INDIANAPOLIS – Another layer has been added to an already interesting NFL offseason.
J.J. Watt, the face of the Houston Texans since being selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, has been released. He asked to have his contract terminated during a meeting with team owners.
“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity,’’ Watt said on a video posted on Twitter.
The move apparently was anticipated in Houston as the team is in the midst of a major overhaul – and then there’s the simmering standoff with franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson – but the finality nonetheless shouldn’t be casually dismissed.
Suddenly, one of the NFL’s most disruptive defensive players is a free agent. Watt, who turns 32 in March, is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. His 101 career sacks rank 3rd among active players, but his impact transcends sacks. In 128 games, Watt also has 282 quarterback hits, 172 tackles for loss, 25 forced fumbles and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.
Watt has had just 9 sacks in 24 games the last two seasons, including 5 last season, but he complemented that with 41 quarterback hits and 18 tackles for loss. Of 119 qualified pass rushers in 2020, Watt ranked 15th in pass-rush win rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
At this stage of his career, Watt undoubtedly will look to relocate to a team that’s primed to challenge for a championship. The Texans reached the playoffs five times but never advanced past the second round.
During the season, Watt conceded he’s in the twilight of what is a Hall of Fame career.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t have 10 years left in this league,’’ he said. “I personally believe that I do have a few more great years. I’m not looking to rebuild. I’m looking to go after a championship and that’s what I want to do.’’
There should be no lack of interest in Watt, although a team running a 3-4 defense might have the edge. The possible cost? Watt was scheduled to earn $17.5 million from the Texans in 2020.
And keep in mind, Watt can go wherever he wants to go.
The more teams that show an interest, the higher his likely asking price.
Might he have an interest in signing with the Green Bay Packers? He’s a Wisconsin native who attended the University of Wisconsin.
Might he prefer hooking up with brothers T.J. and Derek with the Pittsburgh Steelers?
How about staying in the AFC South and providing the Indianapolis Colts with an edge pass rushing presence? The team’s top defensive ends will be unrestricted free agents in March: Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad.
If there’s a mutual interest, the Colts have a need at the position and the resources to make it happen. They’re projected to have roughly $69 million in cap space.
General manager Chris Ballard has expressed an interest in re-signing Houston, but might Watt be a better alternative? He certainly would command a heftier contract. The Colts signed Houston to a two-year, $23 million free-agent deal in 2019.
Both are products of the 2011 draft. Watt was taken 11th overall while Houston, 32, was selected in the third round (70th overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Over the past two seasons, Watt has 9 sacks, 41 quarterback hits and 18 tackles for loss in 24 games. Houston has 19 sacks, 30 quarterback hits and 21 tackles for loss.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.