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The Cardinals’ Signing of J.J. Watt Continues the NFC West Arms Race

The Rams are all in, the Seahawks are a perennial contender, and the 49ers are a sleeping giant. Can Watt put Arizona over the top?

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Only believe J.J. Watt transactional news if it’s coming directly from the real J.J. Watt. On Monday afternoon, following a brief Twitter saga in which a fake Watt Peloton profile went viral, Watt scooped the NFL world’s biggest news breakers and announced he has signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Watt agreed to a two-year, $31 million deal worth $23 million in guarantees. The pact represents a splashy, aggressive acquisition for Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals. It’s also a surprising move for Watt, who joins a franchise with a promising young core, but one that doesn’t appear immediately primed for a Super Bowl run. Furthermore, Watt’s acquisition intensifies the offseason arms race developing in the NFC West, which is set to once again be one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions.

Watt reunites with former Texans teammate and All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, whom the Cardinals acquired from Houston for pennies last offseason. This time around, Arizona didn’t even have to exchange anything for a Texans star’s services, a further indictment on the Houston franchise that’s worth a separate discussion. The Cardinals host the Texans this upcoming season, though, so there will be time for a reunion … or revenge.

From 10,000 feet, the Cardinals seem like an odd fit for Watt. After being released, Watt had an advantage because he immediately hit the market, weeks in advance of the free-agency window. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was said to be taking his time with his decision and expressed that joining a contender would be an important factor. But the Cardinals finished last season 8-8, third best in their division, arguably the NFL’s most difficult. Perhaps Arizona’s improvement from 5-10-1 in Kingsbury’s debut season to a .500 record in his second suggests that they will take an additional leap next year. However, there’s a difference between a team with a promising future and a bona fide championship roster, and the current Cardinals could end up looking a lot like the teams Watt played for in his prime. Those Houston teams squandered dominant, 20-sack campaigns and were never much better than above average. The Cardinals’ inconsistent play last year suggests they are of a similar vein, except in a much stouter division.

Zooming in on Watt’s fit with Arizona, there are obvious reasons to believe he will be a seamless addition. Replenishing the defensive front ranked among Arizona’s most vital needs this offseason. Breakout pass rusher Haason Reddick, who registered 12.5 sacks last year, and veteran edge Markus Golden (4.5 sacks) are entering free agency. Reddick shined in a featured outside pass-rushing role, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be brought back after Watt’s signing. Per Rapoport, the Cardinals want to re-sign Reddick, as well as veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. Watt’s addition could make a return more enticing for Peterson because Watt, a five-time All-Pro, represents an upgrade for the Cardinals defense, which finished last season as Football Outsiders’ no. 10 total DVOA defense.

As USA Today’s Charles McDonald detailed, Watt will plug into defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme as a weak-side end and strong-side end against the run—an area where Arizona was just OK defensively, finishing 14th in Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA ratings. Watt is very productive within the interior and his 90.1 Pro Football Focus grade as an interior rusher across the past two seasons ranked fourth among players. Last season, Watt’s sacks were down (five), but he was also double-teamed on 30 percent of his snaps, per ESPN Stats and Info, the highest mark for an edge rusher. Considering the Cardinals face the Rams’ (no. 4 DVOA rush offense last season) and 49ers’ (no. 7 DVOA rush offense in 2019, when the team was healthy) high-powered rushing attacks twice per year, Watt’s ability to impact the run will be particularly cherished.

Going into his age-32 season, Watt is no longer the same DPOY force he once was, but he’s still productive. Playing opposite defensive end Chandler Jones, Watt could perhaps capture some of his old form as a pass rusher. Watt recorded five sacks in 16 games last year. Jones, a 2019 All-Pro, recorded only one sack in five games last season before a biceps injury ended his season in mid-October. The pair is beyond its prime, but each player’s career production is astounding; Watt (95.5) and Jones (97) have more sacks than any other NFL player since 2012. According to Pro Football Reference, the Cardinals finished with the eighth-highest pressure rate in 2020, but needed to blitz at the fourth-highest rate of any team to achieve that total. Adding Watt should allow Arizona to pressure QBs more consistently, a development Seahawks star Russell Wilson—who’s waged a public campaign to upgrade his protection—is probably not too excited about.

Watt’s addition signals that the Cardinals plan to compete for the NFC West crown again next season. They were positioned to make a run at it entering Week 11, but a 2-5 finish spoiled things. There’s an argument that last year, the early perceived strength of the division might’ve been fool’s gold given the way the NFC West took advantage of the pitiful NFC East. (NFC West teams went a combined 12-4 against NFC East opponents in 2020.) But by most metrics, each of the four teams was as good as their records suggested—and in the 49ers’ case, possibly better.

We know the formula to get to a Super Bowl usually involves having elite or very good quarterback play. The final four teams from last season—Bucs (Tom Brady), Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Bills (Josh Allen), and Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes)—are good examples of that. After the Rams upgraded from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford, at least three NFC West teams surely believe they fit that criteria, and the Niners, who are the question mark in that equation, have already reached a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo. The quality of quarterback play alone makes the dynamics of the NFC West compelling. The other main ingredient that typical Super Bowl contenders boast is a strong defense. Los Angeles’s new defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, inherits reigning DPOY Aaron Donald and star defensive back Jalen Ramsey. San Francisco’s new defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans, fields a unit that will need to revamp its secondary, but features stars Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Fred Warner within the front seven. The Cardinals finished as a top-10 defensive unit in efficiency and added Watt. Only the Seahawks—whose defense showed signs of life down the stretch of the regular season—return a bottom-half group.

According to Over the Cap, the 49ers ($12.5 million) and Cardinals ($11.2 million) have the most cap space to work with, while the Seahawks ($1.8 million) are near the limit and the Rams (minus-$34.8 million) have the third-highest cap number in the league. But L.A. is among the best at performing salary cap gymnastics, so its core will mostly remain intact. The Rams already pushed their chips in this offseason when they landed Stafford. The Cardinals just nabbed their first notable addition. Meanwhile, we wait to see whether the Niners will upgrade at quarterback. And appeasing Wilson by acquiring offensive line help rather than trading the quarterback this offseason seems like the most logical decision for Seattle.

The other noteworthy bit is the coaching shuffling that’s happened within the division. Opposing teams once again raided Sean McVay’s Rams staff. L.A. lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley (now the Chargers’ head coach) and passing game coordinator Shane Waldron (now the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator), and McVay had to block offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell from leaving to be the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks fired offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and replaced him with Waldron. Kyle Shanahan and the Niners lost defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (now the Jets’ head coach) and passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur (now Jets offensive coordinator), and replaced the former with Ryans while promoting former run game coordinator Mike McDaniel to offensive coordinator. The Cardinals are the only NFC West staff with significant continuity. Passing game coordinator Tom Clements retired, and Kingsbury promoted offensive line coach Sean Kugler to run game coordinator. Sure, all four teams’ head coaches are back. But the turnover within the staff, in another offseason that could be affected by the ongoing pandemic, could play a role heading into the new season.

It’s worth questioning whether or not this move will get both Watt and the Cardinals to the next level. Watt escaped Houston’s turmoil. (The mutual nature of the release suggested he would’ve been a Texans’ salary cap casualty anyway.) However, he joined a franchise that hasn’t proved that it’s ready to win its division, much less make a Super Bowl run. Per ESPN’s Dianna Russini, Watt received “several offers” from teams, and ESPN’s Kimberley A. Martin said that the Bills, who reached the AFC championship game last season, were one of the teams that Watt was interested in, and vice versa. He ended up with a team that hasn’t posted a winning record since 2015. In his farewell post to Houston, Watt never detailed what he was exactly looking for in his next team, he just said he was “excited and looking forward to a new opportunity.” Arizona is certainly a new opportunity and there’s an unquestionable logical fit schematically, but Watt has already been to the divisional round four times in his career. That’s as far as he got in Houston. The Cardinals will have to take a massive step to get him beyond that. Perhaps the acquisition of Watt is the start of the Cardinals making that ascension. It’s an uphill climb for everyone involved.