As we are finding out, veteran players with big cap numbers are targets in this post-season based on the NFL salary cap being reduced for next year, due to the lack of revenues during the 2020 season. Teams are charged with reducing their 2021 cap in order to be in compliance by the first day of the new league year, March 17 for now.
The market will soon be flooded with options like never before for teams who are looking to retool or even completely rebuild. When I brought this up to one general manager the other day, his response was “love it”. Of course, his team is $50 million over the $180M cap floor that is being projected. More than likely, he will be an innocent bystander unless it’s a veteran minimum deal that comes his way. I do believe we are living in unprecedented times in the NFL. Never before will there be so many good players available and on the street.
To that end, the Pro Scouting Departments of NFL teams have never been more valuable. They work all year, every year, to assess talent around the league. I thought it would be interesting to see just what is in a report from a professional evaluator. I came up thru the ranks on the “pro side” of scouting with the Seattle Seahawks, so I have written thousands of such evaluations.
One of the first big names to hit the open market was DE JJ Watt when Houston released him and his $17.5M cap number from their books, making him a free agent. Watt’s release came as no surprise to most insiders. His five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, along with his 101 career sacks and genuine leadership (a Walter Payton, man-of –the-year award winner) and intangibles will factor into which team reels him in. However, it’s what they see on tape that will determine how much money and commitment they are willing to make. Here is what I saw on tape and an example of the kind of information each teams’ decision makers will consider from scouts and position coaches.
STRONG POINTS: Versatile player who can play both DE spots and even 5-tech in a 3-man front, if needed. Initial quickness is slightly above average at this stage of his career, but he uses his hands very well to escape and press blockers. He holds ground at the point of attack very well. He is not easily turned or knocked back. Disciplined with eyes thru the blocker into the backfield, when engaged. He has very good instincts and nose for the ball. Still has upper strength and plays with heavy hands to control blockers. Most effective between the tackles when defending the run game. He shows a very good ability to turn speed into power as a rusher and get push in the pocket. Also has nice spin move and ability to “pull pad out” to free himself on occasion as an edge rusher (just not consistently). Strong tackler, once engaged with ball carrier they do not run thru his grasp. He battles and competes consistently, especially at the point of attack.
WEAK POINTS: He lacks ideal long speed and his range is limited vs the run. He does not always bend and engage his lower body therefore not as powerful as in the early years from the waist down. Does not show burst or body control to finish at top of pass rush or when chasing down line of scrimmage. At times will pick his spots in pursuit. Is not going to create consistently as an outside, one on one speed rusher. The suddenness or explosion off blocks or to jump around trash is not as evident.
SUMMARY: Could play anywhere up front and his versatility should be looked at as an asset. Might fit best as 5-tech in a 3-man front. He is a better in-line run defender than he is in space as an athlete. The best thing he does is play with his hands and stay off blocks and therefor off the ground, but he does not bend and engage his lower body as well as he used to. Has high football IQ and reads and reacts to things quickly. Has a natural knack for finding the ball even though he’s not as athletic as he once was. His five sacks this year are about what you can expect. Has enough agility to run short/area games but not going to get home on long loops. Not consistently an effective outside speed rusher, but still flashes that he can get around a corner. He has enough ability to be a rotational player vs run and pass and, in actuality, would be best if you can limit his plays to keep him fresh. I’d like to have the guy on my team just not sure he’s an every down player at this stage.
The next part is for teams to take this evaluation and marry it to a financial package that makes sense. This is where a GM has to have a feel for evaluating and valuing. Completely different skills but best when a front office can meld them together in a systematic way. In an effective front office structure, the “cap guy” might bring you similar deals so you can determine a financial range and then you compare football evaluations. It is paramount for the cap guy/negotiator and the GM to be on the same page.
An example of a starting point with this deal is to see what the Baltimore Ravens did with DE/T Calais Campbell who signed a two-year deal a year ago for $25M. Competition will drive the market and mold the deal but it’s the EVALUATION that has to “win the day”, and keep you true to the deal.
You cannot let the emotions of acquiring a player of this stature and reputation lead you into an unsound financial decision. Teams must have limits and parameters. I think a 2-year deal makes sense (makes a cap charge of a signing bonus easy to handle) but its the amount of guaranteed money in the whole deal that will be music to Watt and his agents ears.