The Houston Texans made the tough but necessary decision of moving towards the 2021 offseason without one of their most successful players in franchise history in J.J. Watt.
Houston Texans: Evaluating life post-J.J. Watt
Deciding J.J. Watt's future was the first domino that needed to fall
Waiving J.J. Watt was always going to be the first tough decision Nick Caserio would face in his short time on the job as the Houston Texans general manager.
The Texans were going to be above the league's salary cap for the 2021 season, so waiving Watt gives them some flexibility moving forward.
With the NFL setting the 2021 salary cap floor at $180 million, releasing Watt saves the Texans $17.5 million and gives Houston an estimated $4 million in cap room (likely more once the NFL sets the actual salary cap for the 2021 season in March).
Watt made it clear he was not going to be part of a rebuild with only a few years left as a quality starter in this league, so his departure was the most likely scenario with no first or second-rounder in this upcoming draft and little to no cap room to make splashes in free agency.
It also didn't help that Houston is dealing with a lot of uncertainty regarding Deshaun Watson's future. All these factors made it easier for Watt to request his exit as he now looks to help a stable organization that is in a better position to contend for a Super Bowl.
Why didn't the Houston Texans trade J.J. Watt?
Trading J.J. Watt would have been the best decision for the organization to make from an asset standpoint (Houston has no first or second-round draft selection in the 2021 draft), but the Houston Texans decided for optics over assets.
Letting one of your marquee players leave on their own terms instead of holding them against their will is a small gesture of appreciation in this cold business after they stuck around through the peaks and valleys.
The Texans have a long way to repair their image as a competent franchise after having quality players like DeAndre Hopkins, Tyrann Mathieu, and D.J. Reader leave via trade or free agency.
Granting Watt his release appears to be a message directed more to players' agents around the league. Caserio has a lot on his plate heading into the offseason, and he will be challenged with building a roster that future free agents will deem attractive.
The only problem is that Houston might have to wait a while until they're ready to push for a potential Super Bowl push.
The Houston Texans won't be competitive in 2021
With Watt gone and no discernable pass rusher on the current roster, the Houston Texans are now projected with the worst Super Bowl odds in the league going into the 2021 season.
Those odds go on par with how the Texans performed in 2020 as they were severely outmatched on the defensive side. Houston often found themselves in shootouts late in the fourth quarter, and their defense was unable to make a stop when it mattered most.
Watt led the Texans defense with 5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 7 passes defended, two forced fumbles and one interception. The fact the Texans are losing their best performer in all these categories goes on to show how poor their talent was across the board on defense.
Eight of Houston's twelve losses were a one-score game, and the defense didn't do much to help the offense. Watson was the main reason the Texans were even competitive throughout the 2020 season. The fact he wants out paints a terrible picture if he is indeed traded before the 2021 regular season.
Even if Houston manages to repair their relationship with Watson, Houston has a long road ahead of them as they look to rebuild their defense on the fly. Their defensive line has plenty of promise across the board, but that doesn't bode well for a team that needs proven talent over potential.
The Texans have Charles Omenihu, Ross Blacklock, Brandon Dunn, Auzoyah Alufohai, Andrew Brown, and Eddie Vanderdoes under contract for the upcoming season. They will also have to decide whether to re-sign P.J. Hall (restricted free agent) and Carlos Watkins (unrestricted free agent).
Houston's defensive line needs a makeover, and their lack of resources will make it difficult for them to really improve in a short amount of time.
Looking at top destinations for Watt
31 NFL teams would like to have a former three-time defensive player of the year on their defense, but there are a few that stand out from the rest for Watt's next destination.
The Steelers make all the sense in the world from several standpoints. Not only are they one of the most stable franchises in the NFL, but their defense was one of the best in 2020. Steelers led the league with 56 sacks, ranked third in total yards allowed (305.8), and ranked third with a +9 turnover differential.
Adding Watt would only strengthen their front seven that also includes J.J.'s younger brother, T.J. Watt. T.J. had an impressive season of his own, leading the league with 15 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. Watt would fit nicely with a defense that also includes Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Heyward.
Bud Dupree's upcoming free agency also opens up the door for Watt to step in and replace Dupree as a pass rusher in the Steelers' front seven.
Having J.J. reunite with his brothers (Derek and T.J.) would sound farfetched in most cases, but the Steelers are good enough of a football team to appeal to him as his next destination.
Green Bay Packers:
Signing with the hometown team shouldn't be a hard sell for Watt. The Green Bay Packers legacy as a franchise presents enough intrigue for Watt to return to where it all started, and he could definitely do worse than having Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback.
Rodgers continues to be one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, and he didn't disappoint last season as he led the league with 48 touchdown passes. The Packers finished first in the NFC North with a 13-3 record and presented enough of a threat in the playoffs to make it to the NFC title game.
The defense also showed enough promise, ranking 10th in the league with 41 sacks. The Packers' secondary also performed incredibly well as they finished 7th in the NFL in yards allowed (221.2).
Green Bay finished 13th in stopping the run (112.8), and they could certainly improve in that category with Watt's addition.
The Chicago Bears are an appealing franchise for Watt if he wants to be close to his family. Watt married his longtime girlfriend, Kealia Ohai, and it isn't out of the question that he would want to be closer to home with his significant other.
J.J. and Kealia coincided here in Texas, while Kealia was a standout player for the Houston Dash. However, Kealia was traded to the Chicago Red Stars in 2020.
Outside of the obvious family ties, J.J. would join a solid franchise in Chicago that has enough talent on defense to take some pressure from J.J. having to do all the heavy lifting.
Watt would be a solid addition to the defense that already boasts the likes of Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith in their front seven. Bears finished with 12th in passing yards allowed (231.6) and 15th in rush defense (113.4). The Bears defense finished 11th in the NFL with 344.9 yards allowed.
The Bears' biggest obstacle is their struggles at the QB position, but Chicago isn't married to Mitch Trubisky for the long term. They could find an upgrade sooner than later, and they have a talented defense that can keep them competitive.
All 3 teams will have to be creative to create sufficient cap room to sign Watt, but no one will argue he won't be worth the trouble. If a player like Watt wants to join your team, you have to make the accommodations.
Watt still has the ability to help any defense at this stage of his career, and it will be fascinating to follow the remaining years of what will be a Hall of Fame career when he hangs it up.