After weeks of speculation, Watt officially announced on Monday that he has signed with the Arizona Cardinals, transitioning the Cardinals into a “win now” team.
In the offseason regime of professional sports, it is sort of an unspoken rule that when one team transcends another descends. This decade, there may not be a more superior example than the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans.
Last offseason, the Cardinals traded for a disgruntled Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who was frustrated with then Houston head coach Bill O’Brien. One of the best receivers in football, the Cardinals gave up three draft picks, none of which were in the first round, and running back David Johnson. Hopkins went on to tie a career-high of 115 receptions in 2020, proving what was already an inevitable — Arizona had won the trade.
While the Cardinals as a team underperformed last season, the situation with the Texans’ organization has turned to complete disarray. Not only is their franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson currently seeking a trade that the organization continues to ignore, but they also forced 10-year Texan defensive end, J.J. Watt, to abandon ship and request a release from the only NFL team he had ever known.
Arizona, once again, benefited from Houston’s organizational faults. Once Watt hit free agency, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year became one of the most highly sought-after players available in the market. The winner of this marathon ended up being the Cardinals, who offered Watt a two-year, $31 million contract which he officially signed on Monday.
Watt will be joining a team that is looking to find its identity in 2021. With second-year quarterback Kyler Murray being handed a new weapon in Hopkins last season, the former Sooner experienced a better statistical season in 2020-21 than he did in his rookie 2019-20 campaign.
That connection, through more meaningful snaps, has the potential to be one of the strongest QB/WR dynamics in all of football. On top of that, adding pieces such as tailbacks Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds — who head coach Kliff Kingsbury believes to be worthy of a starting role in their offense — along with other pass-catchers such as future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and slot threat Christian Kirk, their offense has every weapon they could want to be great.
Where the offense has the potential to make the jump from great to elite lies within the play of the offensive line. Ranked by PFF in 2018 as the worst offensive line in football, Arizona’s front five has made major leaps every season since, as PFF named them the 12th best line in the NFL last season. If the offensive line makes another stride forward next season, with a strong tackle duo in D.J. Humphries and Kelvin Beachum, Arizona’s offense could potentially transition into a top five-ranked unit.
Despite Kingsbury being an offensive-minded coach, the Cardinals’ defense will prove to be the most important component to this team’s success. The reason for this is their experience in all facets on the field.
Their secondary will continue to run through the play of cornerback Patrick Peterson. A three-time All-Pro, Peterson only seems to get better with age. Last season, he forced three interceptions, which is the first time he has reached that total since 2016. His physicality in coverage was also present with his tackling, as his 61 combined tackles were his highest mark since his rookie season in 2011. Add that play with another veteran presence across from him in corner Dre Kirkpatrick, and possibly the most exciting young talent at safety in the NFL in Budda Baker, Arizona’s secondary should continue to impress heading into next season.
Their defensive front, on the other hand, is highlighted by their pass rush. With 48 team sacks, the Cardinals ranked fourth in the league last season. Their rushing defense, however, was far more suspect. In 16 games, they gave up 2,008 rushing yards, which ranked 21st in the NFL. This is where the acquisition of Watt becomes so important.
According to ESPN Analytics, Watt held a 29% run stop win rate last season as an edge defender, which tied for the fourth-highest percentage in that group with Khalil Mack and Chase Young. Adding Watt to the front seven will immediately improve Arizona’s rushing defense. However, what he brings to the table in terms of his ability to get to the quarterback might make Cardinals fans even more ecstatic.
The player who holds the most sacks since the start of 2012 is Chandler Jones, a Cardinal of five years, with 97. The second-ranked player in that category is Watt, Jones’ newest teammate, with 95.5. No matter the team, Arizona’s edge rush will likely topple any outside protection they play, meaning doom for any opposing quarterback.
Playing in one of the most competitive divisions in football in the NFC West, the Cardinals made the perfect move to propel themselves into playoff contention, something they haven’t experienced since 2015. With a young offense that is near the end of their growing pains and an experienced defense with two of the best pass rush presences in the league, the Cardinals are announcing to the world that they are ready to win now.
And the rest of the NFC should take that announcement very, very seriously.