Hours after the Texans released J.J. Watt, the free agency pursuit of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is underway. Around a dozen teams are interested in the future Hall of Fame defensive end, Ed Werder of ESPN.com tweets.
Among the early pursuers are the Bills, Browns, Titans and Steelers, Werder notes. While Watt would be a fit in most places, each of these teams could use an additional pass rusher. Watt intends to sign with a contender but does not plan on making a final decision until next week.
The Texans received calls on Watt over the past two weeks but opted to grant his release request. Watt will turn 32 later this year. Under his Texans contract, Watt was set to make $17.5MM in 2021. The salary cap reduction and Watt’s injury history may prevent him from a monster free agency deal, but the number of teams in the mix here stands to drive up the veteran’s price — if, in fact, this pursuit will come down to finances.
The Steelers would likely be unable to match some of the top offers for Watt, but they certainly have an interesting selling point. Younger brothers T.J. and Derek Watt are under contract with Pittsburgh for 2021; T.J. is on track for a big-ticket extension in the near future. The Steelers are well over the projected cap, as of Friday, and may have to replace several veteran starters next season. One of those could be free agent Bud Dupree. Pittsburgh’s fit would also be interesting considering their talent at Watt’s position. The Steelers have Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt signed to long-term deals. While Watt has been dominant as an inside and outside pass rusher, the Steelers have two high-end starters at his position.
Coming off their first playoff berth in 18 years, the Browns are projected to be in the league’s top sector in terms of cap space. Olivier Vernon suffered an Achilles tear late in the season, and the defensive end is on track for free agency anyway. The Browns, who will be looking for an edge rusher opposite Myles Garrett, made a steady push for longtime Watt teammate Jadeveon Clowney last year.
The Bills have several veteran defensive ends under contract, but Watt is younger than Buffalo starters Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes. The team that did land Clowney, Tennessee struggled mightily on defense last season. The Titans’ Clowney and Vic Beasley signings produced zero combined sacks. Watt did play under Mike Vrabel for a time in Houston. Both the Titans and Bills reside in the middle of the pack in projected cap space.
While Watt did not make the Pro Bowl, he did play a 16-game season for the second time in three years. Despite major injuries in 2016, ’17 and ’19, Watt graded as Pro Football Focus’ No. 7 overall edge defender in 2020, with the advanced metrics site praising the veteran’s work against the run and pass. His five sacks, however, were a career-low for a season in which he played 16 games. Watt made the most recent of his five All-Pro first teams in 2018, when he recorded 16 sacks and forced seven fumbles. More teams figure to emerge in this pursuit soon.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.