After defensive lineman J.J. Watt was released from the Houston Texans, nearly every contending team has been linked to the five-time first-team All-Pro.
Among those teams, one in the sweepstakes is one that in the past would be considered to have no chance, the Cleveland Browns. It’s even gotten to the point that some rumors have speculated it could be between Cleveland and the Green Bay Packers as finalists for his services.
However, news has recently broken that Watt is seriously considering Cleveland because they have two things he’s looking for: money and a chance at the Super Bowl.
The news of this has had Cleveland fans split. While a good portion see Watt as potential upgrade over edge rusher Olivier Vernon, others see him as too injury prone, too expensive and too old.
Is he any of those though?
Let’s start with injuries. In all but three seasons, he’s played all 16 games. In 2016, he played in three games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve. However, this came after rushing back following back surgery for a herniated disk.
Recovery time for surgery like that is 6-10 weeks. It even had him considering missing the first two weeks to heal. Instead, he tried to play and made it to Week 3 before aggravating it again and having to miss the season.
The next year, he missed 11 games with a tibial plateau fracture. He suffered the injury against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football when he clipped his leg and fell forward with all his momentum, which lead to the injury.
The third and final injury season came in 2019 when he suffered a pectoral injury. He ended up coming back in time for the playoffs, where he recorded a sack and two quarterback knockdowns in two games.
While missing 32 games isn’t ideal and could be deemed “injury prone,” 13 of those games came because he aggravated a previous injury. He came back after the minimum six weeks, after wrestling the decision on whether or not to play. 19 games otherwise is still a lot of games but not as much as people may think.
What about the question of age?
Watt is 31 years old and he’ll be 32 by the time the season starts. While definitely older, players like defensive linemen Cameron Heyward, Ndamukong Suh, Brandon Graham and Cameron Jordan have shown that you can be older and still be productive. Yes, age is something to keep in mind, but to make it a red flag is questionable.
Proof of that comes from the Super Bowl champions.
Tampa Bay signed a 43-year old Tom Brady, a 31-year old Rob Gronkowski, a 32-year old Antonio Brown and a 34-year old Suh, amongst others. They all played a crucial role in their team’s ascension to the Super Bowl. Good teams don’t let age detract them if they still produce. Watt may be older but he’s still producing pretty well, but we’ll get to that.
What about his price tag though? Surely that will keep Cleveland away, right?
Watt was scheduled was to make $17.5 million this season before Houston cut him. At the time of writing this article, Cleveland has about $21.7 million available to spend, with that most likely increasing as cuts approach. More than likely Watt will be looking to recoup most of the money he’d be losing out on.
However, with the desire to win, he’ll more than likely be expected to take less. Some pundits could see him taking a deal worth $10 million a year. If this is true, then expect Cleveland to swoop in to grab him.
It’s also worth noting that last offseason, they offered Jadeveon Clowney, the top free agent defensive end available at the time, between $15 and $18 million. Clowney ultimately said no and signed with Tennessee for $12 million. Watt could cost Cleveland around $10 to $12 million if using Clowney as a template but ultimately, money may not be the biggest object here.
So with that all that cleared up, does Watt really improve the Cleveland Browns’ defensive line?
The answer is absolutely.
While Vernon ultimately had more sacks than Watt last year, as well as similar pressures, he wasn’t as consistent, as most of the sacks came in just three games. Watt also had more tackles and more quarterback knockdowns.
This is significant because Watt played the role of Myles Garrett, meaning he was double teamed significantly and still produced. If Garrett is the one being double teamed, that allows Watt to have more one-on-one situations, leading to more pressure. More pressure is something that Cleveland desperately needs.
It also benefits the Browns that Watt can play inside or on the outside of defensive line. Last year, the defensive tackles and edge rushers other than Garrett showed a need for improvement. They couldn’t create pressure, they had difficulties stopping the run up the middle and they didn’t do enough.
For defensive coordinator Joe Wood’s scheme to work, he needs tremendous pressure from the defensive line. While the secondary is golden in his 4-2-5 nickel scheme, if the line can’t get pressure, then it all falls apart.
While Watt is no guarantee to fix this, the gamble is definitely worth the shot. It also helps that Watt is a key piece of building a culture. He’s seen as one of the biggest proponents for Houston’s success on defense and was a leader for that team.
Cleveland may be Watt’s best chance to get a ring at this juncture. Some fans are nervous they won’t be able to retain young players like quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb.
With the salary cap more than likely going up after the 2021-22 season, as well as still having wiggle room this offseason, they should realize the opportunity in front of them. Watt is the type of game changing player that Cleveland needs opposite of Garrett.
It may be a risk in some people’s eyes but if you are trying to win a Super Bowl, this is the time to take the risk. The team’s window may only be open for two more years. So now is the time to punch it, and if J.J. Watt is the missing piece, they should go get him.