When news broke that the Houston Texans released J.J. Watt after ten seasons with the team, visions started dancing in the minds of Bucs fans – visions of a base defensive front with Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett bookending Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and J.J. Watt, with Lavonte David and Devin White behind them.
It ain’t just a dream, Bucs fans. This can and probably should happen in Tampa Bay.
Bear with me for a moment while I get through the “can” part of the equation.
How can the Bucs afford to pay Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David (as well as Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh and Chris Godwin), and still have enough cap space to get a player like J.J. Watt on board? Here’s how.
If the salary cap comes in at around the expected $180.5 million, the Bucs have about $28 million in cap space available for the 2020 offseason, right now anyway. That’s in the top ten in available cap space amongst all teams in the NFL. With a few re-structures (Ali Marpet’s contract is a prime candidate) and some short extensions for Ryan Jensen and Donovan Smith, who are both entering the final year of their deals while coming off career-best seasons, the Bucs could be in an even better cap space for the 2021 offseason.
But even more importantly, the Bucs are in the best cap position in the entire NFL for the 2022 offseason, currently slated to have the most cap space available in the league. Some of that will be used up in possible extensions for Tom Brady (if he decides to play another year) and Carlton Davis (who will be a free agent in 2022), but there is still a ton of space available for the Bucs to load up this offseason’s contract to have their biggest cap hits in 2022, when the cap should go up again.
It’s all part of brilliant roster and contract structuring by Jason Licht, Mike Greenberg and Jackie Davidson, who have done the opposite of the New Orleans Saints by not kicking the can down the road at all. As a result, they are poised to re-sign all their key free agents and bring in another big-name target like Watt.
The Bucs are looking at something like Chris Godwin $16M tag, Shaq Barrett $18-19M per year, with a $7M cap hit in 2021, Rob Gronkowski $3-4M with incentives, Suh around the same, Lavonte David around $12-$13M per year, again with the majority of the hit coming in 2022. Couple all that with a few other contract moves, and the team is poised to fit everyone in under the cap and still go after Watt.
If you want to hear more details, here is NFL cap expert Brad Spielberger on the Pewter Report Podcast talking about the Bucs realistic options with each of the team’s free agents this offseason. Near the end, we talk about the Bucs signing Watt specifically.
Now, this doesn’t mean it will be easy. It will require some serious legwork and creativity on the part of the Bucs to make this happen. It may also require cutting Cam Brate (which has a strong chance of happening anyway) and either cutting Will Gholston or asking him to take a significant pay cut. After all, with Watt on board, Gholston’s starting spot would be gone, and cutting he and Brate would save the team $12 million in 2021. That’s probably enough to sign Watt right there.
I know, I know. Sentimentality is strong for this 2020 roster, but the reality is that you don’t pay your No. 3 tight end $6.5 million dollars, and you don’t pay your fourth-best interior defensive lineman $5.5 million, not when you’ve got Watt on board. It’s a business, and these are clearly the right business moves to make.
As for Watt, I asked two salary cap experts what he’s likely looking for at this stage of his career, with a lengthy injury history and the defensive lineman’s 32nd birthday coming up in about six weeks. The answers I received were pretty consistent: about $10-12 million a year to sign with a contender, on probably a two-year contract. So for two years, we’re probably looking at something like a $25 million contract, with $20 million guaranteed.
That’s extremely doable for the Bucs, especially with cuts to Brate and Gholston, so now the question becomes: is Watt worth it?
To me, that answer is undeniably yes. Watt played on the worst defensive line in the NFL last season and still managed five sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss. Watt graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th-best edge defender on the 2020 season and produced an elite pass rush win rate despite being the most double-teamed edge in the NFL by FAR, yet still produced an elite pass rush win rate.
Watt’s football character and work ethic would obviously fit in right away in Tampa Bay, and he would allow Todd Bowles even more creativity with his defensive fronts. Want to stand up Watt to rush on the edge and kick Pierre-Paul inside on pass obvious downs? Done. Want to play Watt at 3-technique on literally any down? Done, he’s an elite run defender playing over the guard or the tackle. Want to drop a defensive tackle into coverage as Bowles did on a handful of snaps last season with very little success? How about a guy with Watt’s wingspan in the middle of the field? Sure beats Suh or Rakeem Nunez-Roches in that role.
Simply put, a player of Watt’s caliber does not become available every offseason, and definitely not at the price that Watt will be available at. He may not be peak Watt, but the Bucs don’t need him to be. What they need is another pass-rushing threat to pair with Vea on the inside, and getting someone with Watt’s positional flexibility and complete skill set is only icing on the cake. Plus, because Watt is only looking for a short term deal, his health and longevity becomes less of an issue for Tampa Bay. It’s a win-now move with a ton of upside and very little downside.
Again, this is definitely all possible for Tampa Bay, even if it requires a little creativity. They can do it. The question is, will they? I think the move makes a ton of sense on every level. The Bucs biggest priority for the offseason should be finding another pass rush threat on their defensive line, and J.J. Freaking Watt just became available in an all-in offseason for a reasonable price that the Bucs can afford with no damage to their long-term cap situation. Tampa Bay has already shown an understanding that their Super Bowl window is now, making an expensive move to acquire Rob Gronkowski and being aggressive on several other cheaper moves like signing Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and trading for Steve McLendon. There will be other suitors in Chicago and Green Bay, among others, but if Watt wants to go all in for a Super Bowl in 2021, he probably can’t find a better place to do it than Tampa Bay.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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