3 thoughts on what the J.J. Watt addition means for the Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals’ J.J. Watt addition on Monday came out of nowhere.
On paper, it bolsters a defense that made pressure out of lemons once injuries struck linebacker Chandler Jones last season.
But it took a lot of paper to get done.
Of the two-year, $31 million contract agreement, $23 million of Watt’s deal is guaranteed, according to reports.
Should Watt remain healthy, the Cardinals are likely to have upgraded their defense, where there are prominent pass-rushers from the defensive backfield (safety Budda Baker), second level (Isaiah Simmons), edge (Jones) and now the interior of the defensive line.
What does it mean for the Cardinals’ salary situation and the field?
What brought the Watt upgrade?
Watt weighed the quarterback situation heavily when deciding his new team, ESPN’s Ed Werder reported.
Because Watt was rumored to be considering going to the Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen) and Cleveland Browns (Baker Mayfield), it’s impressive that he put a Kyler Murray-led team in such company.
His Super Bowl ambitions didn’t exactly align with the narrative around the Cardinals, who last year fumbled to an 8-8 record and just miss the playoffs.
Still, what else did Arizona have going for it?
The next obvious answer is defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who coached defensive backs for Houston from 2011-13, Watt’s first three years in the NFL.
Joseph has quietly been the Cardinals’ best free agent recruiter. He helped bring on linebacker Jordan Hicks two years ago and his former player, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, last year. Through 2020, Joseph also easily drew in free agents Dre Kirkpatrick and Domata Peko, two more players who had prior relationships with the DC.
So Joseph should know how to use Watt, who is generally listed as a defensive end but moved all over the Texans’ defensive line in the past few years.
Depending on package, he can do the same in Arizona.
What are the Cardinals getting?
Out of necessity, Joseph used a sub “NASCAR” package of no down linemen and six total linebackers on certain third-down situations a year ago (TouchdownWire.com’s Mark Shofield has an in-depth look at that).
At times, the Cardinals used defensive end Zach Allen as a lone traditional lineman, and they can tweak that idea by inserting Watt there.
Watt produced 52 total tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed last year. He’s far from being as effective as he was during his All-Pro years (2012-15, 2018) but also far from remaining a washed up one-trick pony.
In 2020, the 31-year-old added 11 stuffs and graded out better by Pro Football Focus’ measures as a run defender than pass-rusher (81.0 to 76.6).
And his pass rushing wasn’t even bad! According to PFF, Watt’s 45 total pressures in 16 games last year would have ranked second on the Cardinals, behind Haason Reddick (56) and Markus Golden (41), granted Golden appeared in just nine games for Arizona after being traded from New York.
Relatedly, Watt was the most double-teamed edge rusher of all players who qualified, per ESPN’s Seth Walder. In other words, he’s still plenty respected.
This is where I’ll mention the obvious: Watt has an extensive injury history.
He played half the season in 2019 after suffering a torn pectoral but recovered to appear in the playoffs. Two years prior, he required back surgery to fix a herniated disc, returned to play three games but then needed another back surgery.
He was back to begin 2017 but appeared in five games before a broken tibia ended his year.
Watt also played through a broken hand in 2015. He’s played 16 games — and no more than eight — in just two of the past five seasons. Before that, he appeared in all 16 regular season games.
Cap casualties incoming?
Patrick Peterson, Reddick and receiver Larry Fitzgerald come to mind when assessing who Watt’s contract number could squeeze out of the 2021 equation.
All of them have different arguments to be paid in the eight-figure range.
Running back Kenyan Drake and inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell are also entering free agency, though Arizona could argue it respectively has ready-made replacements for each of them on the roster: running back Chase Edmonds and 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons.
But also on that list is nose tackle Corey Peters. The well-respected captain will turn 33 years old in June and is coming off a season-ending knee injury after recording 15 tackles with two sacks in nine games played.
There are even players under contract who, upon learning of Watt’s deal, might be more under the microscope.
Left guard Justin Pugh could make $11.2 million and has per-game playing bonuses that can reach $1.5 million. He would count as $4 million in dead cap money and if let go would save the Cardinals more than $7 million.
Outside linebacker Devon Kennard is the only returning starting-caliber outside linebacker to play opposite Chandler Jones and will be paid well ($7.9 million), yet the Cardinals could open more than $4 million in space by releasing him.
Cornerback Robert Alford, who hasn’t played a game since 2018, will count for $9 million against the salary cap if retained and only has a $1.5 million dead cap value. Like Kennard, he’s at a position that’s already mighty thin with Peterson and Kirkpatrick heading toward free agency.
Releasing tight end Maxx Williams’ contract would thin the books by nearly $3 million, and cutting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks would open about $6 million, but let’s assume they’re valued too much to let financial constraints get in the way.
Salary cap data via Spotrac.com.