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NFL Draft

Is JJ Watt The Missing Piece Cardinals Needed?

  • The Draft Network
  • March 1, 2021
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The Arizona Cardinals are becoming a home for dismayed Houston Texans. After the Cardinals successfully secured All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last year to bolster their passing attack, they sought after another perennial Houston talent to strengthen the other side of the ball. J.J. Watt was released from the Texans in mid-February and found a new home in Arizona. He is reunited with Hopkins and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph on a two-year, $31 million deal, which includes $23 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Watt is meant to reinvigorate the bottom feeders of the NFC West. It’s one of the most, if not the most, competitive divisions in the NFL. But at what cost? The league is still waiting on the official salary cap number for the upcoming season. Watt, who broke the news himself Monday via Twitter, rightfully chased the money, and Arizona had some to spare but not a lot. At nearly 32 years old and oft-injured, Watt will play the later stages of his career with a team that hasn’t been a true contender since the late 2000s (and the mid-2010s if one considers those consecutive 10-plus win streaks). Whether Watt is one of the missing pieces to bring Arizona back to prominence remains to be seen, but a few things are now certain.

As the Cardinals’ roster stands now with Watt included, they’re over the cap by a good margin. Some of the players thought to be on their way out of Arizona are fated to exit. Linebacker Haason Reddick and cornerback Patrick Peterson will likely enter free agency. Reddick has already said he’s looking for fit over money, but the cap-strapped Cardinals wouldn’t be able to make a deal remotely around Reddick’s $11.6 million projected annual value work; the same applies to Peterson while his projected contract is slightly less. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is still contemplating retirement, and his production would make it challenging for Arizona to rationally keep him on the roster. Outside linebacker Devon Kennard and guard Justin Pugh are also at risk of being cap casualties.

Watt is far from his three-time Defensive Player of the Year form; but after playing his first full season after a torn pectoral injury cut 2019 short, Watt was still the strong, dominant presence we’ve known him to be. He had the seventh-highest Pro Football Focus grade of all defensive ends and enters what will be his 11th season as one of only two defenders to have a 90-plus PFF Grade in five separate seasons (since 2010). This is just a fraction of what Watt has accomplished.

His talents will be paired with Arizona’s Chandler Jones. The two create a formidable pass-rushing duo and have already reached unprecedented heights in their respective careers. Watt has the fourth-most pressures since 2012. Jones has 517 during that span, and together their 1,142 combined pressures are the most among all active pass-rushing duos, according to PFF. All of this is happening on the heels of one of the most dramatic NFC West offseasons. With Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson vocalizing his displeasure with the overwhelming lack of protection he’s had throughout his career and the San Francisco 49ers searching for a new quarterback, Arizona has one of the top pass-rushing units in the division; arguably better than the ones headlined by Aaron Donald in Los Angeles and the 49ers’ Nick Bosa.

This wasn’t the same highway robbery the Cardinals got away with when trading for Hopkins. Watt’s deal does suggest Arizona will do whatever it takes to strengthen its most pressing needs—even at the cost of veteran talent—in an effort to win now with a budding defense and an offense growing more comfortable with each other despite success still being just out of reach. Watt, in essence, is the total package of proven talent, veteran leadership, and a very high success rate (again, despite his previous organization’s own mishaps). It could be just what the Cardinals need—or they’ll at least break the bank in hopes of it.

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