NFL News & Analysis

J.J. Watt to sign two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals

Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: originally published this piece on Feb. 16 following J.J. Watt's release from Houston. It has been updated with the latest news on Watt's future in the NFL.

After weeks of speculation following his release from the Houston Texans, longtime star defensive lineman J.J. Watt has announced that he will be signing with the Arizona Cardinals.

Watt ultimately signed with a team few, if any, mentioned as a possibility and will now reunite with former Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the veteran pass-rusher is signing a two-year, $31 million contract with $23 million guaranteed, a deal good for $15.5 million per year.

On a per-year basis, he comes up just short of the $17.5 million salary he was scheduled to earn in Houston this season, illustrating one of the many reasons why he had no qualms about asking for his release.

Over the last few years, the Cardinals have utilized “void years” to spread out bonus proration amounts on several contracts, including those given to linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and edge defender Devon Kennard, among others. Kennard's future in Arizona is now certainly in question, as is the future of impending free agent Hasson Reddick.

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In the four years from 2012-2016, the lowest overall grade Watt compiled was 91.6. That run featured two separate years where he came close to challenging the single-season sack record, a total of 39 batted passes and a 119-pressure season that is still the best we have ever seen at PFF.

At his best, Watt was one of the most destructive forces that the game has ever seen, but then injuries derailed his career. He played just 374 snaps over the next two seasons in total and has never quite clawed his way back to those peaks in play. The 2020 campaign drew his lowest PFF pass-rushing grade (76.7) since his rookie year, more than 15 grading points off his best years.

Now 32 years old and on the other side of the injuries he has dealt with, I think it’s fair to assume that Watt has lost an edge physically over where he was in his prime. But there is a way Arizona could offset that blunting of his physical tools — changing his position.

Watt effectively underwent a complete position switch early on in his career, transforming from an interior defensive lineman into a pure edge rusher, albeit one that more often aligns closer to the formation than as a wide-9 speed-rusher.

He played 937 total snaps in 2012, and not one of them came from an edge-rushing alignment. The following season, 20.6% of his snaps came from an edge-rusher spot as the team typically moved him outside to rush the passer on third downs. He played primarily in this role the following season, with 62.9% of his snaps coming lined up outside the tackle on the defensive line. And as of last year, he barely lined up inside (15%).

J.J. Watt: SNAPS BY ALIGNMENT, 2011-2020 (regular season only)
Season Snaps at DI Snaps at Edge
2011 775 0
2012 934 0
2013 763 199
2014 389 665
2015 337 633
2016 93 64
2017 107 109
2018 265 697
2019 155 313
2020 150 856

Watt’s supreme physical skills and talent meant that he could potentially do more damage as an edge rusher, and the move the team made was a good one. But if his tools are now declining, moving him back inside would put him against slower blockers and potentially hand him that edge back again.

Even last season playing on the edge, almost all of his best plays came on inside moves. On 132 pass-rushing snaps lined up as an edge rusher and attacking the outside, Watt generated just 11 total pressures and recorded a PFF pass-rush grade of only 68.3. That grade jumped almost 20 points when he attacked to the inside.

We are dealing in small sample sizes due to how complete his position switch has been, but his PFF pass-rush grade is markedly better from an interior alignment than it has been on the edge (90.1 to 78.1) over the last two years. In the tweet shown above, you can see how effective his quickness can still be on the inside against guards.

Watt’s best move has always been his swim at the line. And during his prime, he was even able to attack the wrong gap in the run game because he would win so decisively that he could go all the way around his blocker and still destroy the correct gap on the play. Other defensive linemen would get hung up on the block and be punished for poor gap discipline.

Watt still has that kind of juice on the inside but can’t get around the corner against high-level pass-blocking tackles the way he consistently used to.

If there’s a downside to moving Watt back inside, it will come against the run. But you could make a reasonable argument that even if this was a problem, who cares? If Watt went back to being a dominant pass-rusher inside, you could rotate him off the field for most of the obvious run downs, which would be a benefit in and of itself.

Watt has played over 1,000 snaps in two of the last three seasons and was one of only two defensive linemen to break that mark in 2020. He deserves — and likely needs at this point in his career — more rest on the sidelines during games to be at 100% effectiveness when he is out there.

Aaron Donald has never played over 1,000 snaps in the regular season. His career high was 926, and he has only cleared 1,000 including the playoffs in the season his team went all the way to the Super Bowl. Watt is likely just playing too many snaps and could benefit from half a dozen plays off a game, particularly if they come on obvious run downs where his effectiveness would be questionable anyway.

There is also an argument that Watt has played so little on the inside that it’s tough to draw any conclusions about his current ability against the run anyway. I think there is a good chance that playing full time on the interior sees Watt post an average-at-worst PFF grade against the run if it happened.

The Arizona Cardinals have been struggling for proven impact pass-rushers outside of Chandler Jones for a number of years now, and Jones himself missed most of 2020 through injury.

If Watt plays inside for Arizona, he could potentially generate more pressure than every interior lineman they had combined for in 2020 (57 total pressures). As we mentioned above, Watt has one season with 119 pressures to his name, and even if he drops to a much more mortal number, he is more likely to exceed that 57-pressure total than he is to fall short of it.

Watt could also find himself with a split role similar to that of Michael Bennett in years past, who played on the edge on early downs before kicking inside to wreak havoc against inferior athletes on the inside. How Arizona deploys one of the best players of the last decade will be a fascinating watch, but the data points to his best use pattern being back inside.

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