFC East, finishing 13-3 before advancing to the AFC Championship game where they fell 2 quarters short from booking a trip to the Superbowl. When it comes to playing with a legitimate QB, Buffalo certainly checks that box, they are arguably in a better position than 95% of NFL teams. Josh Allen has become one of the top three or four QBs in the league and is only going to get better. When it comes to financial compensation, Buffalo appeared to have checked that box as well, though we do not know the exact offer Beane put on the table it is reported to be one of the more competitive deals that Arizona eventually topped. At a glance Buffalo seemed to be a perfect landing spot for Watt, having thoroughly met all of his signing requirements, so why did he leave us at the altar?
Watt finds himself in Arizona on a defense that is set to enter a rebuild as its franchise cornerback Patrick Peterson and other key players such as Dre Kirkpatrick, Hassan Reddick, Markus Golden, De’vondre Campbell, Chris Banjo and Corey Peters are all free agents. These possible departures will undoubtedly leave major holes throughout this unit that finished 12th overall in 2020. While there is still some talent remaining, the number of players the Cardinals have to replace on the defensive side of the ball is concerning, considering they are likely going to have to make additional cuts to this roster as they are hard pressed against the cap (DE Chandler Jones $20M/ DT Jordan Phillips $10M/ S Buddah Baker $7.7M). Even with the addition of Watt in 2021 it seems this defense is poised to take a step back as they replenish talent and plug-in new faces on all three levels, making Watt’s choice to sign with Arizona somewhat perplexing.
Watt also made it clear that he wanted to play for a serious contender, Arizona finished 3rd in the NFC West in 2020 failing to reach the play-offs for the 6th straight year, and though 2nd year head coach Kliff Kingsbury seems to have them on the right track the question about his ability to win in this league is still very much a concern. As I stated earlier the defense is set to undergo some major personnel changes this offseason, while the offense is in better shape it will also have a few vital departures, do it all RB Kenyan Drake is a Free Agent who may very well price himself out of Arizona and though I am certain he will be resigned future Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald’s contract is up and starting guard J.R. Sweezy is also a free agent. It is safe to assume there will be some major renovations happening with this roster and with the Watt signing Arizona who has roughly $11M in space will be in danger of crossing over the cap. Their ability to spend going forward will prevent them from making any vast upgrades through free agency and unless GM Steve Keim can cash in heavily in the draft they will be forced to bring in lesser quality players, putting them even further away from playoff contention than they were last season.
JJ Watt also stated that playing for a premier QB was a priority, Kyler Murray the former number one overall pick has been exciting in his first two NFL seasons and has shown the promise of becoming a top quarterback but he has not played with the kind of consistency and command required of a championship QB. That is not to say Murray will not develop into one of the league’s best in the next year or two, he still has one of the most productive WR’s in the NFL to throw to in Deandre Hopkins. However, up until now much of Murray’s success as a passer has come on the dynamic ability of his legs and as history has shown with run first QB’s, defensive coaches will eventually find a scheme to negate their running ability. Quarterbacks who thrive on the element of running to exploit coverage weaknesses in the defense do not usually hold up well when forced to be a predominant pocket passer. (Robert Griffin, Marcus Mariota, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson) So the future success of Murray is certainly not a forgone conclusion, making Watts choice to sign with Arizona a bit unsettling.
Is it no coincidence that JJ Watt the player who claimed to prioritize winning a ring, passed on teams who were better suited to deliver one to him and chose to sign with the team that reportedly offered him more money?