It appears that the rebuild is officially on for Houston Texans. Just weeks after Deshaun Watson requested a trade from the organization, the team has mutually parted ways with defensive end J.J. Watt, making him a free agent able to sign with any team of his choosing.
Over the course of his 10-year career, Watt has built himself into one of the most dominant players in the game. Watt seems almost unblockable at times, as evidenced by his 531 career tackles, 172 tackles for a loss, 101.0 career sacks (second among active players), 282 quarterback hits, 25 forced fumbles, and 61 pass deflections. Watt is a five-time All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, and is one of three players (Lawrence Taylor, Aaron Donald) to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times.
However, Watt hasn't played like a multi-time Defensive Player of the Year lately, let alone a Pro Bowler, which led to his release. Watt has missed 32 games over the past five seasons and only registered five sacks in 2020. He still has gas left in the tank, though, and it's painfully obvious that he'd rather finish his career contending for championships. Plenty of franchises could make use of Watt's abilities.
Of course, there are multiple factors for every team that's interested in him to consider. With the biggest, and most obvious, factor being money. How much are teams willing to invest in Watt at 31? Is Watt willing to take less money to play on a contending team? After all, he's already made more than $100 million in his career in salary alone.
In addition to giving Watt a reasonable financial offer, interested teams must also consider their own salary cap situations, which have been made tougher by the shrinking cap. But the possibilities are currently endless for the Wisconsin native. Here's a list of teams that could try to get Watt to join their ranks.
This would be the most logical choice, as J.J.'s younger brothers, Derek and T.J., are on the team. Every NFL coach dreams of having all three Watt brothers on their roster. Plus, the Steelers could use Watt's pass-rushing skills if they are unable to re-sign UFA Bud Dupree (39.5 career sacks). The only issue with the Steelers is cap space. Right now, the team is $30 million over the projected 2021 cap.
But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has a $41 million cap hit for next season, has said that he's willing to restructure his contract in order to help fill needs on the team. It sounds like Big Ben and the Steelers need to start number crunching.
While the Bears have several in-house needs to address, including a lack of cap space (over by $5 million), the Windy City could also appeal to Watt from a personal standpoint. His wife, Kealia, plays for the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women's Soccer League. Beyond that, there are other reasons why the Bears could use Watt's services. For starters, he can help boost a pass rush that saw a slight decline last season. Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Akiem Hicks combined for just 14.5 sacks in '20.
Watt will also add to the star power that defensive coordinator Sean Desai inherits, and he's had success against NFC opponents (20.5 career sacks against the NFC). On top of that, defensive linemen Brent Urban, Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Daniel McCullers, Mario Edwards (combined for 92 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season) are all set to hit free agency. Watt would help put this defense back into the top 10.
Green Bay Packers
This makes sense as well. Watt is a Wisconsin native, he played his college ball for the Badgers, and his parents still live there. Plus, the Packers are looking for a couple of extra pieces on defense. The Packers were ninth in total defense last year (334.0 ypg), but they were also 12th in scoring defense (23.1 ppg), and 10th in sacks (41). Watt could help Green Bay improve those numbers.
The Packers will also have to work out some salary cap issues (over by nearly $20 million), but they are coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Green Bay's window of contention is open right now, and adding Watt to the mix could put them one step closer to a Lombardi Trophy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers may have just won the Super Bowl, but they're going to have some defensive holes to fill in March. That's because outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David, along with defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (15.5 combined sacks last season) are all about to hit free agency. The Bucs have $9.4 million in effective cap space, and it's doubtful that they'll be able to re-sign everybody.
The Bucs finished sixth in total defense (327.1 ypg), led the league in rush defense (80.6 ypg), were seventh in scoring defense (22.2 ppg), and were tied for fourth in sacks this past season (48). Not only will Watt make this unit even better, he'll also fit right in with the defending champs, and it's an avenue that both sides should explore.
Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC Champions were only able to sack Tom Brady once during Super Bowl LV. That obviously didn't bode well for the team that finished ninth in the AFC in sacks (32) during the regular season. Not to mention the fact that Alex Okafor, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Taco Charlton, and Mike Pennel are ready to become free agents. Losing them would cost the Chiefs 80 tackles and seven sacks from last year.
Not only would Watt offset some of those potential losses, but he also would upgrade K.C.'s pass rush — and help keep them in championship contention. But like many of the other teams on this list, the Chiefs need to sort out some salary cap problems. Right now, the Chiefs are $23 million over the projected cap.
The rest of the AFC South
I'm sure that Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville would love to see Watt wreak havoc on his former team. And each team can make a case for bringing Watt into their ranks. The Jaguars ($77 million) and the Colts ($68 million) have the most cap space of any team in the league, so money won't be an object should they choose to make Watt an offer. The Jags are starting anew under head coach Urban Meyer, and they're going to build around Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. So with Lawrence as the new face of the offense, making Watt the new face of the defense could help push this franchise in the right direction.
The Colts, on the other hand, would love to have Watt on board to make their eighth-ranked defense even more dangerous. Especially after they landed quarterback Carson Wentz in a trade with the Eagles. And the AFC South champion Titans are looking to improve a defense that ranked fifth-worst in total defense (398.3 ypg), 21st in scoring defense (27.4 ppg), and third-worst in sacks (19). But the Titans are $2 million over the cap, so they would have to move some things around in order to be able to sign Watt. Rest assured, the Texans would prefer not to have to play against Watt twice a year.
"America's Team" is a potential option if Watt would like to stay in the Lone Star State. Twenty-one of the Cowboys' 31 sacks in 2020 came from the front four. Watt would make that position group even more dangerous. He'll also help improve a unit that finished 23rd in total defense (386.4 ypg), 11th in passing defense (227.6 ypg), second-to-last in rushing defense (158.8 ypg), and 26th in scoring defense (29.6 ppg). Jerry Jones does have a little over $18 million in cap space to work with, but whether or not he'd be able to sign Watt could hinge on what the team decides to do with Dak Prescott.
The Browns very nearly upset the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs and appear to be a team trending up. However, Cleveland still has some holes to address and one of those is finding a viable pass-rushing presence to team with Myles Garrett. The Browns tied for 15th with 38 sacks in the regular season, 21 of those came from Garrett (team-high 12) and Olivier Vernon, who is set to be a free agent. Vernon is a year younger than Watt, but who doesn't want to see him paired with Garrett to find out how much havoc they can wreak? A nastier pass rush also would help improve a defense that ranked 17th and only 22nd against the pass.
The Ravens will be looking to add depth to their front seven. Especially since Matt Judon (led team with 6 sacks in '20), Yannick Ngakoue (11 tackles, 3 sacks), Derek Wolfe (51 tackles), Tyus Bower, Purnell McPhee (both combined for 69 tackles and five sacks), Jihad Ward (4 TFLs, 3 sacks), and Justin Ellis (17 tackles) are all hitting free agency. The Ravens last season finished 11th in sacks (39), seventh in total defense (329.8 ypg), sixth in passing defense (221.0 ypg), eighth in rushing defense (108.8 ypg), and second in scoring defense (18.9 ppg). Watt can offset any potential free-agent losses and help keep the Ravens' status as one of the NFL's top defenses. The only question would be how much are the Ravens willing to pay; right now they have $18 million in cap space.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.