Another star is leaving Houston, and the franchise losing him has hardly anything to show for it. On Friday morning, J.J. Watt announced that he’d asked for and been granted his release by Texans ownership, ending his 10-year run as the face of the franchise.
“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity and I’ve been working extremely hard,” Watt said in a video message. “But at the same time, it is always tough to move on.”
There was a trade market for Watt, who was expected to depart Houston this offseason. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Texans could have received “a solid draft pick” in exchange for Watt’s services. Instead, Houston will get nothing in return for one of the top defensive players of his generation—not even so much as a compensatory pick.
For the Texans, Watt’s departure marks the second high-profile exit to occur within a year’s span. And once again, the deal failed to yield any worthwhile return for a club that’s needed it. The defensive lineman’s decision to leave—and Houston’s willingness to grant his wish—confirms not only the end of an era for the franchise, but also spurs questions about its direction and what it means for both Watt and the Texans’ immediate futures.
At the height of his powers, Watt was the NFL’s most dominant defensive player. The five-time All-Pro first-teamer is one of three players in NFL history to win three Defensive Player of the Year Awards (2012, 2014, 2015). He led the NFL in sacks in both 2012 (20.5) and 2015 (17.5), and registered four consecutive double-digit sack seasons from 2012 to 2015.
Watt appeared in only eight games across the 2016 and 2017 seasons, which were derailed by a herniated disk and a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg, respectively. He returned to full health in 2018 and immediately got back to dominating the game, tallying 16 sacks. However, over the past two seasons, Watt has posted just nine total sacks in 24 games as Houston’s defense regressed into one of the league’s bottom-half units. Watt has still been an impact player when available, but the 31-year-old isn’t the game-wrecking force that he was in the early 2010s.
Watt, a five-time Pro Bowler, helped the Texans to capture five AFC South division crowns, appearing in eight playoff games during his tenure. Watt’s dominance fueled several of those runs, including in his rookie season, when he recorded a pick-six in the wild-card round against the Bengals. The score was one of seven that the former no. 11 draft pick made over the course of his Texans career. After missing the final eight games of the 2019 regular season with a torn pectoral muscle, Watt returned for Houston’s wild-card win against the Bills, a game in which he made a crucial red zone sack that helped spark a Texans’ comeback. Watt leaves Houston as its career leader in sacks (101), padding a résumé that makes him a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Watt’s legacy extends beyond what he was able to provide on the football field. When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston community in 2017, Watt put out a call to action, seeking to raise $200,000 for affected families around the Southeast Texas area. He ended up raising more than $37 million, and within two years, his relief fund helped build more than 1,100 homes. Watt was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and the NFL’s 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his efforts.
“Simply put, there has been no person in the past decade who has made a greater impact on the Texans organization than J.J. Watt,” Texans cofounder Janice S. McNair said in a statement.
Watt’s generational talent and genuine connection with Houston made him seemingly priceless to the Texans franchise. But the dip in his production and the fact he was due $17.5 million this season, the last year of his six-year, $100 million extension, proved that wasn’t the case. And with Houston projected to be above the 2021 salary cap, it made sense for the franchise to unload him this offseason.
It was surprising that Houston didn’t trade Watt, for multiple reasons. While Watt’s statistical production has been down, he’s remained mostly effective along the line of scrimmage, and there are a handful of contending teams who would have likely benefited from acquiring him. However, Houston determined that none of the trade packages it was offered for Watt were enticing enough to accept. Instead, the Texans released Watt to clear room and avoid any dead cap charge in 2021. According to Spotrac, the Texans now project to be $10.2 million under the cap limit for the 2021 season, which could allow general manager Nick Caserio some breathing room in building the current roster. The release also now allows Watt to pick his new team. The Steelers—for whom Watt’s brothers, T.J. and Derek, play—are among the initial odds-on favorites to sign him. Because Watt is a Wisconsin native, the Packers are also considered an early favorite for his services.
The other reason Watt’s release was surprising: The Texans were willing to do right by their longtime franchise face despite having been publicly stubborn about allowing quarterback Deshaun Watson to move on. Watson already has requested a trade, and while he could net an unprecedented amount in return, Houston remains set on keeping him.
Houston CEO Cal McNair told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday that “Deshaun is our quarterback, he is a Texan, and we expect him to remain a Texan.” As Watt announced his freedom from Houston’s dysfunction, Watson expressed appreciation for the veteran’s time as he continues to endure it.
Salute to one of the Greatest of All Time @JJWatt I appreciate you for all the work you put in and more importantly the person you are. Any team in the league will be better the day you out on their jersey! 1OVE my brother! MORE Glory
— Deshaun Watson (@deshaunwatson) February 12, 2021
DeAndre Hopkins. Jadeveon Clowney. J.J. Watt. Through the early 2010s, that core gave the Texans the looks of a budding contender. The addition of Watson tethered it all together, and at times they looked like a team ready to make a jump. But now three of those four players are gone, and the last player remaining is determined to force his way out.
Texans in the last 18 months
—cut J.J. Watt
—traded DeAndre Hopkins
—traded two first-rounders
—Will Fuller popped for PEDs
—blew 24-0 lead to KC in playoffs
Also Deshaun Watson wants to leave
— Danny Heifetz (@Danny_Heifetz) February 12, 2021
The Texans are undergoing a facelift this offseason, but what they’ll look like going forward remains to be seen. According to features writer Tyler Dunne, Watson is still determined to force his way out of Houston. McNair said Friday that Houston won’t budge either, echoing the sentiment that Caserio expressed at the end of January. But Watt has escaped the madness.