A week after J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans mutually agreed to part ways, Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim appeared on a Valley sports radio station and was asked if there was any chance Arizona might make a pitch for the veteran free-agent defensive end.
“If there’s an opportunity that makes sense on both the football side and the business side, we will certainly take a swing,” Keim told Arizona Sports 98.7-FM.
Turns out, Keim was already in the batter’s box. Just a couple days after Watt officially became available, he was on the phone with agent R.J. Gonser ready to talk business. Two weeks later, Keim hit a home run when Watt agreed to a two-year contract worth $28 million, which includes an extra $3 million in possible bonus incentives.
But first, Keim spent a good day and a half watching as much recent game tape on Watt as he could find. It didn’t take long for him to decide the Cardinals needed to go “all in” right then and there.
“I quickly realized J.J. Watt still looked like J.J. Watt, in my opinion,” Keim said on Wednesday during a Zoom conference call with Arizona reporters. “For a number of years, I haven’t had to look at him because of obvious reasons, but when I turned on the tape I was pleasantly surprised. He played over 1,000 snaps last year and was still the dominant defender that I remembered with his quickness, his burst, his ability to defend offensive tackles and guards and to line up at a multitude of spots.
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“It’s exciting to add a guy like that not only because of his play on the field, but what he brings to the locker room — sort of that infectious passion, some of the things that we were really, really looking from a leadership standpoint.”
Watt’s leadership could become even more invaluable if longtime wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald decides to retire and/or the Cardinals ultimately part ways with veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, an impending unrestricted free agent. Even if Fitzgerald returns for an 18th season and Peterson agrees to a new deal to stay in Arizona, Watt’s arrival is expected to improve the Cardinals’ ability to close out games and significantly reduce the penalty problem they had last season.
As Keim said, Watt not only remains a disruptive force where he plays along the defensive line, but he’s known for his drive to help develop young players and to hold everyone accountable, regardless of rank, “which is really, really important to me.”
Watt, who turns 32 on March 22, may not have a set starting role at any one particular position, Keim said. He could play inside as a defensive tackle, move over to his traditional defensive end spot and even kick out to outside linebacker as an edge-rushing bookend to Chandler Jones. That should be interesting for opposing offensive coordinators.
Beyond Watt’s versatility, Keim said he is even more impressed with Watt’s repertoire of pass-rushing moves, his uncanny hand speed and get-off and ability to play with leverage.
“It’s second to none,” Keim said, adding, “The guy is so instinctive and the way he keys and diagnoses blocking schemes is just phenomenal.”
Keim was asked if the addition of Watt immediately makes the Cardinals a contender. The GM was honest in his response.
“I don’t know if I would use the word ‘contender.’ It’s hard for me to say that,” he said. “What it does do and the goal in mind was to improve our football team and that’s what I said on the radio several weeks ago, which was any chance we have to improve this football team we’ll take a look at it, whether it works football-wise, business-wise.
“And it did in both areas for us in this instance. We really feel like he’s going to be able to come in and to be able to play alongside Chandler Jones and create the type of pressure that those two can create was obviously very exciting for us. When you look at the Super Bowl or the playoffs, as talented as these quarterbacks have gotten across the league, the ability to create pressure and get quarterbacks off their spot has just become so critical.”
Watt told reporters during his introductory news conference on Tuesday that he can win here right away with the Cardinals and cited numerous reasons why he was excited to accept Arizona’s offer and spurn others from clubs like the Browns, Bills, Packers, Titans and more.
Joining forces with a young quarterback such as Kyler Murray might have been the topper.
“Well, it’s huge. It got us in the game, that’s for sure,” Keim said. “One of my first conversations with (Watt’s) representation, I think that was the filtering process. You obviously had to have a guy that gave you a chance and I’ve said this all along, I think Kyler Murray is a phenomenal quarterback, a game-changer, a franchise quarterback and a player we can win it all with. That obviously excited J.J.
“I’m sure the teams that he pared it down to were teams that had that player at that position, so to be able to have a young quarterback in this situation was really beneficial for us and I know J.J. is really excited to get started with Kyler.”
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.
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