It's the end of an era in Houston.
Watt confirmed in a video posted to social media that he and the Texans agreed to mutually part ways. The future Hall of Famer had a non-guaranteed $17.5 million base salary for 2021 remaining on the six-year, $100 million extension that he signed in 2014. The Texans will have $0 in dead cap as a result of the move, with all bonus proration amounts accounted for.
Watt's name has become synonymous with the Houston Texans over the last decade, and he departs as the greatest player in franchise history.
Because Watt is a vested veteran and not subject to waivers, he can sign with a team immediately instead of having to wait until the 2021 league year begins on March 17.
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) pic.twitter.com/1OIbLqsqtR
— PFF (@PFF) February 12, 2021
Various reports have indicated that Watt would prefer to return to the Midwest, where he grew up and played college football at the University of Wisconsin. Naturally, connections have been made to the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay was very active at the trade deadline, attempting to acquire interior defender Dalvin Tomlinson from the New York Giants. To be clear, Watt is a very different player than Tomlinson, but it illustrates a desire for Green Bay to get better up front, and a 4/5-technique like Watt that can line up all over the defensive front is an intriguing fit.
Green Bay edge defender Za’Darius Smith has logged a significant number of snaps from the interior during his time in Green Bay, and we would expect that to be no different for Watt.
The fact that J.J.'s wife, Kealia Watt, is a standout on the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League has also led to some speculation about a signing with the Chicago Bears.
Two other Midwest locations that have both a need for a player like Watt and are closer to contending are the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. And while the Pittsburgh Steelers would have a hard time making it work, there have also been rumors about Watt’s desire to team up with both of his brothers, edge defender T.J. Watt and fullback Derek Watt, in the Steel City.
While it would seem that Watt may be willing to take a discounted deal to go ring-chasing before his career comes to a close, the 32-year-old is still one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL. And while there is some injury risk — Watt missed the majority of the 2017 and 2019 seasons — he did play over 1,000 snaps in 2020 at his usual high level.
Watt may no longer be the peerless force along the defensive line that he was from 2011 to 2015 — a five-year stretch where he brought home three Defensive Player of the Year trophies to open his career — but to be fair, almost any player pales in comparison to who Watt was at the beginning of his career. The Texans' superstar pass-rusher racked up nearly 80 more pressures than any other player in the NFL across his first five years in the league.
Most total pressures from 2011 to 2015 | All defenders
The thing that makes that list even more impressive is that Watt recorded all those pressures while lining up primarily on the interior, similar to what we’ve seen in recent years from Aaron Donald.
Injuries and age have kept Watt from dominating at the almost unequaled level he once did, but a small step down from that pedestal still puts him among the NFL’s elite defensive linemen. He is the third-most valuable edge defender in the league over the last three seasons, per PFF's wins above replacement (WAR) metric, behind only Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt. J.J. Watt earned that rank despite missing roughly half of the 2019 season with injury.
Looking at just this past season, Watt was a clear strength on a defense that had very little outside of the 10-year veteran. His 85.5 PFF grade ranked seventh at the position behind a strong list of names that includes Mack, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, Demarcus Lawrence, Chase Young and Myles Garrett.
The veteran defensive lineman is still clearly a valuable piece at 32 years old and would help all 31 other NFL teams. He is more than capable of both defending the run and getting after the quarterback at a high level.
Given that he has played both inside and outside at a high level over his career, Watt would also give any potential suitors some positional flexibility. In total, 76% of Watt’s snaps have come lined up outside of the offensive tackle since switching over to an edge role in 2018, but a move back to the interior may make sense as his career winds down and he loses some explosiveness.
We’ve seen a similar transition with a player like Calais Campbell, who is coming off a productive season at 34 years old with the Baltimore Ravens. In just over 600 defensive snaps lined up between the tackles over the past three seasons, Watt has earned run-defense and pass-rushing grades of 80.0 or higher.
Houston’s loss will be another team’s gain. Now, it just remains to be seen which team that will be.