The thrill of real football is back for J.J. Watt. After a miserable season with the Houston Texans, who disintegrated in near-record time, the five-time first-team All-Pro defender is excited to be a part of the Arizona Cardinals.
Watt signed a two-year, $28 million contract with Arizona in February. However, he has his first complaint with the team: The Cardinals shorted him by $2.
Expectations are high for J.J. Watt in 2021
Getting back on the field full-time in 2020 was a big step for Watt, whose 2016, ’17, and ’19 seasons consisted of a combined 16 games. He posted just five sacks last fall, but the Texans had devolved into such an awful team just one year after the devastating playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that it was difficult to read much into individual stats.
Bill O’Brien’s mismanagement of the roster as the de facto general manager while also coaching the team led to an early-season shakeup. By the end of a 4-12 season, Watt was hardly the only player who didn’t want to be there any longer. He caught a break when the Texans agreed to let him go after a season in which he led all NFL defensive linemen by playing 1,016 downs.
The Cardinals are by no means great, but coach Kliff Kingsbury took them from 5-10-1 to 8-8 in his second season, and they made strides on both sides of the ball.
Linebackers Haason Reddick (12.5 sacks) and De’Vondre Campbell (99 tackles) left for the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers, respectively, and Chandler Jones is disgruntled and might also be on his way out of town. That means the Cardinals are looking toward Watt for stability on defense as they try to take the next step forward.
J.J. Watt became fired up over a $2 insult
The Cardinals’ social media team posted a game on their Twitter account last week. In it, followers build their “ultimate defense” consisting of the franchise’s past and present greats. Five players at each of five positions were assigned values of one to five dollars, and the objective is to pick a lineup with a total budget of $15.
The game lists Watt as the $3 option on the defensive line. The social media crew rated Calais Campbell, who left after nine seasons for Jacksonville and then Baltimore, and Simeon Rice, who retired in 2007, as more valuable choices than Watt.
Watt, 32, couldn’t help but notice.
“I’m out here catching stray bullets from my own team before we even start camp,” he joked on Twitter, followed by three laughter emojis.
He’s already having a positive effect
J.J. Watt’s worth to the Cardinals goes beyond whatever he can deliver on the field. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year took leadership roles in offseason workouts and team mini-camps.
“With J.J., anywhere he goes in the building things seem to intensify and that’s what you’re looking for,” Kingsbury told AZCentral.com. “Whether he’s in the weight room working out or he’s doing a drill with some of those younger D-linemen, I mean he lifts up the group and so it’s been impressive to see how he carries himself.
“The professionalism, whether he’s in meetings or in drills, it’s just next level.”
Safety Budda Baker, one of the Cardinals’ leading defenders, has taken notice of the way Watt pushes his new teammates to be on time and remain focused on improving each day.
“That’s something that guys didn’t really do the past few years that I’ve been here, is hold each other accountable,” Baker said.
Watt downplays the compliments he hears from coaches and teammates.
“Trust me, I’m no perfect leader by any means,” Watt said. “I don’t know if anybody is. You’re constantly evolving, constantly learning. You’re making mistakes yourself and trying to correct them.”
That’s true everywhere, including the guy in the social media department who might be about to discover that Watt is more than a $3 defensive end.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.