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Cardinals Re-Define Veteran Leadership

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In his most recent article for The Athletic, Michael Lombardi maintains, like a fair number of Cardinals’ fans, that the Arizona Cardinals paid way too much for DE J. J. Watt. Here is the crux of his argument:

When J.J. Watt recently signed with the Cardinals, there were reports that Arizona was not the highest bidder. The Colts (completely false) and Browns (not sure, but highly doubtful) were rumored to have higher bids. Why is this even important? Watt being paid $15 million per season with $23 million guaranteed is a huge overpayment, regardless of whether another team was willing to do a similar deal. Two wrongs have never made a right. For some reason, flaming a story about another team’s pending interest makes doing something financially ridiculous justifiable. In Watt’s case, the tape does not justify the number. Watt will turn 32 on March 22. He has only played in all 16 games for two seasons in the past five years.

When Watt plays over 1,000 plays the next season, he struggles to stay healthy—this is not an opinion; this is fact. In 2015, he played in every game on every down, and then in ’16, he played in only three games due to injury. In 2017, he played in five games, and then in ’18, he was able to stay healthy and played great, registering 16 sacks. Of course, after playing the full season the following year, he only played in eight in 2019. Past performance predicts future achievement. Watt’s past five years are a telltale sign of a decline in durability and health, which indicates playing Watt less might mean more production. No one could look at the video (yes, I am aware the Cards clearly feel different) of the past five years with clarity, believing Watt can play 16 games for 60 minutes—which is required when you pay $15 million for one season. Under a tight, tight salary cap that all teams will face, paying $15 million cap dollars is a huge commitment for any player, especially an aging one with an injury history.

https://theathletic.com/2426151/2021/03/04/lombardi-cardinals-overpaid-for-j-j-watt-plus-quarterback-rumors-galore/

Commentary:

First of all, I agree with Lombardi that the rumor that the Colts and Browns offered more money to Watt than the Cardinals is a moot point. Any team that signed J.J. Watt was going to take a risk and the market was obviously robust for him. There were rumors a week ago that Watt’s offers from multiple teams were in the $15M a year range.

Lombardi does a superb job of providing the facts about Watt’s troubling history of injuries. There is no getting around that cause for concern, although Watt has played in all 16 games 2 of the the last 3 seasons.

However, the reason why the Cardinals wanted J.J. Watt so badly is that the 2020 team suffered from a conspicuous paucity of veteran leadership, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Leadership starts with how players perform on game days. There is no getting around that reality. If you aren’t taking care of your job and putting in the highest level of effort on every snap, you aren’t a leader.

So often last year, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury would heap praise on “the leadership in the locker room” and would point to it whenever the team needed to bounce back from a painful loss.

But the truth is, Steve Keim, following the awful game the Cardinals played at Carolina, dropping the team’s record to 2-2. got on the airwaves and called out the team’s star players: “Our stars have to start playing like stars,” Keim said.

When the team captains were announced I was roundly criticized for rendering my opinion that Budda Baker was a glaring omission. The common argument I heard was that Budda is too quiet to be captain.

Well, like I have been saying, a player’s performance on game day should make the loudest and most profound statement about leadership. Especially because a little thing like tackling can actually become contagious when a baller like Budda is putting the romance into it.

While PFF grades, we can all agree, are not the be-all and end-all of ways to gauge a player’s performances —- but in the case of the Cardinals’ grades, based on what we saw in the games in 2020, the PFF grades look pretty dang accurate. Let’s chart them for the team captains:

Offense:

Kyler Murray —- 82.8

D.J. Humphries —- 88.3

Larry Fitzgerald —-59.6

Defense:

Chandler Jones —- 62.6

Corey Peters —- 61.4

Patrick Peterson —- 55.2

Jordan Hicks —- 50.4

Budda Baker —-75.3

Special Teams:

Dennis Gardeck—- 71.1 on STs, 89.6 on defense

Common Denominator:

The youngest captains (Murray, Humphries, Baker and Gardeck) were by far the best players on game days.

That matters.

Top Graded Non-Captains:

Offense:

DeAndre Hopkins —-87.1

Chase Edmonds —- 69.3

Kelvin Beachum —- 69.0

Maxx Williams —- 67.7

Justin Pugh —- 64.8

Defense:

Charles Washington —- 89.0

Haason Reddick —- 72.8

Jalen Thompson —- 70.1

Jonathan Joseph —- 68.1

Tanner Vallejo —- 67.0

Byron Murphy —- 64.7

Special Teams:

Charles Washington —- 90.0

Ezekiel Turner —- 86.4

Tanner Vallejo —- 78.3

Trent Sherfield —- 71.2

Isaiah Simmons —- 70.9

Darrell Daniels —-70.9

Haason Reddick —- 70.2

Lombardi’s argument that J.J. Watt is no longer a dominant player at his position:

Watt would be effective in the right role as a situational rusher, limiting his playing time to 25-30 plays per game, saving him for the most important part of the game, and letting him rush the passer over the worse offensive lineman on the opposing team. I imagine there were many teams in the Watt sweepstakes for him to play in that specific role, which would pay between five and eight per year, with a boatload of incentives. When a team pays $15M per year, they say this player will demonstrate rare abilities and create mismatches that impact the game. A $15 million per year player is a premier player in the league and a weapon on the field. He combines competitiveness and skill to put forward a consistent championship-level performance. And this player will rate in the top-five at his position in the league. The Watt from 2012-15 would fit that narrative; the Watt from 2016-20 would not.

J.J. Watt PFF Grades (last 4 years):

2020 —- 85.4 (1,013 snaps)

2019 —- 87.0 (554 snaps)

2018 —- 90.5 (1,026 snaps)

2017 —- 86.0 (217 snaps)

PFF NFL Rankings of Edge Defenders 2020:

J.J. Watt ranked 7th behind Khalil Mack, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, Demarcus Lawrence, Chase Young and Myles Garrett. And J.J. Watt was the only one of them to play in over 1,000 snaps.

While Michael Lombardi provides the facts about Watt’s injury history, there is no denying that whenever Watt plays, he consistently dominates, even while being doubled teamed as often as he is. In fact, to further dispute Lombardi’ claim that J.J. Watt is no longer Top 5 at his position, for edge defenders who played in 800 snaps or more, J.J. Watt ranked 5th. Haason Reddick was 9th.

Thus, the Cardinals didn’t sign J.J. Watt primarily for his leadership, they signed him because he is a dominant player. The Cardinals have already discussed keeping Watt to a snap count within the regular DI rotation in oder to preserve his durability as best they can.

But, what Lombardi may be overlooking is how dominant Watt is when he plays on the interior.

Putting J.J. Watt next to Chandler Jones is going to create a significant conundrum for offensive coordinators —- how can they double team both Watt and Jones?

Same thing if you you flip Watt to the other side and put him next to Haason Reddick. How can they double team both Watt and Reddick?

Zach Allen, Jordan Phillips, Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawerence must be licking their chops because the odds are very strong that when J.J. Watt is on the line, they will have a plethora of one-on-one pass rushes.

Good Morning Football’s “Best Fits” for J.J. Watt

It’s great to go back to the kind of speculation that the NFL pundits were doing about where J.J. Watt should sign.

The GMF crew here a couple of weeks ago did a persuasive job or projecting where and why J.J. Watt would have been a great fit for the Bills (P. Schrager), Titans (M. Robinson), Steelers (M. Garafolo) and Browns (K. Adams).

When you think about it, the Arizona Cardinals were the Seabiscuit of this horse race. Look at what scenarios J.J. Watt turned down:

  • Bills on cusp of going to Super Bowl.
  • Titans’ head coach Mike Vrable was J.J.’s DC in Houston.
  • With the Steelers he would have the rare opportunity to play with his brothers.
  • As Kay Adams argues for Watt choosing the Browns, imagine teams having to deal with Watt next to Myles Garrett.
  • With the Colts, how about J.J. Watt next to DeForest Buckner with Darius Leonard behind them.
  • With the Packers, he could have perpetuated and even enhanced (if that’s even possible) his legendary status in the state of Wisconsin and could have played for another team on the potential cusp of the Super Bowl.

Why Watt Chose the Cardinals:

  • His belief in QB Kyler Murray.
  • His affinity for Pat Tillman.
  • His familiarity and enthusiasm for playing in Vance Jospeh’s defense.
  • The opportunity to line up along side of Chandler Jones, to form a tandem of the NFL’s two highest sack leaders over the past 8 years.
  • The substantial financial commitment the Cardinals made. $23M guaranteed.
  • The Cardinals’ heavy pursuit of him, from Bidwill, Keim, Kingsbury, Joseph, Jones, Hopkins, Baker, Jonathan Joseph, Blake Shelton and Frank Caliendo.
  • Play on grass with indoor/outdoor option.
  • For him and his wife to stay in a warmer climate (sorry Peter Schrager, but your vision of J.J. Watt living inside a snowy lake cabin chomping on real Buffalo wings will remain just a vision).
  • “I want to help the Cardinals win a championship and I want to have fun.” J.J. Watt

The Ripple Effect:

This is the great hope is that not only will his Cardinals’ teammates be inspired by J.J. Watt’s leadership, he could inspire free agents to want to join him in Arizona.

The Cardinals’ 2021 Plan:

  • Beef up the defensive line. Watt is an immediate upgrade at 34 DE. It’s likely that the Cardinals will re-sign Angelo Blackson, Watt’s former line mate in Houston, who proved his worth in the DI rotation.
  • Beef up the offensive line. The Cardinals appear to be poised to make a big push to sign C Corey Linsley. It appears, in light of Sean Kugler and Steve Keim touting Josh Jones’ flexability to play guard, that the Cardinals will either re-sign Kelvin Beachum to start at RT or they will draft one of the stud tackles, most likely Alijah Vera-Tucker (81.8, 33rd/312 T in 2020), Teven Jenkins of Oklahoma St. (92.0, 3rd/312 T in 2020), Rashawn Slater of Northwestern (90.0 8th/435 T in 2019) or Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech (95.6 2nd/312 T in 2020). One may get the sense that the Cardinals want to draft their version of RT Tristan Wirfs, whom they really liked last year.Another excellent option would be
  • Add 2-3 solid, aggressive CBs in free agency, a couple perhaps with ties to J.J. Watt, such as Gareon Conley (HOU), A.J. Bouye (DEN) and Jonathan Joseph (ARI).
  • Add speed and playmaking ability at RB and WR. Their #1 RB target appears to be Aaron Jones (GB), whom Sean Kugler coached at UTEP. If not Jones, the top 5-6 RB prospects in the draft are very talented. If the Cardinals are not able to draft one of the top 3 studs (Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams), they appear to be very high on Javian Hawkins (81.1, 38th/212 HB) of Louisville. Plus, Kyler might put in a plug for former teammates Trey Sermon (86.1, 18th/212 HB) and Rhamondre Stevenson (90.4, 6th/212 HB).
  • Steve Keim has said that he thinks there are 4-5 “game changers” at WR in the first round of the draft. One would imagine he is referring to Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Rashod Bateman and perhaps Rondale Moore, Elijah Moore, Ladarius Toney or Terrace Marshall. The WRs could be a priority for the Cardinals at #16 if they address the RT and CB needs in free agency. Keim also indicated that the draft is deep at WR.
  • Wild Card: The other position in the 1st round of the draft that looks star-studded is ILB. As I mentioned on the ROTB Podcast with Blake, imagine pairing Isaiah Simmons with Micah Parsons of Penn St. (91.6, 1st/536 LB in 2019), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Notre Dame (79.7, 22nd/380 LB in 2020), Zaven Collins of Tulsa (91.1, 1st/380 LB in 2020) or Nick Bolton of Missouri (74.9, 43rd/380 LB in 2020, 91.1 4th/536 LB in 2019). The Cardinals interviewed Zaven Collins recently on Zoom.
  • Steve Keim said that over the next 10 days, he is hoping to reach deals with a few of the Cardinals’ own free agents.

Same Old Cardinals —- Or Not?

Michael Lombardi sees the Watt signing as yet another misguided attempt to put their money and trust into an over-the-hill veteran:

The Cards never learn from their past. They love to sign older players as if they get a compensatory pick when they become a Hall of Famer. Edgerrin James, Emmitt Smith, Alan Faneca were all well past their prime when the Cards inked them to a new deal. If free agency has taught us anything over the past 25 years, it’s to be careful of signing older players and even more careful spending money on them (unless their name is Tom Brady). Especially older players who have a history of injury and never produce to their former numbers.

While I agree that the Cardinals have tended to put too much money and trust in veterans who are on the decline (often to sell tickets), the signing of J.J. Watt feels entirely different. The reason is that as long as Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are on the roster, the Cardinals will have no problems at all selling out games.

What the signing of J.J. Watt means is that the Cardinals have recognized that in order to make Vance Jospeh’s 34 defense special, they need a stud 34 DE like they had inCcalais Campbell.

But most significantly, the Cardinals’ signing of J.J. Watt is a strong and urgent indication that the Cardinals want to re-define their veteran leadership within the organization. And, if the Cardinals are ever going to contend for a championship, their veteran leadership has to be unquestionably outstanding.