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Sorting the Preseason Pile: Texans wisely pay J.J. Watt

CBS Sports

J.J. Watt’s mammoth contract extension -- reportedly hammered out in the wee hours Monday night/Tuesday morning -- was the biggest headliner item on a pretty massive Labor Day weekend for NFL news.

The deal is reportedly worth $100 million over six years with $51 million in guaranteed money, making Watt the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history after only three seasons.

But that’s how good Watt's been: He and his camp could've written literally any number down on paper, slid it across the table to the Texans and felt justified in what they sought. If you're starting a franchise today and can only pick one player and that player can't be a quarterback … the player you're picking is Watt.

In NFL history there's a short list of guys who've produced a season with 10-plus sacks and 12-plus Approximate Value (PFR's measurement of a season's value as a whole) in their first three seasons. There's a tiny handful who’ve done it twice in their first three seasons: Watt, Jevon Kearse, Reggie White and Richard Dent.

Paying him now and paying him well was a no brainer for Houston.

Watt is the third player from the 2011 NFL Draft, along with Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals and Tyron Smith of the Cowboys, to get such a long-term extension and it comes only a few months after their respective teams quite obviously chose to pick up their fifth-year options.

The hard part about looking at whether or not the new CBA is good for these youngsters in terms of getting a contract is just how strong the 2011 draft class is. The first seven guys already have been to Pro Bowls and of the top 16 guys only four -- Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Nick Fairley -- haven't earned a trip to the Hawaii yet.

Clearly getting less money when you’re drafted isn’t a good thing for those guys, but the old CBA contracts were incredibly out of whack. And remember: Dez Bryant was drafted a year ahead of Tyron Smith, is one of the game's top receivers, doesn’t have a fifth-year option the Cowboys can hold over his head, and he's still waiting on a new deal.

The downside of those options extends a little further too, when you think about a team's ability to franchise players. Essentially teams can lock someone down for six years (four-year contract, fifth-year option, sixth-year franchise tag) if they want to play hardball with their first-round pick.

Cam Newton, the top overall pick from 2011, is a great example. The cap-strapped Panthers aren’t hustling to knock out a new deal, although there's still time before the season starts. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick -- taken in the second round of said draft and therefore not subject to a fifth-year option -- are heading into new deals.

In other words, you've got to substantially beat expectations during your first three years if you expect a new contract. Or in the case of Watt just annihilate themy.

Sizing up KC-Smith deal: Another first-round pick got paid over the weekend too. This one -- Alex Smith -- just happens to be from the 2005 NFL Draft.

Smith's deal was received Sunday night in a shoulders-shrugging way for most part; if you gauged a casual fan by telling them Alex Smith just got a 4-year, $68 million contract, his or her first reaction probably would have been, "Mistakes were made."

But the harsh reality of today's NFL is paying your quarterback no longer is an option. Smith is 30 years old and, despite being a former No. 1 overall pick, has a completely capped ceiling at this point. He often is insulted with phrases like "game manager," but a look at KC's 2013 season tells you all you need to know.

Smith won games but largely by not making mistakes and letting his defense and Jamaal Charles dominate. He ranked 21st in Football Outsiders DVOA last season, sandwiched between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jake Locker. Coughing up $17 million a year for a guy who "doesn't screw things up" and "is about as good as the Titans' quarterbacks" feels wrong, but what choice did the Chiefs have?

Smith's upside is limited, but so is his downside. The downside of having no one under center? It's unlimited. Ask the 2012 Chiefs. Watching Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn bumble their way to a pair of wins and a minus-214 point differential is the very reason Reid got his job in Kansas City and made a play for Smith in the first place.

They had no option but to pay him, or risk tumbling back to the cellar faster than they climbed out of it.

Play the kids: Smart move by the Raiders to finally admit what everyone else saw so clearly and name David Carr the Week 1 starter.

The biggest difference for Carr in looking substantially better than Matt Schaub this preseason? His ability to push the ball down the field.

That dime piece to Denarius Moore wasn't Carr's only exceptional downfield work during the preseason either.

Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen had no choice. Schaub looked terrible in the preseason, a bad sign following his disastrous 2013 year. There was a notion Schaub would achieve redemption in Oakland, but it was a pipe dream.

He ultimately was going to get replaced by Carr at some point when the Raiders struggled this season. But losing a pile of games early while paying Schaub $8.5 million is a recipe for getting fired.

If Carr looks as good in the regular season as he did in the preseason, McKenzie and Allen could save their jobs, just because of the hope and promise his performance provides.

Carr winning the job in Oakland keeps a streak of rookie Week 1 starters alive -- the last time we didn't have one was 2007.

Speaking of 2007 … the most bizarre part of this move? The family connection involved here.

Schaub replaced David Carr in Houston when the Texans acquired him in a trade from the Falcons before the 2007 season. Now Carr replaces Schaub in Oakland. Vengeance, thy name is Carr.  

Mallett deal solid for Houston: Good work by the Texans to pick up Ryan Mallett for what amounts to basically nothing.

Bill Belichick's been second only to Andy Reid at pawning off backup quarterbacks for substantial returns, but no one was buying Mallett. The Pats grabbed Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round this past draft, signifying their willingness to move on from Mallett.

The former Arkansas standout struggled in the preseason; he's got a cannon arm but hasn't been able to develop the way people believed he could.

But the Texans were desperate for a quarterback with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum (who they cut) and Tom Savage filling up the depth chart.

Mallett isn't the Texans' savior, but he gives them another option and one Bill O’Brien knows.

Bonus: one bold prediction down, 10 to go.

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