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The Falcons will have interest in J.J. Watt, but interest likely won’t translate to a signing

One of the best defensive linemen of the past decade hits the open market, but he’s likelier to sign

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Texans are in the middle of somewhat of a slow motion immolation of their franchise, one that has seen a former Patriots character coach seize control and alienate franchise players and fans alike. The latest step in that increasingly large barge fire is releasing J.J. Watt, the best player in franchise history at the moment. Watt had made his desire to escape pretty clear in recent weeks, and Houston is granting his wish.

The list of teams who won’t be interested in Watt is probably short, but the list of teams that will have the cap flexibility, proximity to contention, and appetite for actually signing a declining but effective player who has missed significant time in three of the past five seasons will also be short. As you’ve probably guessed, the Falcons will be making a phone call, bu they’re unlikely to win the Watt derby.

There are three reasons for that, all of which I just alluded to.

  • The Falcons can’t allocate that much money to one guy. The Saints wave their hands at their cap situation like the kids wave at the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas, so if the Falcons really wanted to carve out a spot for Watt they could. It’s just that doing so would preclude them from making other needed upgrades in free agency, so it seems deeply unlikely it would actually happen.

Atlanta needs to make some decisions on players with healthy cap hits in 2021 (Allen Bailey, James Carpenter, etc.) and potentially re-structure deals to free up room. Between free agency and the draft, they need to upgrade not just the defensive line but also running back, guard, potentially center, tight end (moreso depth there), and the secondary. Sinking huge money into a 32-year-old with 9 combined sacks and 53 pressures over the past two years would represent an upgrade on what the team has, but probably not the wisest use of their money.

  • The Falcons aren’t a slam dunk contender. If Watt wants to chase a ring or at least avoid a potential trip to the basement, he could sign with the Buccaneers, all-in Rams, Bills, Ravens, and so on. If he wants to hurt the Texans, he could sign with the Colts, Titans, or the likely-to-be-rising Jaguars. The Falcons may well return to contention this coming season, but they’re further away from it at this moment than the teams on the list above, and some of those teams have the cap flexibility to offer him a monster one year deal.
  • Watt isn’t what he was. His greatness is indisputable—you’re talking about a guy who had 20.5 sack seasons twice and has been one of the most dominant defensive linemen of the past decade—but there’s been a slow decline in his health and play going back a few years. Watt only played in eight games between 2016 and 2017 before bouncing back in a big way in 2018, when he put up 16 sacks and 61 pressures. Since then, as I mentioned above, he has just 9 sacks and 53 combined pressures. He’s still earning borderline elite grades from Pro Football Focus for his work against the run and still high quality pass rushing skills, but teams are going to be ponying up quite a bit of money for a player who has two 16 games seasons over the past five years.

He’d indisputably be a massive upgrade for the Falcons and would go a long way toward lifting the defense to consistent respectability, but this is a team that has vowed to make moves that push them toward contention not just this year but into the future. A Watt signing is much more likely to be a win-now move for Atlanta than anything else, and given that it would likely prevent them from signing a handful of younger, less expensive players to upgrade key areas of the roster, I can’t see it happening.

It’s always fun to dream about a player of Watt’s caliber shaking loose, and thanks to the Texans’ ongoing meltdown, it’s actually reality. It’s even more fun to dream about the Falcons signing someone like Watt, but for all the reasons above I doubt we’ll see him in black and red when all is said and done.