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Texans Release J.J. Watt ... Will Patriots Try To Sign Veteran Star?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- J.J. Watt has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL for a decade. In terms of championships and victories, he doesn't have a lot to show for it.

A five-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and member of the All-2010s Team, Watt's been the face of the Texans franchise since the team drafted him with the 11th overall pick in 2011. But he's been a part of just three wild-card round playoff wins, he's never played in the conference championship round, and now, he's out.

Watt announced on Friday that he requested his release from the Texans. Rather than trying to negotiate a trade, the Texans granted his request.

Considering Watt's season ended with him apologizing to quarterback Deshaun Watson for "wasting" one of his prime years, and considering the Texans organization appears to be in shambles, this news is not particularly surprising. Watt had been due to be paid a $17.5 million base salary in 2021, and according to Over The Cap, the Texans carry no dead money by releasing him.

And now, Watt is free to sign anywhere. Perhaps he'll return to his native Wisconsin to join forces with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who went 13-3 last year and lost the NFC title game by five points. Maybe he'll want to play with his brother, T.J., in Pittsburgh, and form a ridiculous defensive line for the Steelers.

This being New England, though, we must obviously consider whether the Patriots would be a consideration for the soon-to-be-32-year-old Watt.

We must acknowledge that the reputation of Foxboro as a free-agent destination has changed drastically over the past, oh, say, 11 months. Give or take. Tom Brady's departure last March turned the Patriots from perennial Super Bowl contenders into a 7-9 middling team very quickly.

That's not to say that the Patriots -- with Bill Belichick and a whole lot of cap space -- won't be better in 2021. They should be. But without a winning quarterback on the roster, veteran free agents certainly aren't looking at New England as a path to an easy ring the way they might have done for a long, long time.

Still, Belichick's reputation endures, and the expected returns of Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung should bolster a defense that did hold its own in 2020. The Patriots ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of yards allowed but they did have the seventh-best scoring defense in the NFL. Add in the return of the aforementioned COVID opt-outs, and an impact veteran like Watt, and that defense is something that could be considered rather legitimate.

As for Belichick's potential interest, there shouldn't be any doubt about that.

All the way back in 2012, Watt's second season in the league, Belichick recognized that Watt was a prolific player.

"He's the most disruptive player in the league certainly that we've seen," Belichick said in December 2012, prior to the infamous letterman jacket game. "He's really pretty good at everything. He's got great quickness and length, instincts, good playing strength, got a high motor. That looks like the defensive player of the year to me. He's been so productive and so disruptive. It's not just the pass rush. It's batted balls. It's tackles for loss and the blocking that he draws helps everybody else out. He's been a terrific player for them in a lot of different ways. He contributes so many things to their team. This guy is really a good player."

Belichick continued: "He's an outstanding player. It's a real credit to him and how quickly he's improved and how hard he's worked, which you know he had a great work ethic coming out of Wisconsin, but also the coaching that he's gotten and how he's adapted to their schemes and how they've been able to utilize him effectively as well. ... He's not the easiest guy to zero in on even when you do zero in on him he's still a hard guy to handle, hard guy to block. So, very impressive player."

A few years later, Belichick offered the highest praise possible when he invoked the name of Lawrence Taylor while discussing Watt.

"He's pretty special," Belichick said. "He does a lot of things really well. And everybody game plans for him every game. He gets a lot of double teams. Lines sliding to his side. Teams trying to run away from him. He does a good job of all of it. In spite of all the attention that he gets and the schemes that are put in from week to week to try to handle him he still has a tremendous amount of production. They move him around a little bit so he's not always in the same place, although he plays a lot on the offensive right, the defensive left. He's done a really a really good job of dealing with extra attention. Similar to what saw with teams dealing with [Lawrence] Taylor at New York. So he's got that kind of disruptiveness."

Belichick made it clear: "I think the position that he plays, he's as disruptive as a defensive lineman as I've seen. In the same general category as L.T."

If you know Bill Belichick at all, then you know that he essentially holds zero players in higher regard than he does Lawrence Taylor. Such praise is not issued lightly.

And while Belichick's words are one thing, his actions speak even louder. The attention the Patriots have paid on Watt in all of the matchups with Houston over the past decade show just how seriously Belichick took Watt as a threat. Watt's numbers vs. New England have always been unimpressive, but that's mostly because of the double teams and varied looks that the Patriots' offensive line, tight ends, and running backs have thrown at Watt in each one of those games.

When Belichick designs his game plan around a player, it is the ultimate sign of respect. Watt's earned that distinction time after time after time.

Of course, of course, of course, just like the Patriots' situation has changed recently, so too has Watt's. He's no longer a Defensive Player of the Year. He had just five sacks in 2020, despite playing all 16 games. His 17 QB hits marked his lowest full-season total of his career. He was still productive, with seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception, and 52 total tackles.

At this stage of his career, Watt may be better suited to be a contributor on a championship team rather than the driving force. The Patriots may not fully be a match in that regard, at least until some major questions on offense get answered either via free agency, the trade market, or the draft.

Still, Belichick's glowing words and respect for Watt cannot be ignored. So it would be difficult to imagine the Patriots sitting back at this point without at least trying to convince Watt that New England should be his next home.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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