For the first time in his career, J.J. Watt is a free agent.
The Texans released their longtime defensive end Friday, granting Watt’s wishes. While Watt, who turns 32 in March, isn’t playing at the same level that he was when he won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he’s still likely to garner a lot of interest on the free-agent market.
One of the teams that are being speculated as a good fit for the veteran defensive end is the Patriots. New England does have one big factor in its favor. The Patriots are projected to have $58.5 million in cap space entering the offseason, which is the fourth-most in the league.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has spoken highly of Watt several times over the years. Prior to facing the Texans in 2015, Belichick compared Watt to Lawrence Taylor, whom Belichick coached during his time as the Giants’ defensive coordinator.
“Watt’s a major force. There are very few players I would put in same conversation with Lawrence Taylor. I would put J.J. in there,” Belichick said. “He’s a dynamic player. He can ruin a game. He’s a special player. He was the defensive MVP last year. He’s already earned that award this year even if he didn’t play the last four games.”
Prior to the Patriots’ matchup with the Texans in 2017, Belichick again compared Watt to Taylor.
“Motor, effort, strength, quickness, instincts (and) the ability to make game-changing plays at critical times in the game,” Belichick said about Watt and Taylor. “Knowing when the big play – critical third-down or fourth-quarter play or red-area play – knowing those critical plays in the game. As good as Taylor would play all game, that was the time when he would play at his best.
“You just don’t see those plays from hardly anybody, but especially guys that are his size and that play as much as he does. He plays everywhere across the board – plays outside, plays inside. He’s effective everywhere. He’s a tough matchup on everybody.”
It’s clear that Belichick thinks highly of Watt, and some experts think Belichick should make the move to get him.
The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, who is on the Patriots’ beat, argued that the Patriots should go all out for Watt. Howe ranked Watt as the second-best fit for the Patriots out of all the players that could be on the free-agent or trade market.
“Watt lives, eats, breathes, drinks and bathes in football, and he has been productive enough while playing 16 games in two of his last three seasons,” Howe wrote. “If Belichick can get him in for a meeting, it’s hard not to envision a scenario like Roman Phifer in 2001 or Rodney Harrison in 2003, when the coach overwhelmingly won them over.”
Howe believes that the Patriots could attain Watt by offering him a deal worth $20 million over two years. He also adds if Watt does well in New England, it could help pave the way for the Patriots to be a premier destination for free agents again.
NESN Patriots beat reporter Doug Kyed also made the case for the Patriots to sign Watt. In his argument, Kyed cited that the Patriots could lose several defensive linemen (including Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Deatrich Wise Jr.) to free agency this offseason, leaving New England with a young defensive line.
More importantly, Kyed wrote that Watt’s talent – and his versatility that allows him to play in several different spots on the defensive line – makes him too good to pass on for the Patriots.
“Watt would immediately become the Patriots’ best defensive lineman since Vince Wilfork departed the team after the 2014 season,” Kyed wrote. “Where would he fit in? Anywhere from defensive end in a three- or four-man front to three-technique defensive tackle. He’s a stout and disruptive run defender and a fierce pass rusher from anywhere on the defensive front.”
Not everyone is on board with the Patriots going out to get Watt. Patriots.com writer Paul Perillo believes that while Watt is still a good player, he’s not the kind of player the Patriots should be looking to acquire at this time.
“[Watt’s] a shiny new toy that would no doubt quiet some of the criticism, but would the player be a significant part of the future? More likely he’d make the 2021 defensive line a bit better while not really impacting the bottom line much either way,” Perillo wrote.
Perillo finished by writing that the Patriots should instead “stick with the draft and younger free agents who potentially could be key contributors down the road when the Patriots are ready to contend again.”
Of course player signings are a two-way street, and Watt will have to want to sign in New England himself. In the midst of the Texans’ 4-12 season, Watt told reporters in November that he wants to play for a contender. While joining the 7-9 Patriots would be an improvement from the Texans, the Patriots don’t appear to be knocking on the door of another Lombardi Trophy soon.
The betting market seems to reflect that. DraftKings Sportsbook lists the Patriots with the 11th-best odds to sign Watt at +1400. The Steelers, who have Watt’s brothers T.J. and Derek, are the favorites to sign him at +400. The Packers, Bills, Seahawks, Dolphins, and Buccaneers are among some of the other top contenders to sign Watt, according to DraftKings.
The Steelers (+400) are the favorite to sign J.J. Watt
(Market: CO/IL Only) pic.twitter.com/wUkR6zUrMm
— DraftKings Sportsbook (@DKSportsbook) February 12, 2021
Ultimately, the Patriots’ pursuit of Watt comes down to two questions, the first being: Will the Patriots want to make an offer worthy of Watt’s talent? If they do, and become the highest-bidder for Watt, the next question becomes: Will Watt turn down the highest offer to play for a contender instead?
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