by @SteezyASmith, FTFN Seahawks writer
Despite having been one of the best running backs in the NFL since being drafted in 2016, it’s pretty safe to say that Ezekiel Elliot is one of the most overpaid players in the NFL, especially after witnessing the horror that was his 2020 season. It was the first time in his career in which he didn’t rush for over 1,000 yards (while playing 15 or more games) and he had more games averaging under 4 yards a carry (six) than 100-yard games (2). Blame it on the injuries, but at the end of the day, the stats are what they are for the second-highest paid running back in the league. Now, what if I said that JJ Watt makes less than Zeke on an annual basis? Zeke clocks in at $15 million annually, while Watt makes $14 million annually. Would you still stay Watt is overpaid?
Yes, JJ Watt agreed to terms on a 2-year, $31 million ($23 million guaranteed) contract with the Arizona Cardinals earlier this week. However, not many are paying attention to the details of the contract, which entails that to make the full $31 million, Watt has to reach performance-based incentives (10 sacks in 2021, being on the roster in March of 2022, etc.) which equate to $3 million. As it stands right now, (incentives excluded) Watt’s contract is for 2 years and $28 million ($23 still guaranteed) with the potential to reach $31 million if all the language of the contract is fulfilled.
With that aside, what if I also told you that Watt finished with a much higher Pro Football Focus rating (85.4) than the fourth highest-paid defensive end in football (Frank Clark), who finished with a pedestrian 54.3 on the year. Not only that, Watt had one less sack (5.0) than Clark, who finished with just 6.0 on the year! Is Watt still overpaid then? While Clark is younger (27) than Watt (31), his play has not nearly warranted making north of $20 million on an annual basis and being in the top 5 highest paid at his position.
The casual fan is quick to point out that Watt only chose the Cardinals simply because they had the largest offer on the table. While that may be true, the Cards have so much more to offer than just wads of cash.
Let’s rewind back to last season, shall we? The Cardinals defense this past season wasn’t special, but they weren’t pushovers either. They finished in the middle of the pack statistically in most of the major categories. 12th in points allowed (22.9 points per game), 13th in yards allowed (351.9 yards per game), 21st in takeaways (18), and fourth in sacks (48). Did I forget to mention that the Cardinals defense did all of this without their best defender/pass-rusher (Chandler Jones) for 11 games? The fact that the Cardinals finished in the top 5 in sacks without the 2019 sack king is a testament to their pass rush and Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph’s (who was the Texans defensive backs coach from 2011-2013) ability to scheme up pressure/blitz packages against opposing offenses (ask Russell Wilson). Yes, Watt is no longer in his prime. However, at just 31 years old, he isn’t too far past it. Throw in a healthy Chandler Jones to the fold next season, and you have arguably the most feared pass-rushing duo in the NFL. Jones (97.0) & Watt (95.5) are first and second, respectively, in most sacks since 2012.
In addition, the Cardinals defense has a few centerpieces outside of Watt and Jones, so it’s not like they’re still in the rebuilding phase and are years away from competing. With what they have right now, I’d stand to say that they’re only a few pieces away from being viable contenders in the NFC West, if not the entire NFC itself. In Budda Baker, you have one of the brightest young safeties in the game who led the team in solo tackles last year. While he still needs to be resigned, linebacker Haason Reddick exploded for 12.5 sacks last year (after compiling 7.5 in his previous three seasons in the NFL). One of the better corners in the last decade in Patrick Peterson also needs to be resigned, but with Watt in town, there’s no doubt in my mind that Peterson will elect to come back once he realizes how much potential this team has if they remain intact.
One would be wise to ask if Watt is still a serviceable player moving forward for the Cardinals, especially given his price-tag and the fact that he was only able to compile 5 sacks in his first 16-game season for the Texans since 2018. However, my retort to that is, who did Watt have playing alongside him last season? Can you name of the Texans defensive players he played with? When you’re doubled on every play and are the only player on defense capable of commanding any sort of attention, it’s that much more difficult to stuff the stat sheet. According to ESPN.com, Watt finished in the top-10 percentile in pass rush win rate. Out of 119 qualified defenders/pass-rushers, the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year ranked 15th. Pass rush win rate basically tells us whose winning their one on one matchups. Stats aren’t everything, but having a little bit of help on defense certainly goes a long way. As I stated earlier, while no longer elite, Watt is still very much an above average defender and would do wonders for a team that isn’t too many pieces away from surprising a lot of people next season.
Does anyone remember the late great Reggie White? ‘The Prime Minister’? Once upon a time (before all the injuries), Watt was compared to one of the greatest defensive players of all time. Now, I’m not going to go down that road. What I will do though, is compare Watt and Arizona to White and Green Bay. In 1992, White left the Eagles in free agency and caught a lot of flack for it. He cited Brett Favre as one of the reasons why he felt confident in coming to Green Bay. 5 years later, he hoisted a Super Bowl trophy with Favre and the Packers. Sound familiar? (no, not the Super Bowl part) In giving his reasons for going with Arizona over the field, Watt spoke glowingly in his praise of Kyler Murray, stating that he “believes in him.”
Despite being the starting quarterback for a division rival, I too believe in Kyler Murray and can easily see him entering the top-5 QB discussion as early as next season. He has that much potential. Don’t be surprised if Arizona takes that leap and not only make the playoffs next season, but also make a run at a NFC West title.
Let me know in the comment section below, am I tripping? Don’t forget to get at me on Instagram @SteezyASmith, on YouTube @SteezyASmith, on Facebook at the same handle, and TikTok @SteezyASmith. Be sure to show some love to my fellow Seahawk content creators as well at @NorbCam & @DjSquabo. Go Hawks and I look forward to connecting with you guys all again!