On Monday afternoon, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport broke news that J.J. Watt would sign with the Arizona Cardinals on a two-year, $31 million contract. After Watt and the Houston Texans agreed to “mutually part ways” on Feb. 12, the future Hall of Famer took a few weeks to make his decision on where to play in 2021. Watt, who turns 32 later this month, will reunite with his former Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who likely had a role in recruiting Watt to Phoenix.
In Arizona’s 3-4 defensive front, Watt is likely to slot into the starting defensive end role opposite outside linebacker Chandler Jones. He will be a helpful addition for a team that has been relying on former third-round pick Zach Allen at defensive end, and figures to be both a run stopping and pass rushing upgrade for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals organization had a little over $17 million in cap space prior to Watt’s signing, so now they have more decisions to make. Can the team still find a way to sign outside linebacker Haason Reddick, who is coming off a career year and was potentially in line to receive the franchise tag or perhaps a long-term deal? The team would need to find more cap space to do that now. Linebacker Markus Golden is also a free agent, though Golden was expected to walk.
If they lose both Golden and Reddick, the Cardinals will turn to Devon Kennard at one of the outside linebacker spots. Or perhaps they find a way to keep Reddick and make Jones a cap casualty. Jones has a $20.08 million cap hit and Arizona could save $15.5 million in space by moving on from him this offseason.
After putting up a career year with 12.5 sacks in an on-ball LOLB role in the Cardinals' 3-4, the 26-year-old Reddick’s expected market value is around four seasons at $11.6 million per year, per Spotrac, likely pricing him out of Arizona.
The former No. 13 overall selection in 2017 had some struggles throughout the first three years of his career, playing primarily as an off-ball linebacker. He had his fifth-year option declined in May of 2020, which would have put him under contract for around $10 million for 2021 had it been exercised.
Jones has been the most productive pass rusher in the NFL since entering the league in 2012 with 97 sacks, and had 19 in 2019 alone, but the 31-year-old pass rusher is coming off a season where he saw a drop in production prior to season-ending reparative surgery on his right biceps.
Jones was willing to restructure his contract once before, in 2019, to help create $4 million in cap space, but another restructuring of his contract is unlikely to open enough room for them to re-sign Reddick at his market value. Unless the Cardinals can creatively find a way to open the necessary space, or Reddick takes a steep hometown discount, they will be choosing between the two.
If either Reddick or Jones hits the market, he would be among the more sought-after edge rushers -- though they would be part of a crowded group of high-end free-agent edge rushers that includes Matthew Judon, Shaq Barrett, Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, Ryan Kerrigan and Yannick Ngakoue.