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Dougherty: Packers should make a run at signing J.J. Watt

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J.J. Watt is a fast-aging player on the wrong side of 30 whose injury history the past five years surely sends a shudder down the spine of any NFL general manager considering investing in him.

Watt is also one of the dominant defensive players of his era and a locker-room leader who just might have enough gas in the tank to help a Super Bowl contender looking to upgrade its front seven in 2021.

Those are the opposing forces Brian Gutekunst has to weigh as the Green Bay Packers' GM determines whether to make a play, and if so, how far to go financially, for a Wisconsin icon who announced his parting with the Houston Texans on Friday.

To get to the nub of the matter, I contacted five NFL sources – four front-office executives and a players’ agent – for their opinions. After consulting them, I’m thinking the Packers, who have more than their share of salary-cap issues to work out this offseason, should be willing to offer in the range of $5 million plus incentives to bring Watt back to his home state for the chance to chase a Super Bowl ring with Aaron Rodgers.

While Watt is a three-time NFL defensive player of the year, he’s also about six weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, has missed a full 32 games the past five years because of injuries and is coming off a five-sack season in 16 games in 2020. Houston obviously was insisting he take a big pay cut from the $17.5 million salary he was scheduled to make this season, and Watt just as surely decided if he’s going to take a big cut in pay, he’d much rather play for a contender. So he asked for his release, and now he’s free to sign with anyone.

“He’s a rotation player with a history of injury,” one of the executives said in a text. “Would have to be willing to play for less (for the Packers). There or Pittsburgh makes the most sense. Market will dictate money. (Around $5 million) sounds about right, maybe seven (million dollars) on the top end.”

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We don’t know the level of Gutekunst’s interest, but Watt has to at least pique it. There’s every reason to think Watt would love to return to his home state and play for the team he followed while growing up in Pewaukee and that’s a bona fide Super Bowl contender after back-to-back appearances in the NFC championship game.

The question is, how big a discount would he give the Packers? Watt, after all, is used to making a lot of money – his most recent contract averaged $16.7 million. Cutting that by two-thirds would be a big comedown. And if another contender offered a better deal than the Packers, maybe the added lure of returning to his home state wouldn’t be enough.

On the other hand, he’s already made about $100 million in the NFL, according to Over The Cap, and that’s not counting his many endorsements. So maybe he’d place more value on chasing a ring with Rodgers and playing in his home state than, say, playing with his brothers T.J. and Derek with the Pittsburgh Steelers, or joining Tom Brady with Tampa Bay.

One of the scouts guessed that based on what he’s hearing, it will take about $8.5 million to sign Watt. For the Packers, who are about $28 million over a projected $180.5 million cap according to Over The Cap, every dollar matters. They’ll have to make several major cash outlays on contract restructures and cut other veterans to get under the cap and create room to possibly re-sign Aaron Jones and add some bargain free agents of their own.

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Signing Watt and then seeing the money go for nothing if he sustains a season-ending injury would be a disaster for a team in their financial position. This is, after all, a player who had season-ending injuries in 2016 (back) and ’17 (broken leg), along with a torn pec that cost him the final eight regular-season games in 2019.

“When healthy he still has juice,” another of the scouts texted, “but you’re rolling the dice, and odds are against you.”

You’ve by now probably seen the list of teams considered most likely to pursue Watt. Besides the Packers and Pittsburgh, the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are at the top of the list.

The Bucs are most decidedly in a win-now mode, but while they have $28 million in cap room according to Over The Cap, they also have several key expensive players they likely want to re-sign: Shaq Barrett, the outside rusher who’s one of their most important defenders; LaVonte David, the inside linebacker who along with Devin White forms the strength of their defense; tight end Rob Growkowski; defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh; and running back Leonard Fournette.

Odds-makers also have put Baltimore, the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas near the top of the list. 

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Regardless, the Packers should make a run. It’s just that the home-state-and-Super-Bowl-chase discount would have to be substantial, because Watt’s injury risk and possible quick decline are high.

Last year, Watt played in all 16 games and finished with five sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 14 tackles for a loss. As recently as 2018, his previous 16-game season, those numbers were 16, 25 and 18. At his peak, in a four-year stretch from 2012 to 2015, he averaged 14.8, 47.5 and 24.8. But that was a long time ago.

One thing for sure, whoever signs Watt should cut back his snaps and hope that less is more. Last season, he played 91% of the Texans’ defensive plays. That’s way too high. He should be in the 60% range, maybe even a little less, to keep him at his best and healthy in 2021.

“He isn’t washed up, but he is old and oft-injured,” another scout said in a text. “(The Packers) have a lot of money tied up in (Za’Darius) Smith and (Preston) Smith and Kenny Clark. Seems like a long-shot, but he is worth bringing in.”

Said the agent: “Worth it if he can stay healthy and be productive as a counterpunch the D-line that’s there, yes. But those are big ifs. He fits the system, I just don’t know how much football he has left before he breaks down again. Typically a guy changing teams toward the end of his career has one big prove-them-all-wrong year, and he’s certainly capable. So long as whoever signs him understands it’ll be potential for big first year and then a giant cliff, it’s a good move.”

As soon as Watt’s release is official – presumably either Friday evening or Monday – he’s free to sign with any team.

Other teams can offer Watt about as good a chance to chase a Super Bowl as the Packers can. Some of those might offer more money, too. But only one can offer a ring chase plus a return to his beloved home state.

In the next couple weeks, we’ll probably find out just how much that’s worth to J.J. Watt.

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