Breaking down if the Packers should sign DL J.J. Watt

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Zach Kruse
·6 min read
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The Green Bay Packers and 30 other NFL teams will soon have the opportunity to add a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

J.J. Watt, one of the best defensive players of the generation, will be released by the Houston Texans, who have agreed to mutually part ways with their eight-time All-Pro defensive end.

The Packers, for reasons real and imaginary, will be one of the most popular speculated landing spots for Watt. While the pros of the Packers adding the former Wisconsin Badger star are many, such a move has significant risk and is bordering on unlikely, given the current state of the Packers salary cap.

Here’s a breakdown of whether or not the Packers should sign Watt:

Why they should

– Watt is still a terrific player. While not as singlehandedly destructive in 2020 as he’s been in years past, Watt still had 45 total pressures and 34 stops over 16 games last season, per Pro Football Focus. His overall grade at PFF was 85.5, with rock-solid marks as both a run stopper and pass-rusher. When his release from the Texans is finalized, Watt will immediately become one of the best available players regardless of position this offseason.

– Watt wouldn’t just be a luxury. The Packers could really use him. Depth along the defensive line entering the offseason is severely lacking. Dean Lowry could be a cap casualty, and most of the remaining depth behind Kenny Clark are about to be free agents. There’s a case to be made that the defensive line is the No. 1 positional need on the roster. Watt might not eliminate the need, mostly because additional depth up front is required here, but his arrival would bump both defensive line and edge rusher several notches down the need list.

– Imagine a pass-rush featuring Watt, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary. That could be the most disruptive and versatile quartet of rushers in football. Winning the line of scrimmage more consistently – especially in big games – has to be primary focus on defense this offseason, and maybe no player could help more than Watt. Champion football teams dominate in the trenches. The impact of investing there on either side of the ball can never be overlooked.

– We don’t know the exact scheme Joe Barry wants to run, but if he sticks with the traditional 3-4, Watt is an ideal fit. He’s arguably the most disruptive 3-4 end in the history of the game. Scheme should fit the players, but with this move, the fit could be seamless. Watt can play on the edge and inside. Using him as an early-down edge setter and interior pass-rusher within the framework of any scheme makes a ton of sense.

– The defense is close to being really good, but it’s not all the way there. Adding Watt could make the difference. This is a move that could have ripple effects for the entire defense. Think of all the double teams he’d erase for Za’Darius Smith or Kenny Clark or Rashan Gary. Or how many otherwise easy completions he’d bat down. Or how many throws would come out of a quarterback’s hands just a half-second earlier. Or how many different combinations new defensive coordinator Joe Barry could use along the front. This isn’t just adding a good player. It’s amplifying the talent of all the good players around him, too.

– Watt joining the Packers defense could make him better, too. When is the last time he played with two edge rushers like Smith and Gary and an interior player like Clark? Watt wouldn’t have to be a one-man show. Lessening his workload and removing some of those constant double teams could make him a more consistently effective player as he ages.

– Think of this potential move along the same lines as the Packers adding Julius Peppers. Seven years ago, the veteran edge rusher filled an important need, took over a leadership role on defense at a crucial time and both commanded the respect and lifted the play of everyone around him. That Packers defense immediately became championship worthy. Watt’s presence could do the same.

– Watt was released, so the Packers won’t be absorbing an old contract or factoring him into the compensatory draft pick formula.

– It is the ultimate “all-in” move. The Packers aren’t in the business of appeasing fans, but I can think of a quarterback who would approve. Imagine the Packers extending Rodgers, showing a solid financial commitment, and then adding Watt? The two future Hall of Famers could chase the elusive ring together over the two or three years.

Why they shouldn’t

– Watt will be 32 years old in March, and his injury history is concerning. He missed 13 games in 2016, 11 games in 2017 and eight games in 2019 to major injuries. He did play all 16 games in 2020, but players with significant injury histories don’t always age well. He’s going to command a good chunk of money, and the Packers may not want to spend precious cap dollars on an older player just a few years removed from career-altering injuries.

– Finessing the salary cap to make it work will be difficult. This offseason was already going to be a giant puzzle for Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball to take apart and put back together. Watt is a big puzzle piece, but he’s also a piece with a lot of complex, contorting edges. Fitting in the pieces around him will be complicated, especially financially.

– Adding Watt would all but guarantee a mass exodus of veteran players. The question becomes: Is one very good player worth more than many mid-level players?

Should the Packers do it?

General manager Brian Gutekunst said he was willing to take a few risks this offseason to help the Packers win now. Well, this is quite the opportunity to back words with action. Forget that Watt grew up in Wisconsin and played for the Badgers. That’s a fun part of the story, but it’s just the hood ornament on a Lamborghini. The real prize is under the hood. Watt is still a disruptive, versatile player. He plays a position (or two?) of need. He’s starving for on-field success. He leads on and off the field. He’s still the kind of player that can wreck games and change seasons. The Packers want as many great players who are great in the locker room as they can find, and they want to win championships. Watt fits the profile, and he can play a leading role in delivering another Super Bowl opportunity for a team knocking on the door. Sometimes, a team this close to the end goal has to just kick the damn door down. It’s time to hire a battering ram and prepare the breach.

List

10 most reasonable ways the Packers can clear salary cap space this offseason