J.J. Watt has come to the conclusion many foresaw months ago, and he's now available for hire for the first time in his career after the Houston Texans officially granted his release Friday.
Where might Watt land? At 31 years old and nearing 32, Watt is on the back nine of his career, meaning he's running out of time to win a ring. He's already made $100 million in his career, so money might not end up being much of a factor. Let's explore some of the most likely destinations for the future Hall of Fame defensive end.
This one is all about family. Watt could join his brothers T.J. and Derek in the Steel City to make a run at a title with a team that finished 12-4 and has a defense capable of winning plenty of games in 2021.
The biggest hurdle is cap space. Pittsburgh has a lot of work to do to make this financially feasible, and even if money isn't a big sticking point for Watt, the Steelers will still need to make a significant amount of moves to create space to add him. They'll also have to decide on the future of Bud Dupree, who played 2020 under the franchise tag but suffered a season-ending knee injury and is headed toward free agency if Pittsburgh doesn't make an effort to retain him.
Dallas added Everson Griffen in an attempt to bring additional edge-rushing effectiveness to the Cowboys in 2020, and though he didn't last a full season, Dallas could take a similar approach with a higher-level player in Watt again in 2021. The Cowboys have the cap space to make it work as it stands right now, with Over The Cap projecting them to enter 2021 with $18.4 million in room, and Watt's arrival could help turn around a defense that was a massive weakness for much of 2020.
He'd be able to replace Tyrone Crawford, who is headed toward free agency at 32 years old, and would make for a ferocious edge-rushing duo with Demarcus Lawrence. He'd also be able to stay in the state of Texas, a place Watt said Friday he can't imagine not being his home after a decade spent in Houston.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay makes sense because of its location: Wisconsin. Watt was a standout defender at the University of Wisconsin, reminding folks of his roots by wearing a Wisconsin hoodie in his farewell video to Houston. A return home would make sense, as would the defensive fit in Green Bay's 3-4 system. Watt could take a starting job and add to a unit that is currently starting Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster at defensive end in its front, bringing a force to a group that also includes Za'Darius Smith.
The biggest hurdle, like other teams, will be cap space. Green Bay is just slightly ahead of Pittsburgh in current cap space, and they're still $28 million over the cap based on a projection of $180.5 million. A significant amount of roster moves would be necessary to even consider fitting Watt into Green Bay's current financial structure -- but the pull of home might get it done.
A familiar face patrols the sideline in Nashville in Mike Vrabel, Watt's former defensive coordinator in Houston (2017). Vrabel coached linebackers for the Texans in two of Watt's Defensive Player of the Year seasons (2014 and 2015), and the adjustment for Watt would likely be seamless if he becomes a Titan. Watt would also get two annual meetings with his former team, as the Titans reside in the same division as the Texans.
Tennessee needs edge-rushing help, turning to fellow former Texan Jadeveon Clowney in a 2020 season that ultimately proved to be underwhelming for Clowney. Watt isn't quite the game-wrecker he once was, but he's a safer bet to make a difference in a Titans defense that could use better production at the position.
Tennessee is closer to the projected cap than some of the other teams on this list, making it more likely the Titans will be able to make the moves necessary to clear space to add Watt.
If Watt is looking to chase a ring, Buffalo provides one of the best chances of getting the veteran to the Super Bowl in his first year. The Bills were one win from the Super Bowl in 2020, falling to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, and Watt would create quite a tandem with Jerry Hughes off the edge. Buffalo's blue-collar fanbase would also be a perfect match with Watt, and would welcome him to Western New York with open arms.
The Bills have a little over a million more in space than the Titans and a clear cut in veteran Mario Addison to clear the room necessary (Addison's release would create roughly $6.1 million in new space) to add Watt. Sean McDermott's defensive minded team seems to be one of the best fits for Watt, with credit due to NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah for pointing out this potential marriage Friday.
With Olivier Vernon headed toward free agency and a significant injury casting doubt on his future, Cleveland is in need of an edge rusher opposite Myles Garrett. Adrian Clayborn did a solid job in place of Vernon and is still under contract, but Watt would be an instant upgrade as a 4-3 end for the Browns, who have defensive improvement as their top offseason priority as they look to take the next step toward reaching the AFC Championship Game.
Cutting Clayborn would clear $3 million for the Browns, and Cleveland already has over $21 million in existing space with the current cap projection referenced above. Watt's arrival would be a huge boost to a front that was already the strength of the Browns' defense, but would create a brotherly conflict between Watt and his brothers in Pittsburgh, adding fuel to an newly rebirthed rivalry between the two midwestern opponents.
Baltimore hasn't been afraid of going after productive veterans in an effort to immediately improve and pursue a title that has evaded the Ravens in each of the past two seasons. They also happen to have just slightly less cap space available than the Browns, and plenty of room to sign Watt.
Ravens defensive line coach and run game coordinator Anthony Weaver exists as another familiar face who could lure Watt to Baltimore, much like Vrabel could bring Watt to Tennessee. Weaver served as Houston's defensive line coach from 2016-2019 before leaving for Baltimore, and could make for an easy transition for Watt with his first new team of his career.
With Derek Wolfe likely headed to free agency in March and the Ravens having enough cap space to take on Watt at a respectable number, this stands as an attractive destination for Watt, who would join a defensive front that also includes Calais Campbell.
Seattle is feeling the pressure from Russell Wilson's requests for the team to improve in 2021 and could do so by adding Watt. The Seahawks have a little over $4 million in projected cap space, meaning they'd likely have to make a move or two to create room. They could do so by cutting mid-season acquisition Carlos Dunlap, which would bring a cap savings of $14 million and instantly create the space needed to bring in Watt.
Seattle is a long way from home, but players have proven in the past they want to play for Pete Carroll and the perennial contender Seahawks. If Watt wants to chase a ring, he could make a push as a Seahawk, though they need to address their offensive line more than any other position.
Los Angeles Rams
This one is probably more fantasy than anything, but that won't stop Rams fans from envisioning a defensive front that includes Watt and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Watt would seemingly take the place of Michael Brockers, but a simple cut-and-sign process won't clear nearly enough space (just $4.6 million) to accommodate Watt. The Rams would still be over the projected $180.5 million cap by over $22 million, meaning a host of moves elsewhere would be necessary to bring him in.