By now it’s safe to assume that 31 NFL teams have probably made their pitch to former Houston Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was released on Friday by the Texans and will likely be looking to play for a contender for his final years in the NFL.
One of the teams that has a realistic shot at signing Watt is the Buffalo Bills, who are reportedly interested in bringing him on board for the 2021 season.
The question is, what does Watt have left in the tank after 10 NFL seasons and several serious injuries? After all, there is a reason that the Texans are parting ways with the face of their franchise. Let’s look at some examples of what the Bills would be getting in Watt, and how he could possibly help transform their pass rushing unit next season.
Has J.J. Watt lost a step?
Believe it or not, this is actually a harder question to answer than you might think, given how bad the Texans have been around him over the last three seasons. In general though, the answer is yes. Watt is still a very good player, but he is not the same athlete that he was when he was commanding double and triple teams half a decade ago.
The real drop-off in Watt’s game is that he doesn’t generate the same number of quick, dominant wins that he did in the past. He no longer has the same explosion and contact balance to split double teams on the interior and get immediate penetration over guards and centers.
As an edge rusher, he wins his fair share of reps, but he can be blocked one-on-one at times by quality tackles. Watt has spent the second half of his career as a 288 pound edge rusher after starting out his career as a base 3-4 end and interior rusher. It’s not reasonable to expect that he’d maintain that level of athleticism into his mid-30’s, even without his history of injuries.
The difference between Watt and normal humans is that while he’s lost a step, he’s still an incredibly talented football player. He’s also an expert technician who wins with his hands as much as he does with his physical abilities.
And just because he doesn’t win every rep, doesn’t mean he isn’t still capable of beating guards and centers who fall asleep at the wheel.
If there’s been one calling-card for the former 11th overall pick throughout his career, it’s been Watt’s ability to line up at any position along the defensive line. He’s the quintessential chess piece that a defensive coordinator can use to exploit a mismatch on the opposing offensive line. While the Bills have a stable of quality pass rushers, they do not have a player of Watt’s versatility. Check out how the Texans used Watt in the team’s Week 1 matchup against the Chiefs.
This leads us to probably the area that Watt has had the least drop off in his game; his run defense. No matter the position he lines up in, Watt is nearly unblockable. He’s very good at setting the edge, causing disruption with penetration, and isn’t fooled by motion or eye-candy in the backfield.
The Bills under Sean McDermott have not opted for smaller pass rushing specialists at edge defender (Yannick Ngakoue anyone?). While they’ve been light in the middle, General Manager Brandon Bean and McDermott have worked to bring in bigger bodied, physical edge defenders who play the run as well as the pass. Watt not only fits that mold, but excels at it. Teams simply do not run to Watt’s side of the ball. Bootlegs, stretch plays and play-action are all designed around taking the quarterback and the ball as far away from him as possible. Subsequently he’s become very good at beating tight ends on the backside of plays and making a play anyway.
J.J. Watt won’t solve the Bills’ need for a dominant interior defender to soak up double teams in the run game, but he will provide a bookend that dictates the flow of action from the offense.
A growing trend in the NFL is to find hybrid players like Watt and line them up over the offensive tackle with an edge rusher lined up outside. This extreme width in obvious passing situations opens up a number of opportunities Among them, it gives the defensive end the ability to shorten the angle of their rush to the top of the guard’s drop while also presenting a threat to the tackle.
His size and versatility gives the defense the advantage as he is a threat to rush over the tackle in a stunt, or rush inside against the guard. If the guard over-sets, Watt can attack inside getting quick pressure in the face of the quarterback.
Now imagine that it’s not Brennan Scarlett or Jacob Martin rushing outside of Watt but instead Jerry Hughes or A.J. Epenesa.
Even if Watt isn’t the most dominant defender in the NFL anymore, the threat of him is still enough to change blocking schemes for offensive coordinators. It’s true that the Texans lacked any real threats outside of Watt, but he still opened up opportunities for one-on-one pass rushing reps for other defensive linemen.
The problem in Houston, was that none of the other linemen were able to win those matchups. If the Bills are able to land Watt, the whole defensive front would benefit, but no player more so than Ed Oliver. The amount of space that Watt can create with his presence is impressive. Even if the Bills do cut several of the veteran linemen they signed last offseason, they’re still a much better unit up front than the Texans and it’s not particularly close.
J.J. Watt will have his pick of NFL Teams in 2021 and the Buffalo Bill should near the top of his list of contenders. He’d be a valuable piece on an already strong defensive front. Despite their low sack numbers last year, the Bills still generated heat on the quarterback with both ESPN and PFF having the Bills in their Top 5 units in terms of win rate. PFF also had the Bills coming in second to the Steelers in terms of quick pressure (under 2.5 seconds).
With Watt added to the mix, the Bills could take their defensive line to another level.