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Opinion: the Buffalo Bills should work to sign J.J. Watt

Want a boost to the pass rush? How about a future Hall of Fame player?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills need a pass rush boost. J.J. Watt needs a team, preferably one close to Super Bowl contention. J.J. Watt is an outstanding pass rusher. The Buffalo Bills are close to Super Bowl contention. It all makes too much sense!

So why, then, wouldn’t the Bills work to sign Watt, who is bound for Canton upon his retirement? Reports indicate that the team is already trying to sign him, which shows that general manager Brandon Beane is fully committed to making every effort to improve the club, no matter the potential cost. And the money is a huge factor, here, as the Bills are already tight to the projected 2021 salary cap (Spotrac estimates that Buffalo has $3.8 million in cap space at the moment) and Watt had a $15.5 million cap number last season.

Teams have been creatively working the salary cap for years now (see the New Orleans Saints, who consistently rummage through the couch cushions for pennies while still managing to field a supremely talented roster). The Bills can offload some bloated contracts along the defensive line and create plenty of space in the lineup and salary cap to sign Watt. Releasing Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, and Quinton Jefferson frees $18 million and change.

If you’re going to pay J.J. Watt top-ten money, that’s one thing. But Addison, Jefferson, and Butler are slated to carry the fifth-highest, eighth-highest, and tenth-highest cap numbers, respectively, for the 2021 Bills. The sum of that equation still doesn’t equal Watt’s talent, even if Watt may be on the downside of his career.

While we’re on that subject, let’s address some other elephants in this proverbial room. Watt turns 32 in March, and he’s played a full season only twice in his last five years—the 2020 and 2018 seasons. In those two years, he totaled 21 sacks, 38 tackles-for-loss (TFLs), and 42 quarterback hits. And yes, before you start yelling at the screen, the majority of that production came in 2018. Watt totaled five sacks, 14 TFLs, and 17 quarterback hits for a 4-12 Houston Texans squad in 2020.

Those numbers definitely aren’t impressive for J.J. Watt, but how would they have ranked on the 2020 Buffalo Bills? Well, Watt would have tied for first in sacks (matching Mario Addison and A.J. Klein). He would have led the team in quarterback hits and TFLs by a wide margin, as Jerry Hughes (11 QB hits) and Addison (seven TFLs) would have taken a back seat. Hell, Watt would have been third on the Bills in pass breakups, as his total (7) was tied with Taron Johnson and only one behind Levi Wallace. He isn’t called “J.J. Swatt” for nothing.

Today, Watt isn’t the player who was named First-Team All-Pro for four straight years, a player who averaged 17 sacks, 30 tackles for loss, and 48 quarterback hits per season from 2012-2016. It’s possible that he isn’t even the player that he was in 2018 when he had 16 sacks and forced seven fumbles on the way to his fifth All-Pro nod.

But even if he’s half of that player, he is instantly the best player on Buffalo’s defensive line. He is the guy drawing double-teams instead of Jerry Hughes, who flourished when another former Texans pass rusher, Mario Williams, came to Buffalo and allowed Hughes to beat single blocks while earning double-digit sack totals in 2013 and 2014—the only time he’s done so in his career. He’s forcing teams to commit more help to the outside, leaving the middle of the pass rush more open for Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, and A.J. Klein. Head coach Sean McDermott preaches the “one-eleventh” mindset on defense, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts so long as every man does his part. Watt’s mere presence helps the other ten be better “one-elevenths” than they were before.

At 32 years old, a player in Watt’s physical shape still has a few good years left in him. Of course, the ideal situation would be for the Bills to get better and younger along the defensive line. However, the problem is that most of these younger players are lottery tickets. The Bills could hit big in the draft, or they could select a player who needs time to settle, time to acclimate to the pro game. That’s time that these Bills may not necessarily have. If given the choice between getting younger or better, even if better is older, I’m taking better with Buffalo’s current roster.

J.J. Watt wouldn’t have to come into Buffalo and put up 16 sacks to make a huge impact. This is a Buffalo team that was at the doorstep of its first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 30 years. This is a Buffalo team that won its first playoff game in 25 years. This is a Buffalo team whose championship window is very much open right now.

J.J. Watt makes the Bills better, and with some crafty salary-cap juggling, the Bills can make a contract make sense.