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J.J. Watt’s contract for Cardinals only a $4.9 million salary cap hit in 2021

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates with fans after an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Houston. The Texans won 22-19 in overtime.(AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

As most NFL teams waited in limbo for the NFL to set the 2021 salary cap ceiling, the Arizona Cardinals acted anyway.

They signed defensive end J.J. Watt to a two-year contract that could pay up to $31 million, including incentives. According to reports, $23 million is guaranteed.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora revealed some of the more nitty gritty items on the contract Wednesday morning.

We’ll get into the weeds of this in a second.

Based on those figures, it was first assumed Watt did not have any void years on his deal that would further stretch out the pro-rated signing bonus of $12 million.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reported, however, that Watt’s cap hit for the upcoming 2021 season was just $4.9 million.

 

What Watt will be paid in his bank account by year is different from how his contract reflects on the team’s salary cap. Considering the Cardinals have so many free agents at key positions, the latter matters from the broader view.

Arizona has the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com’s Jason Fitzgerald. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.

The Watt signing becomes even more interesting considering what general manager Steve Keim told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf only two weeks ago.

“Teams are going to have to be mindful of the fact the cap is dropping. You can manipulate that, but that’s kicking the can forward, and at some point in time you have to pay the penalty,” he said.

The Cardinals could alleviate some of the cap issues by making roster cuts. But they also can do it by structuring contracts a certain way.

Getting back to Watt, it’s clear that there is some kicking the can forward.

As Gambadoro reported after the initial cap details were released, there are three void years (2023-25) on Watt’s deal after his two years of playing. Keim made similar moves last offseason when the Cardinals pushed the cap hits to future seasons on De’Vondre Campbell’s and Jordan Phillips’ deals.

Watt’s $12 million signing bonus will be pro-rated to count $2.4 million against the cap in each season from 2021-25.

That means his base salary in 2021 of $14.5 million (that’s money in his pocket) makes his actual salary $2.5 million in addition to the bonus. Combining $2.5 million with the pro-rated bonus gets us to $4.9 million against the cap this coming season — not bad considering what Watt is expected to bring to the table.

Of course, that sets up Watt to be pricy in future seasons, when the Cardinals can hope the pandemic has begun to pass and the league’s salary cap heads back in an upward trend.

For 2022, Watt can earn $13.5 million in his pocket before the sack incentives, but that $2.4 million pro-rated amount from the signing bonus jumps his cap hit to $15.9 million if he remains on the team to hit guarantees.

In 2023, though his contract ends, the three remaining pro-rated years from the signing bonus are tacked on to Arizona’s cap at a combined $7.2 million, according to OverTheCap.

That’s certainly kicking the can down the road.

Even for two seasons of Watt’s service, there’s risk for the Cardinals paying so much for a soon-to-be 32-year old with an injury history over the past five years. But for the reasons mentioned elsewhere, they obviously feel it is worth taking.

Arizona got a jump-start on other NFL teams before the league year switches over on March 17.

“(GM) Steve Keim and I were talking about it, and it was just crystal clear: We needed to go for it,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday.

Bidwill also suggested that the Watt surprise in the Cardinals’ favor is just the beginning of an incredibly active offseason.

“I think there’s going to be a seismic shift in talent across the NFL. You got teams that are projected to be well over the cap, you got teams projected to be well under,” the owner said. “I know every … potential free agent out there (is) thinking they’re not going to be released, but there are going to be a bunch of surprises to people here in a few weeks when everybody has to get under the cap.

“I see a big shift, a seismic shift in terms of the talent moving around. It’s going to be an opportunity. We just felt like this was a great opportunity for us to get a terrific player, terrific leader, somebody who’s a culture changer and really brings accountability to the locker room, to the weight room, to the practice field.”

With only $4.9 million against the cap in this season, there’s at least some wiggle room left for the Cardinals to re-sign their own free agents, and maybe more to chase players who don’t know they’ll be on the market.


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