Houston, you have a problem.
With the Deshaun Watson situation still looming over their heads, the Texans lost another of their cornerstone superstars on Friday. J.J. Watt, arguably the NFL’s best defensive lineman of the 2010s, sat down with team ownership and requested his release after ten seasons. His wish was granted, meaning Watt can choose where he’ll be playing in 2021 and the Texans will get nothing in return for one of the best players in the history of their franchise.
Because it’s the offseason, fans of almost every other team in the league surely spent at least a few seconds on Friday imagining what Watt would look like in their team’s colors. He may be turning 32 next month, but the three-time defensive player of the year should still have a few more seasons of elite play in front of him, provided he can stay healthy. He’ll be a massive addition to whatever team he winds up choosing.
So where will Watt go? Unfortunately, I’m once again here to be the bearer of bad news for Vikings fans. When the Watson story first broke, I laid out some of the reasons why the disgruntled star QB won’t be coming to Minnesota. In that article, I somehow neglected to mention the most important one, which is that Watson has a no-trade clause that requires him to approve of his destination. Even if there weren’t several other barriers in the way of a trade to the Vikings, why would Watson choose to come operate such a run-heavy offense? Watt choosing Minnesota is similarly implausible, although it’s at least ever-so-slightly more believable than Watson donning the purple and gold.
Let me start by playing devil’s advocate. Watt would be an incredible fit with the Vikings with his ability to dominate both out wide and on the interior as a three-technique. Improving the pass rush is arguably Minnesota’s biggest need, so Rick Spielman should absolutely reach out to Watt’s camp to see if there’s any interest. And maybe –– just maybe –– there could be. Watt is a Wisconsin native who may want to return to the midwest, Andre Patterson is one of the NFL’s most universally respected defensive line coaches, and with all due respect to Mario Williams and Jadeveon Clowney, Danielle Hunter would be the best player Watt’s ever shared a line with. Plus, for what it’s worth, Watt spent his first three NFL seasons playing for Gary Kubiak (who he has an immense amount of respect for), whose Texans coaching staff also featured current Vikings assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani. Kubiak just retired, but it’s no secret that he’ll still be involved with the Vikings in some unofficial capacity, especially since his son is replacing him at offensive coordinator.
Okay, don’t get too excited. Time to come back to reality. Watt wanted out of Houston because he’s getting up there in years and wants to play for a contender. The Vikings don’t exactly meet that description. They’re coming off of a 7-9 season and have made the playoffs just once in the past three years. There are at least a dozen teams with more compelling cases to win the Super Bowl than the Vikings next year. Watt, who made $15.5 million last year, also presumably wants to be paid handsomely while joining said contender. The Vikings rank 24th in current cap space, sitting roughly $5-7 million below the projected 2021 salary cap at this juncture. The only way they could sign Watt would be if it was a multi-year deal, and even then he’d likely have to take a pay cut. With an extension and raise for Hunter perhaps necessary this offseason, plus other needs that will require cap space to address (offensive line, secondary, etc.), the financial side of things just don’t make a lot of sense here.
Those two reasons alone make Watt joining the Vikings an extreme longshot. And to make matters even worse, there might be a chance he ends up on one of Minnesota’s NFC North rivals. Although both the Packers and Bears are in similarly hellish cap situations as the Vikings, there are legitimate connections to both Wisconsin and Chicago that could be highly appealing to Watt. He’s a native of Pewaukee, WI who starred at the University of Wisconsin and may be intrigued by the possibility of playing for his hometown team (which happens to be a top-tier contender for as long as Aaron Rodgers is still there). Watt’s wife is a professional soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars, so a move to the Windy City could also be convenient.
My early guess is that Watt doesn’t end up with any of the aforementioned teams. Maybe he joins his brothers T.J. and Derek in Pittsburgh. Maybe he goes to a contender with cap space like the Buccaneers, Patriots, Colts, Ravens, or Browns. There are a ton of possible options. But if Watt does decide to take a pay cut to come to the NFC North, both the Packers and Bears would make more sense than the Vikings.
Then again, who knows?
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