The Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line in 2020 was the worst it has ever been under head coach Mike Zimmer, finishing 28th in sacks with their sack leader, Yannick Ngakoue, not playing a single snap for them since Week Five. While, yes, the loss of superstar edge rusher Danielle Hunter this season significantly impacted the pass rush’s ability to get to the quarterback, the Vikings can’t expect his return to fix all their D-line issues. Zimmer has even addressed this, stating a desire to get more pass rushers during the offseason.
Now J.J. Watt becomes an option.
The Houston Texans released the three-time defensive player of the year at his request after his 10th season with the team. While they probably could have traded him and received some compensation, the Texans released Watt, allowing him to choose his next destination rather than forcing the 31-year-old to go through yet another rebuild in Houston.
While both age and injuries have taken their toll on Watt, he still has plenty to offer any team that signs him. Though fans were swooning at the thought of a potential reunion with Everson Griffen, a series of tweets directed towards general manager Rick Spielman and quarterback Kirk Cousins has likely eliminated any chance of him returning to Minnesota. Despite how much everyone would have loved to see Griffen come back, Watt objectively offers the Vikings much more.
Griffen is primarily just a rotational pass rusher at this stage of his career, while Watt can contribute on all three downs. Last season the Vikings’ run defense struggled with the lack of a quality nose tackle. With no Hunter to seal the edge on outside runs, opposing offenses exploited the defensive end’s inability to peel off blocks, often getting to the second level untouched. Throughout his career, Watt has showcased his ability to stuff opposing ball carriers, and he finished with a PFF grade above 80 in almost every season. Jaylen Holmes’ 56.4 PFF grade was the best among Minnesota’s defensive ends last year.
While Watt certainly is stout facing the run, most people remember him for terrorizing quarterbacks and racking up incredible sack numbers, finishing with more than 15 sacks four times in his career. While the Vikings wouldn’t be getting the same Watt who made eight All-Pro teams, he can still be an impact player.
Last season Watt finished with five sacks, the lowest total total of his career, but you must consider the circumstances. This season the Texans’ pass rush was horrific. The edge rusher opposite Watt, Whitney Mercilus, had the worst season of his career and forced Watt to frequently face double teams.
But Watt was still able to create 45 pressures despite being double-teamed more often. With the Vikings, he would not be the No. 1 edge rusher on the team. He would line up opposite a healthy Danielle Hunter and wouldn’t face nearly the same number of double teams as he did last season.
If the Vikings could add Watt on a short-term deal, he would provide them with a veteran presence on the defensive line and his ability to get after the quarterback. While Watt is a star on the field, he also offers a lot outside the stadium. He won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2017. While the defense has gone under a bit of a retooling in recent years, losing both their defensive line team captains, Watt brings the leadership and motivational ability Griffen provided in the past.
The Vikings are $12 million over the cap, but they can create space by restructuring deals for players who have limited guaranteed money like Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith. And yes, Watt isn’t a long-term solution for the defensive line, but he could prove to be a valuable mentor to younger edge rushers. By spending one or two of their draft picks on the defensive line, the Vikings could add a rotational pass rusher and the 3-technique who could usurp Jaleel Johnson and Shamar Stephen, creating a new-look defensive line for next season.