Is J.J. Watt the answer for the Ravens this offseason?

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Matthew Stevens
·5 min read
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The Houston Texans are officially releasing star pass rusher J.J. Watt, allowing him to truly hit free agency for the first time in his career. While the Baltimore Ravens shouldn’t necessarily open the bank vault for him, they should definitely pick up the phone and see what he’s looking for.

With his release, Watt will get a brand new contract with a new team through free agency. For the Ravens, that means they won’t have to lose any draft capital to acquire him and can create a contract offer that makes sense financially — either in total dollar value or the immediate cap hit. It also means they might be able to offer less money in exchange for a chance to win a Super Bowl, something Watt hasn’t come close to doing throughout his 10-year career.

The move to release Watt is a little surprising. The Texans likely could have traded him, getting at least a decent haul in return for one of the NFL’s biggest names. By releasing him outright, not only will Houston not get anything in a trade, they won’t even earn a compensatory pick for his departure. While there are a million reasons why it went down this way, it could also point to Watt wanting to choose his next destination instead of limiting his options through trade, ultimately pushing for his release from the Texans to do so. If that’s the case, it would make sense Baltimore could be among the few frontrunners for Watt’s services.

The Ravens enter this offseason with a massive question mark at the position and in need of some immediate help. That could come in the form of re-signing Matthew Judon or Yannick Ngakoue, both of whom are among Baltimore’s pending free agents. However, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta suggested at his end-of-season press conference the draft or even free agency could be viable options as well.

“We see that the draft looks pretty good this year in terms of outside linebackers and pass rush-type guys,” DeCosta said. “There are also some guys in free agency on other teams that would be of interest if we can’t bring some of our guys back.”

Watt has been one of the premier pass rushers since coming into the league in 2011. He’s led the league in sacks two separate seasons and hit double-digit sacks in five years. He’d bring much-needed experience and ability to a Baltimore defense that has often had to aggressively blitz to get pressure. But there are also question marks surrounding Watt and his true value that make signing him anything but a lock.

After putting up 16 sacks in 2018, Watt has slipped quite a bit in his production over the last two seasons. He’s posted just nine sacks and 38 pressures combined over 2019 and 2020. The question every team has to ask themselves is how much of that drop in production is due to injuries, being on a bad Houston team, or Watt’s skillset diminishing? Unfortunately, each has a kernel of truth to it.

Over the last five seasons, Watt has played a full 16-game schedule just twice, missing a total of 32 games due to injuries over that time and missing eight games in 2019. Any new contract offer would have to take into account Watt’s injury history either through a lower total value or by a coaching staff being willing to limit his snap count to try to keep him healthy while still paying a premium for him.

Watt is also about to turn 32 years old and as we’ve seen often in this league, players really begin to drop off around this time. Once a player hits 30, they naturally begin to slow down and not recover as quickly as age and the wear and tear on their bodies accumulates. That’s not to say Watt can’t still have a spectacular season but it’s not the guarantee it was earlier in his career.

Then again, all of his issues might just be the end result of playing for a bad team, with the Texans’ defense ranking 28th and 30th over the last two seasons. With limited talent around him, a lot more has been asked of Watt, regularly seeing him play 90% or more of the defensive snaps in games. That type of playing time is tough on even the youngest of players, much less on a guy who has been in the league for a decade. As a comparison, the Ravens have had Judon on the field for no more than 81% of the snaps in a season, seeing him hit just 53% in 2020.

There’s really no such thing as a free agent that doesn’t have some question marks. But with the Ravens needing help on the edge and Watt potentially looking for a Super Bowl ring, the stars align quite a bit here. Baltimore has a little bit of money to spend and could make an attractive offer in an offseason that’s expected to be pretty tight due to a decreasing salary cap.

DeCosta has been quite aggressive in acquiring top talent since taking over for Ozzie Newsome and making a move for Watt is right up Baltimore’s alley on so many levels. But for now, it’s just another potential storyline for the offseason to analyze.

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