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As J.J. Watt’s career with the Texans comes to an end, many have begun to speculate where the next chapter will be for the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Turmoil has been afoot in Houston for months amid rumors that both he and quarterback Deshaun Watson could be traded.
On Friday morning, Watt was shockingly cut — not traded — in the final year of a six-year, $100 million deal, which carried zero dead cap liability in 2021 and thus comes at no financial detriment to the Texans.
Since the team released the star defensive end, Watt will be able to sign with another team as soon as possible. At age 31, a chance to compete for a Super Bowl will likely be a key factor for the Wisconsin product as he enters his 11th season in the NFL.
Watt has five first-team All-Pro nominations and five Pro Bowl nominations since joining the Texans as their first-round pick in 2011. He would be a welcome addition to many teams, even coming off of a down year in which he posted 36 solo tackles, 16 assisted tackles, five sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and one touchdown.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are an obvious choice given Watt has two younger brothers who already play in Pittsburgh. Derek Watt, 28, plays fullback while T.J. Watt, 26, plays outside linebacker.
The Steelers finished 12-4 atop the competitive AFC North and were stymied by the Browns in the wild-card round. Still, they will likely vie for another playoff spot this season and would be a significant upgrade from the Texans.
What makes this match challenging is Pittsburgh’s cap space. The Steelers are projected to be $18.78 million over the cap according to Spotrac, meaning they would have to do some cash gymnastics to swing this deal.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Fresh off of a win in Super Bowl 2021, the Buccaneers would certainly be an attractive destination for Watt, who is searching for his first championship ring. Tampa Bay’s defense — namely the defensive line — was top-notch this season and allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL. However, there could be a significant turnover this offseason with linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David and tackle Ndamukong Suh and Steve McLendon all becoming free agents this offseason.
It’s unlikely general manager Jason Licht would be able to re-sign all four with just over $30 million in cap space. The team will have to get creative regardless if it wants to replicate this year’s success, and Watt might even be willing to take a less competitive offer in order to join a serious contender like the Buccaneers.
3. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo would be another highly competitive landing spot for Watt that has been floated by various sources, including The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn. The Bills made a huge splash this season, mostly led by quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Stefon Diggs. Their pass rush, however, left a lot to the imagination and Watt could be a decent match given the needs on the defensive line and scheme fit.
Watt would have to come at a low price tag or on a short-term deal for this to work given the Bills’ salary cap situation. The team currently has $3.87 million in cap space heading into free agency.
“This is not going to be a free agency that we can be as aggressive,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane told The Athletic. “We’ve got to see how many of the guys we can retain. We’ll fill in here and there some holes. But I would not anticipate any blockbuster moves of Diggs’ type, or some of the moves we made the year before in free agency. … The onus is on us to have a really strong draft.”
4. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay could be an interesting destination for Watt, who was born in Pewaukee, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin. Aside from the obvious background ties, the Packers are an iconic franchise with a long legacy of success. They advanced to the NFC Championship in the 2020 season and are perennial contenders, having finished atop the NFC North in seven of the past ten years and advanced to the playoffs in ten of the last 12.
The Packers rank 29th in the NFL in cap space and are projected to be $21.85 million over the cap. A star like Watt could be worth maneuvering for, however, given the clear deficiencies on their porous defensive line.
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