TEMPE, Ariz. – J.J. Watt didn't lack for suitors when deciding where to continue his spectacular football career. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year said there were four or five teams seriously in the hunt.
But the more he looked at his options, the more the Arizona Cardinals made sense.
They had a young, talented quarterback in Kyler Murray. They had his old buddy from the Texans, DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top receivers in the league. They had defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, for whom he played in Houston early in his career and admires.
There were also those pictures that everyone in the Cardinals organization kept sending him of Paradise Valley.
“I'm not going to lie to you," Watt said on Tuesday. "It doesn't hurt when it's 65 degrees and sunny outside when I woke up this morning. It's pretty nice.”
A five-time All-Pro, Watt, who turns 32 in a few weeks, has been one of the NFL’s best players for a decade with the Houston Texans, but asked out in Houston, which is undergoing a roster upheaval. A person familiar with his two-year contract told The Associated Press that the total package is worth $31 million.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team did not reveal any terms.
The contract was a coup for the Cardinals, who are trying to break a five-year playoff drought. They finished 8-8 in 2020, losing five of their last seven games to fall just short of the postseason. Watt's been slowed by injuries over the past few seasons, but when asked how much gas he has left in the tank, he responded: “A lot. A whole lot.”
Watt said he's happy to contribute off-the-field leadership at this stage of his career, but the biggest thing that will help push the Cardinals back to the playoffs is his production.
“It’s tackles for loss, it’s sacks, it’s batted balls, it’s going out there and making plays, changing the game, helping swing momentum, taking blockers off other guys, whatever I need to do from a playing standpoint," Watt said. "It’s that. It’s dominating. That’s what I’ll say.”
He was the league’s top defensive player in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Then injuries began to take a toll. He appeared in only three games in 2016 and five the next season, sidelined by back problems and then a broken leg. In 2019, Watt missed half of the schedule with a torn pectoral muscle.
He returned to play the entire 2020 season and was effective, though not dominant. He finished with 14 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
But the Cardinals are confident he's still a force to be dealt with. Watt said the team's recruiting pitch was “strong and heavy” when trying to entice the edge rusher to the desert.
There were players reaching out, coaches, and even non-football personnel who made the pitch. Then there was the constant flow of pictures from beautiful places that make Arizona a destination for vacations.
“I give them credit, they attacked from all angles,” Watt said.
Watt also managed to pull off something that's nearly impossible during free agency: announcing his decision on social media himself. On Monday morning, he posted a picture that showed him lifting weights in a Cardinals shirt with a caption that read “source: me.”
It wasn't easy to keep the secret. A few days before he made his final decision, he had his brother's high school friend use his own credit card to order shirts from four or five teams, ship them to his house and then deliver them.
“Shout out to Doug and Joe for making this happen,” Watt said laughing. “I appreciate you guys. They're the true brains behind the shirt I wore for the workout.”
Now that the trickery is over, the focus is on football. Watt said he'll always remember Houston fondly, but he's eager to start the next phase of his career with the Cardinals.
When asked how close Arizona was to a deep playoff run, Watt responded that the only obstacle was time.
“A few months,” Watt said. “You gotta get to the season before you get to the playoffs, right?"
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