J. J. Watt

J.J. Watt Comeback Pledge Includes Steelers

J.J. Watt has made it known he considers a comeback a longshot scenario, but the future Hall of Famer continues to let DeMeco Ryans know he is available if needed. This offer appears to extend to one other team as well.

Watt reaffirmed his pledge to Ryans about rejoining the Texans in an emergency circumstance, via The Athletic’s Dan Pompei, indicating he would “absolutely” return for a 13th season if his former Texans teammate asked (subscription required). Watt’s pledge about coming out of retirement — for an in-season return — would also include the Steelers, Pompei adds in an expansive Ryans profile.

Team No. 2 on Watt’s “in case of emergency” list is unsurprising, seeing as the Steelers employ another Watt on a Hall of Fame path. J.J. Watt considered the Steelers during his free agency in 2021, but he did not want to potentially take money away from his younger brother. Months after J.J. Watt’s two-year, $28MM Cardinals commitment, T.J. Watt landed his extension. The Steelers featured a two-Watt combo for three seasons, with Derek Watt joining T.J., but J.J. closed out his career with the Cards.

The Steelers have Cameron Heyward going into his 14th season with the team, though this longtime partnership now includes a hiccup on the contract front. Heyward’s current contract runs through 2024. The team also has Larry Ogunjobi, DeMarvin Leal and the recently signed Dean Lowry on the payroll. Roster construction would not stand to matter too much here, as J.J. Watt has made it clear it would take a setback changing the Texans’ outlook to come back. That presumably applies to the Steelers as well.

Watt, who turned 35 this offseason, said earlier this month his comeback pledge will expire after the 2024 season. The likely 2028 Canton inductee retired months after a heart scare, but he remained available for the Cardinals and closed the 2022 season strong. Watt finished with 12.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. The latter number matches his most since a stratospheric early-career stretch that remain unapproached; this century’s single-season TFL list still starts with three Watt seasons. Although injuries dogged the all-time great in the seasons following his third Defensive Player of the Year slate, Watt remains the only player in the sack era (1982-present) with two 20-plus-sack seasons. A comeback in a part-time role would certainly be interesting.

The All-Decade-teamer remains with CBS, but this comeback storyline persists. Injuries affecting the Houston or Pittsburgh D-line depth charts will be worth monitoring as the season unfolds.

J.J. Watt Willing To Play For Texans In 2024

Former star edge defender and current CBS Sports personality J.J. Watt hung up his cleats at the end of the 2022 campaign. While we had not heard any reports to suggest that Watt was second-guessing his decision, it sounds as if he would return to play for his original team under the right circumstances.

Watt, 35, was a first-round pick of the Texans in 2011 and, despite a few injury-marred seasons, built a Hall-of-Fame resume over his 10-year Houston run before (ostensibly) finishing his playing career via a two-year stint with the Cardinals. His first season with the Texans was also DeMeco Ryans‘ last as a linebacker with Houston (Ryans, of course, is now entering his second season as the team’s head coach).

Prior to the start of the 2023 campaign, Watt told Ryans that he would suit up for the Texans if Ryans needed him to do so (video link via Brandon Scott of Sports Radio 610). Apparently, that offer is also on the table for 2024, though this will be the last year that Watt makes himself available to his old club.

“I told DeMeco last year, I said, ‘Don’t call unless you absolutely need it, but if you ever do call, I’ll be there,'” Watt said at this charity softball game yesterday (h/t Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk). “And he knows not to call unless he absolutely needs it. This is the last year I’ll tell him that, because I’m not going to keep training the way I’ve been training, but he knows that if he ever truly does need it, I’ll be there for him. I don’t anticipate that happening — they’ve got a very good group.”

Indeed, Ryans and C.J. Stroud were the toast of the league in 2023, when the rookie HC and rookie QB led the Texans on a surprising run to the divisional round of the AFC playoff bracket. This offseason, Houston made a number of high-profile additions to its defensive front, including four-time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter. Hunter and 2023 first-rounder Will Anderson should form a dynamic duo at defensive end, with players like Derek Barnett and 2023 fourth-round choice Dylan Horton in support.

As Watt said, then, it is unlikely that Ryans will need to call upon his former teammate, but Watt is still a notable ace in the hole. Watt’s comments suggest that he has kept himself in football shape, and in his last year with Arizona in 2022, he started 16 games and notched 12.5 sacks. Should Ryans require an in-season addition to his cadre of pass rushers, he could certainly do a lot worse.

J.J. Watt Contemplated Joining Steelers In 2021

J.J. Watt is set to join CBS as a broadcaster this season to begin his next football chapter, but the future Hall of Famer recently reflected on his free agency in 2021. That process nearly resulted in a deal which would have allowed him to team up with his brothers in Pittsburgh.

Watt was one of the league’s most high-profile free agents that offseason, with his historic Texans tenure having come to an end. A Steelers accord would have allowed J.J. to play with fullback Derek Watt and fellow edge rusher T.J. Watt. The latter inked a monster extension that year, though, averaging $28MM per season (the highest AAV ever given to a pass rusher, and the still the second-highest figure amongst all NFL defenders to this day). The elder Watt was hesitant to have his own free agency interfere with the Steelers’ extension for T.J.

“They were on the list,” Watt said of the Steelers when reflecting on his decision-making process (Twitter link). “It certainly would have been awesome to play with my brothers, but T.J. was also going through the contract situation there, so the last thing I wanted to do was come in and take any money away from his contract.”

In the end, J.J. Watt inked a two-year deal with the Cardinals and he finished his career in Arizona. Returning to full health, he remained highly productive with 12.5 sacks on the year. Rather than extending his career in another new home, however, he elected to go out on a personal high note and hang up his cleats.

The Steelers have certainly not been short on edge production during T.J. Watt’s tenure, though adding his brother to the mix would have given the team even more firepower in that regard. Instead, the past two seasons in particular have seen Alex Highsmith emerge as not only a bonafide starter, but a pass rusher due a substantial raise on a new Steelers deal. Talks on the extension front are ongoing, but mutual interest exists to get a contract worked out this summer, perhaps as early as training camp later this month.

Provided Highsmith is on the books beyond 2023 when the new season kicks off, Pittsburgh will remain in good hands in the pass-rushing department for years to come. The prospect of J.J. Watt finishing his career as a Steeler is certainly one which will lead to what if-type questions being asked now and in the future, though.

Notable Incentives Still In Play For 2022

As we head into Week 17, a number of players still have key incentives available. Here is a handful of the notable escalators in reach — many involving Smiths — courtesy of SI.com’s Albert Breer.

  • Justin Houston, OLB (Ravens): Already collecting $1MM by reaching 7.5 sacks, the 12th-year pass rusher (nine sacks) can move that number to $1.5MM by getting to 10.
  • Christian Kirk, WR (Jaguars): The big-ticket Jags signing can collect $500K by hitting 80 receptions, with another $500K available if he reaches 90. Kirk has 76 catches. The ex-Cardinal (988 receiving yards) can also collect $1MM by surpassing 1,100.
  • Raheem Mostert, RB (Dolphins): The offseason addition will almost certainly add $1MM to his 2022 earnings. By clearing 900 scrimmage yards, Mostert needs only the Dolphins to stay in the top 25 in total offense. Considering Miami ranks ninth, it is a good bet the ex-49er — who signed for one year and $2.2MM — will cash in.
  • Geno Smith, QB (Seahawks): After already collecting $1MM for hitting playing-time incentives and $500K by making the Pro Bowl, Smith is likely to add another $1MM by eclipsing 4,000 passing yards for the first time. Smith, who signed for one year and $3.5MM, has 3,886 yards through 15 games.
  • Preston Smith, OLB (Packers): Sitting on 8.5 sacks, the veteran edge rusher can collect $1MM by ballooning that number to 10. Another $1MM would be in play for Smith if he reached 12 sacks this season.
  • Za’Darius Smith, OLB (Vikings): The 2022 Minnesota signee can up his incentive package to either $750K by hitting 10.5 sacks or $1MM by reaching 12.5. The veteran edge has 10 sacks through 15 games.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR (Chiefs): Leading Chiefs wideouts in receiving yards (877) by a wide margin, Smith-Schuster is likely to enhance his already-impressive incentive collection by topping 900 receiving yards. That would put the ex-Steeler at $3MM in total incentives earned. Signing a one-year deal worth $3.76MM, Smith-Schuster has already collected $2.5MM in escalators.
  • J.J. Watt, DL (Cardinals): Lastly, the retiring D-lineman collected $900K by reaching nine sacks (9.5); he can bump that number to $1MM by tallying a 10th sack over the team’s final two games.

J.J. Watt Addresses Retirement Decision

After surprising the sports world by indicating he would retire at season’s end, J.J. Watt addressed the choice. Watt will retire as one of the most accomplished defenders in NFL history and represents a safe bet for 2028 Hall of Fame enshrinement, but he has returned to a high level of play after missing much of last season.

Despite his quality season for a down Cardinals team, Watt will pass on the opportunity to join a contender in free agency next year. His performance this season reinforced his decision.

I’d much rather go out playing good football, knowing that I could still play and knowing that hopefully people will remember me playing good football, then to go out limping out and being forced out and knowing that I probably should have done it earlier,” Watt said (via the Arizona Republic’s Bob McManamon), regarding a chance to re-sign with the Cardinals or join a third team in free agency next year.

Watt, 33, joins Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald as the league’s only three-time Defensive Player of the Year honorees. He is also the only player in the sack era (1982-present) to record two 20-plus-sack seasons, getting there in 2012 and 2014. Watt seasons rank as the top three tackles-for-loss campaigns in the 21st century. This includes his 2012 season, which featured a staggering 39 TFLs — 10 more than anyone else has recorded in a season since 2000.

The Cardinals gave Watt a two-year, $28MM deal in 2021, signing him shortly after a Texans release — which Watt requested, as Houston was embarking on what has turned out to be a lengthy rebuild — led to a bidding war ahead of unrestricted free agency. The Browns and Colts were in the mix until the end. Watt has 9.5 sacks this season — his most since 2018 — and has tallied 14 TFLs and six pass batdowns.

Although injuries have affected the second half of Watt’s career, he certainly would have been a coveted free agent in 2023. Kliff Kingsbury said he did not know about the imminent retirement, but Cardinals DC Vance Joseph said Thursday that Watt told him of his plans in September.

There’s some people in the building that have known for a long time,” Watt said of his retirement decision. “Maybe they thought I was joking, but I told people for a long time, ‘This is my last year.’ … Some people tried to convince me to stay.”

Watt finished his third DPOY season (2015) playing through multiple injuries and underwent back surgery the following offseason. He later underwent a second 2016 back surgery, which knocked him out for 13 games that year. A tibial plateau fracture cost him 11 in 2017. The Texans did not bail on the six-year, $100MM extension, as Watt’s 2018 season — a 16-sack slate in which he led the league with seven forced fumbles — led to two more years in Houston. One of them (2019) featured an eight-game absence due to a torn pec. Last season, a play against the Texans led to a litany of upper-body injuries. Watt returned in time to play in Arizona’s wild-card game.

This year, Watt went into atrial fibrillation and underwent a procedure. Although the 12th-year vet played days after that operation, he cited the heart issue as part of the reason for the earlier-than-expected exit.

It just feels like the right time,” Watt said. “I put so much into the game and the wins and the losses, the mental stress and passion that comes with it, it just weighs on you. It’s just really heavy. Losses are very tough to take. You live with the highs and the lows and I’ve always said I would way rather lives with the highs and the lows than never know the middle. I don’t want to just be ‘blah.’

But I’ve got a son now, obviously I had a heart scare earlier in the year, so there’s certainly some of that that played into it. But I’m very happy and I’m very at peace with it.”

NFC West Notes: Cards, Lance, Hawks, Akers

While nothing is certain yet, the Cardinals may be on the lookout for a new GM for the first time in 10 years. Steve Keim took a leave of absence earlier this month and, as of now, is not expected to be back. The Cardinals may be considering keeping their current setup — a dual-GM partnership between Adrian Wilson and Quentin Harris — on a permanent basis, Albert Breer of SI.com notes. Arizona has promoted from within to fill its GM post the past two times it opened, elevating Rod Graves in 2003 and then Keim in 2013. Bob Ferguson (1996) represents the franchise’s past outside hire for this post.

Wilson and Harris each played safety with the Cardinals, being teammates from 2002-05, and have worked in the front office for several years. Harris, the team’s VP of player personnel, has been on staff longer — since 2008, when he became a scout — while Wilson, the VP of pro personnel, enjoyed a much longer playing career. Wilson has been a Cards staffer since 2015. Harris interviewed for the Giants’ GM gig this year; Wilson interviewed with the Jaguars. Whomever lands the Arizona GM job will have some pieces to pick up after a turbulent year, and a coaching search could commence.

Here is the latest from the NFC West:

  • When the Seahawks acquired Drew Lock from the Broncos, the front office viewed him as the likely starter, Brady Henderson of ESPN.com notes. Believing they knew what they had in Geno Smith, Russell Wilson‘s backup for three seasons, the Seahawks were planning on Lock taking over. Smith’s contract — one year, $3.5MM — reflects this plan, but Pete Carroll consistently kept the former Jets second-rounder in front of Lock. While the Seahawks have faded since a surprising start, Smith made one the more unlikely Pro Bowl runs in recent QB history. The Seahawks want to re-sign him to a long-term deal.
  • Kliff Kingsbury said the Cardinals did not know about J.J. Watt‘s retirement decision beforehand. The Cardinals signed the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to a two-year, $28MM deal in 2021. Despite Watt suffering another significant injury last season, he rebounded to re-emerge as one of the league’s top D-linemen this year. Watt will pass on a chance to join a contender in free agency next year, and it appears a near-lock he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2028.
  • Colt McCoy cleared concussion protocol and will start for the Cardinals in Week 17, Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com tweets. Arizona faces Atlanta and San Francisco to close out its season. McCoy is signed to a two-year, $7.5MM deal.
  • Brock Purdy has stepped in and kept the 49ers on course. Prior to Jimmy Garoppolo‘s injury, the team was open to re-signing him. Now, the prospect of Purdy keeping the gig over Trey Lance in 2023 is starting to surface. An anonymous exec told the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora he is growing more convinced the 49ers will trade Lance and stick with this year’s Mr. Irrelevant. With Lance on a rookie contract through 2024, that would be a wild call — even given Purdy’s early form. But teams would figure to be interested in the former No. 3 overall pick — even if he has only played one full season in his five since high school.
  • Although the Rams tried to trade Cam Akers, they have turned back to him as their top running back. They should be expected to retain him in 2023, Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic notes (subscription required). Akers’ career path changed when he tore an Achilles’ tendon in July 2021, but he totaled 147 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns Sunday. Next season will be a contract year for the former second-round pick.
  • Weeks after the Cardinals fired their offensive line coach, Sean Kugler, the dismissed assistant said he did not grope a female security guard in Mexico. Kugler is taking legal action against the Cardinals, whom he contends did not conduct a thorough investigation. The team released a statement (via NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, on Twitter) conveying confidence the firing was for cause. Kugler worked for the Cardinals from 2019 until his November firing.

J.J. Watt To Retire After 2022 Season

As the Cardinals’ season winds down, the team has little remaining to play for given their collective struggles as a team. For defensive end J.J. Watt, however, the final two weeks of the 2022 regular season will mark his last action in the NFL. The veteran announced (on Twitter) that he is retiring at the end of the campaign.

Specifically, Watt called Arizona’s Christmas Day loss to the Buccaneers his “last ever NFL home game.” The Cardinals close out the season with road contests against the Falcons and 49ers, which will allow him two final opportunities to add to his illustrious career and substantial statistical accomplishments.

The 33-year-old will, of course, be best remembered for his 10-year stint in Houston after he was drafted 11th overall in 2011 by the Texans. Over the course of that span, Watt established himself as a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the most decorated defensive players in league history. The Wisconsin alum broke out in his second season, leading the league with 20.5 sacks. That earned him Defensive Player of the Year honors, along with his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.

His production continued for years after that, as he strung together three consecutive All-Pro and Pro Bowl seasons after his 2012 performance. Watt topped the league in sacks once again in 2015, the third year in which he was named the league’s best defensive player. One season prior, he finished second in MVP voting as he was the focal point of the Texans’ defense in particular and franchise as a whole.

That 2014 year saw Watt sign a six-year, $100MM extension to keep him in Houston. He remained with the Texans through the 2020 campaign – at which point many other franchise pillars were no longer in the fold and the team’s playoff runs of the mid-2010s had begun to give way to the rebuilding phase it now finds itself in. In total, Watt racked up 101 sacks and 25 forced fumbles during his time in Houston, establishing himself as a highly-respected off-the-field pillar along the way.

The 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year winner became one of the most sought-after free agents last offseason, as he looked for a new home to continue his career amidst turmoil in Houston. He ultimately landed in Arizona, signing a two year contract worth $31MM. Questions were raised in the aftermath of his decision with respect to his potential remaining production, in no small part due to his injury history. Watt missed considerable time in 2016, 2017 and 2019. To perhaps little surprise, then, he was limited to only seven contests in his inaugural campaign with the Cardinals.

The 2010s All-Decade member posted just one sack in 2021, which tempered expectations for him heading into his twelfth NFL season. Watt has turned back the clock this year, however; he leads the Cardinals with 9.5 sacks, his highest total since 2018, the season in which he earned his fifth All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods. Watt has been a mainstay of the Cardinals’ defense all year, missing only the season opener and logging a snap share of 77% on the campaign.

Watt’s 111.5 career sacks rank 26th all time and fourth amongst active players. He will have the opportunity to climb those lists even more in his last two games, as he is only one-half sack behind Chandler Jones and one behind Cam Jordan. Regardless of his performance over the course of the next two weeks, Watt – who has amassed more than $115MM in career earnings – will go down as one of the top defensive linemen in league history.

“My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude,” he wrote in his retirement announcement. “It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.”

Largest 2022 Cap Hits: Defense

After looking at this year’s top salary cap numbers on the offensive side of the ball, here is a rundown of the players counting the most toward their teams’ payrolls in 2022.

As could be expected, the salary figures here start below the quarterbacks. A few pass rushers, however, are tied to notable cap hits. Those numbers that check in within the top 20 leaguewide regardless of position. With the exception of true nose tackles and pure slot cornerbacks, every defensive position is represented here.

Here are the top cap figures on the defensive side for the ’22 season:

  1. T.J. Watt, OLB (Steelers): $31.12MM
  2. Chris Jones, DT (Chiefs): $29.42MM
  3. Joey Bosa, OLB (Chargers): $28.25MM
  4. Leonard Williams, DL (Giants): $27.3MM
  5. Aaron Donald, DT (Rams): $27MM
  6. Jalen Ramsey, CB (Rams): $23.2MM
  7. Deion Jones, LB (Falcons): $20.1MM
  8. Bud Dupree, OLB (Titans): $19.2MM
  9. Justin Simmons, S (Broncos): $18.85MM
  10. Javon Hargrave, DT (Eagles): $17.8MM
  11. C.J. Mosley, LB (Jets): $17.5MM
  12. Cameron Heyward, DL (Steelers): $17.42MM
  13. Robert Quinn, DE (Bears): $17.14MM
  14. Matt Judon, OLB (Patriots): $16.5MM
  15. DeForest Buckner, DT (Colts): $16MM
  16. Shaquill Griffin, CB (Jaguars): $16.44MM
  17. Tre’Davious White, CB (Bills): $16.4MM
  18. J.J. Watt, DL (Cardinals): $15.9MM
  19. Marcus Peters, CB (Ravens): $15.5MM
  20. Carl Lawson, DE (Jets): $15.33MM
  21. Eddie Jackson, S (Bears): $15.1MM
  22. Lavonte David, LB (Buccaneers): $14.79MM
  23. Budda Baker, S (Cardinals): $14.78MM
  24. Romeo Okwara, DE (Lions): $14.5MM
  25. Trey Hendrickson, DE (Bengals): $14.49MM
  • Illustrating how much the cap has climbed over the past several seasons, T.J. Watt is tied to a number nearly twice that of J.J. Watt, who has been tied to $16.7MM-per-year (a defender-record number in 2014) and $14MM-AAV deals as a pro. Trailing his older brother in Defensive Player of the Year honors, T.J. is signed to an edge defender-record $28MM-per-year accord.
  • Jones’ four-year Chiefs deal vaults from an $8.5MM cap number in 2021 to the league’s second-highest defensive figure this year. The standout defensive tackle’s cap hit accompanies Patrick Mahomes‘ $35.79MM number, which is well north of his 2021 figure, on Kansas City’s new-look payroll.
  • After two franchise tags, Williams scored a monster extension in 2021. The well-paid Giants D-lineman’s cap number this year is way up from his 2021 number ($9.4MM).
  • The Rams redid Donald’s contract last month, adding no new years to the through-2024 pact. The all-world defender’s cap hit actually decreases in 2023, dropping to $26MM
  • It is not certain Deion Jones will be back with the Falcons, who have jettisoned other Super Bowl LI cornerstones from the roster since the current regime took over in 2021. But they would save just $1MM were they to release the seventh-year linebacker.
  • To date, this represents the high-water mark for Mosley cap hits on his Jets deal, which at the time (2019) began a sea change for off-ball linebacker contracts. Mosley’s cap hit, on a pact that runs through 2024 because of the linebacker opting out of the 2020 season, increased by $10MM from 2021-22.
  • Hargrave is one of five Eagles pass rushers signed to veteran contracts. The ex-Steeler’s 2021 deal accompanies Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Haason Reddick, and Fletcher Cox‘s new agreement on Philadelphia’s defensive front. As cap hits do not reflect average salaries, Hargrave is the only member of this quartet tied to an eight-figure cap number in 2022.
  • Quinn has also been connected to a departure, with the 31-year-old pass rusher skipping minicamp after it became known he would like to be traded away from the rebuilding team. His cap hit tops the Bears’ payroll. The Bears would save $12.9MM by trading Quinn, should another team sign up for taking on his full 2022 base salary.

Minor NFL Transactions: 1/17/22

Today’s minor transactions around the league:

Arizona Cardinals

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals

Denver Broncos

Los Angeles Rams

Tennessee Titans

Cardinals Open Roster Spot For J.J. Watt

The Cardinals have released cornerback Breon Borders, per a club announcement. This will enable the Cardinals to activate star defensive lineman J.J. Watt in time for Monday night’s game against the Rams. 

[RELATED: Cardinals’ Hopkins Ruled Out] 

Once again, Watt has beaten his recovery timetable to return for the postseason. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was once thought to be done for the year, thanks to labrum, bicep, and rotator cuff tears. But, somehow, he’s good to go for tomorrow night as the Cardinals look to improve from 38 points allowed against the Seahawks in Week 18.

There’s no doubt that the Cardinals — 7-0 with Watt in the lineup and 4-6 without him — are a better team with the future Hall of Famer playing opposite of Chandler Jones. And, in his limited sample, Pro Football Focus had Watt rated as a top-10 interior defensive lineman this season.

Watt, 32, registered five tackles for loss and ten QB hits in his seven regular season games this year. More of the same will go a long way towards breaking the Cardinals’ playoff win drought, though, on the other side of the ball, they’ll be without star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.