ESPN’s Clay: Cardinals adding J.J. Watt leads NFL in position upgrades

Jun 1, 2021, 3:03 PM
J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans returns an interception for a touchdown during the first half a...
J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans returns an interception for a touchdown during the first half against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on November 26, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan.

The J.J. Watt addition arguably will be the Arizona Cardinals’ most important position upgrade this season, though Rodney Hudson taking over at a precarious center position from 2020 could be among those to challenge that notion.

If you think it’s a bold statement to say Watt will be Arizona’s biggest offseason addition boost, then you’d be surprised to learn ESPN’s Mike Clay thinks the Watt signing is the most significant position upgrade NFL-wide.

J.J. Watt replaces Zach Allen

The top spot goes to one of the best defensive players the league has ever seen. Watt might be past his prime at 32 years old, but he showed in 2020 that he remains one of the league’s most impactful defenders.

Watt played a team-high 92% of Houston’s defensive snaps and produced 5.0 sacks, 52 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles. His 19.7% pass rush win rate ranked 15th in the NFL and was fourth if we exclude pure edge rushers. Watt’s skill set is unique, as he has the ability to play at a high level on the edge or in the interior.

In defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme, the interior will likely be the primary home for Watt, whether that’s as a defensive end alongside outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, or as an undersized tackle in sub packages.

While Watt’s production indeed deserves attention for the upgrade, what his presence does for Allen will be of intrigue for the younger player as well.

Allen, who posted 35 tackles, 2.0 sacks and three passes defensed, hit a stride mid-way through his second NFL season as the Cardinals leaned on him amid a series of frontline injuries. He played more than 80% of Arizona’s defensive snaps in each of the final three games of the year.

During a Week 15 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2019 third-round draft pick recorded 11 tackles, a sack and a pass defensed.

Allen did enough where it wouldn’t be surprising to see him playing next to or backing up Watt. The veteran played 90% or more of the Texans’ snaps in all but four games last year, and the Cardinals will likely want to find ways to keep the 32-year-old fresh.

It’s fair to say a healthy Watt should make a huge impact.

But Hudson helping quarterback Kyler Murray take things to the next level, or the veteran trio of A.J. Green, James Conner or Malcolm Butler showing spring in their respective steps could also be in play regarding the most important offseason upgrades for the Cardinals.

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ESPN’s Clay: Cardinals adding J.J. Watt leads NFL in position upgrades