NFL fans were somewhat taken aback Friday morning with the news the Houston Texans had released J.J. Watt, the greatest defensive player in that franchise’s history.
Watt posted a video on his social media where he explained he asked ownership to release him from the final year of his contract – he was set to earn $17.5 million in 2021 – and the two sides mutually agreed to part ways.
Since making his NFL debut a decade ago, Watt’s 101 sacks are second-most behind Von Miller’s 106 and the 31-year-old is one of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times.
Now, is Watt the perennial All-Pro and DPOY contender he was earlier in his career? No.
Is he still among the best defensive linemen in football? When healthy, yes.
Every season J.J. Watt has qualified, he has finished as a top-10 player at his position:
2011 – 75.1 (8th)
2012 – 92.3 (2nd)
2013 – 93.2 (1st)
2014 – 92.7 (1st)
2015 – 91.6 (2nd)
2018 – 90.5 (3rd)
2019 – 87.0 (9th)
2020 – 85.5 (7th) pic.twitter.com/1OIbLqsqtR
— PFF (@PFF) February 12, 2021
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound star’s versatility along the line adds to his value. He can play on the edge or shift to the interior depending on the personnel group. That’s to say there will be a long line of teams wanting to add a talent like him.
“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity and I’ve been working extremely hard, but at the same time it’s always tough to move on,” Watt said in his video.
Joining a legitimate contending team could make moving on a little easier for Watt, so with that in mind here are eight possible fits for the future Hall of Famer.
THE OBVIOUS OPTIONS TIER
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have had the best record in the NFC in back-to-back seasons and have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers yet they’ve lost each of the past two NFC Championship games in large part because the defence didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Watt was born in Wisconsin, grew up cheering for the Packers and starred in the Big Ten at the University of Wisconsin for two seasons before being selected 11th-overall in the 2011 draft.
Cheeseheads would love seeing Watt line up beside Kenny Clark on the defensive line. It would be the type of signing reminiscent of when the late Reggie White joined Green Bay when he was in his 30s and on the back-nine of his Hall of Fame career.
This would be a reunion for the Watt brothers with T.J. and Derek both on the team already. In fact, it took only about 15 minutes for T.J., who many football fans felt should’ve been named 2020 DPOY over Aaron Donald, to respond to his brother’s post with a well-placed GIF.
It wouldn’t be the easiest move to pull off from a financial standpoint with the Steelers currently over the cap and needing to resolve the issue of Ben Roethlisberger being owed $41.25 million next season. Roethlisberger is owed a $15-million bonus on March 19, so expect the team to either restructure his deal or cut ties with the two-time Super Bowl champ before that date. The team’s decision on their longtime QB could have an impact on whether they aggressively pursue a third Watt.
THE ‘OH, COME ON THAT’S UNFAIR’ TIER
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite his credentials, Watt’s teams in Houston had little post-season success. He only suited up for eight playoff games during his tenure there and if you’re going to join a winner, why not join the winner.
The defending champion Bucs could potentially lose edge rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Lavonte David in free agency. Signing a bunch of stars certainly worked out for the Bucs last off-season. Why not go back to that winning formula – especially if Barrett leaves town.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs could use a boost to their D-line. Watt would be a short-term solution to help take pressure off Chris Jones and Frank Clark, and put more pressure on opposing QBs. One daunting hurdle here is the fact the Chiefs have more than $55 million committed to the defensive line for 2021, with Jones’s and Clark’s combined salaries making up most of that. You’d have to think Watt would also garner eight figures annually.
Hat tip to my colleague Craig Battle, who pointed out Watt to Kansas City would be shades of Kevin Durant to Golden State.
The Warriors added Durant in 2016 after failing to repeat as champs when they lost in the Finals to LeBron James, a legend who’s always in the middle of basketball’s GOAT conversation.
Kansas City just failed to repeat as champs when it lost in the Super Bowl to Tom Brady, a legend who’s always at the centre of football’s GOAT conversation. We all know how that worked out for the Warriors.
THE ‘HMM…THAT WOULD BE INTERESTING’ TIER
As it currently stands, the Bills have the fourth-best odds to win next season’s Super Bowl behind the Bucs, Chiefs and Packers. Watt was built to play in the cold and he’d become a fan favourite relatively quickly in Buffalo. The Bills were exposed by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. They don’t have an abundance of cap space but making room to add Watt would help close the gap on the Chiefs in the AFC.
This one’s quite simple. Cleveland is a team on the rise, they have cap space and Olivier Vernon is headed to free agency. Targeting Watt to essentially replace Vernon and play on the opposite side of Myles Garrett sounds enticing. On paper, the Browns are a great fit.
Would Watt consider reuniting with Mike Vrabel, who was the Texans linebackers coach from 2014-2016 and the defensive coordinator in 2017 before landing the Titans gig? Tennessee’s offence can be an imposing group. The same can’t be said about the defence.
Sticking in the AFC South, the Colts have a solid enough foundation that they may be only a few key pieces away from contending for a Lombardi Trophy. Obviously, they’ll need to figure out who lines up behind centre as well, but Indy has tons of cap space it could use to its advantage. Watt playing beside DeForest Buckner would be intimidating. The Colts had a respectable sack total in 2020 but DEs Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad are all pending free agents.
Berrettini ends Murray’s comeback at Queen’s
The 34-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion, playing in his first singles tournament on grass for three years, could not handle the ferocious pace of Berrettini as he slid to defeat.
Murray eased past Benoit Paire in his opening match on Tuesday but world number nine Berrettini was too big a step up.
Berrettini’s huge first serve and forehand did most of the damage but the Italian also showed plenty of silky touch on the slick lawns to register his first career win over Murray.
Berrettini, 25, finished the match off with a powerful hold of serve, banging down four massive first serves before sealing victory with a clubbing forehand winner.
He faces British number one Dan Evans in the quarter-final after Evans beat Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.
Murray, a five-time winner of the traditional warm-up event but now ranked 124 after long battles with hip injuries including resurfacing surgery in 2019, has been handed a wildcard for the Wimbledon championships.
Apart from a slight groin niggle, Murray said he was reasonably happy with his condition, considering this was only his third Tour-level tournament of the year.
“I think obviously I need to improve,” Murray told reporters. “I actually felt my movement was actually quite good for both of the matches. My tennis today was not very good today. That’s the thing that I’ll need to improve the most.
“I felt like today that that sort of showed my lack of matches.”
Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez, who won the singles title in 2019 and the doubles alongside Murray, was beaten 6-2 6-3 by Canada‘s Denis Shapovalov.
(Reporting by Martyn HermanEditing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar)
Be Like the King of the North Division and Develop Skills
It’s been a year unlike no other for Canadian hockey teams, with COVID-19 travel restrictions forcing the creation of a new NHL division made up entirely of Canadian teams. The previous generation of NHL hockey was known as the “Dead Puck Era” because referees tolerated slowing down the game with clutching and grabbing.
The leading scorers today score in jaw-dropping fashion and routinely pull off stickhandling dangles that were unimaginable until only recently. The Canadian team that will win the North Division will be the one with the most skill.
Here are the training aids that will help you develop your skills all year long.
Innovators like HockeyShot Canada make “passers” so that players can develop pinpoint accuracy and the soft hands necessary to cradle and control a pass when it lands on your stick. The high-quality rubber bands return the puck with the same force which passed it, so you can give yourself one-timers or work on accuracy.
Whether you’re on a two-on-one, sending a breakout pass from the defensive zone, or holding down the blue line on the power play, every positional player needs to pass accurately.
A player is lucky to get a few shots on net each game, and they can’t let them go to waste. Until recently, players needed to rent ice in the off-season to practice their shots in realistic game-like conditions.
Now, players can use shooting pads at their home that let pucks glide as they do on real ice. Shooting is perhaps the one skill that requires the most repetition because one inch can be the difference between going bar-down and clanking one wide off the post.
Practice your quick release and accuracy and develop an arsenal of shots, including wrist shots, slapshots, one-timers, and more. The more tools in your tool kit, the deadlier a sniper you’ll be.
Having the puck on your stick is a responsibility, and you don’t want to cough it up to the other team and waste a scoring chance or lose possession. The ability to stickhandle helps you bide time until a teammate is open, so you can pass them the puck and continue attacking.
If you’re on a breakaway, you may want to deke the goalie rather than shoot if your hands are silky enough. Develop stickhandling skills, and you’ll keep goalies and opponents guessing – being unpredictable helps make a sniper’s job easier.
Of course, you also need to handle the puck in your own zone without causing a turnover. Stickhandling is a crucial skill in all areas of the ice.
When the coach sends you over the board, you need to be prepared for whatever comes your way. Maybe you’ll get the puck in the slot or somewhere else, but when it’s playoffs, you always need to be ready. The Kings of the North Division have all of the above skills and more, and you can too if you practice all year.
Australia swim trials calendar shift to reap Tokyo rewards
Australia broke with tradition to hold its swimming trials just six weeks before the start of the 2020 Olympics and former world champion Giaan Rooney said the move could reap rich rewards in Tokyo after disappointments at London and Rio.
Australia has typically held its trials up to six months before an Olympics but that gap has been drastically cut this year with swimmers vying for Tokyo spots this week in Adelaide.
Rooney, who won individual world titles at Fukuoka and Montreal and a relay gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Australia is gearing up for a much improved Games after its swimmers flopped at Rio and London.
“I think we needed to make it work,” she told Reuters. “The shift started about a year ago to bring the trials into line with the rest of the world and qualify five or six weeks before.
“In sport and swimming, six months is a long time,” Rooney added. “From a coaching perspective, it’s much better to know you have chosen the team in form.”
After winning five gold medals at Sydney 2000 and seven in Athens, the Australian team was rocked by accusations of disruptive behaviour by some of its top sprinters at the 2012 Olympics.
Australia won just one gold medal in the London pool and three in Rio five years ago.
Australia knew something had to be done if it was to close the gap on the powerful Americans and moving the trials is part of the strategy.
“I think it’s to make your swimmers more resilient to change,” Rooney said.
“In the USA they get to race every week regardless of illness or breakups and under all circumstances. Nothing rattles them.
“Australia doesn’t have that racing continuity. This is about making sure you are prepared for anything. I think our swimmers are more resilient than they have been in the past decade, COVID is part of this.”
Rooney said there might even be an “upside” for Australia with the Olympics postponed by a year due to the global health crisis, with the emergence of swimmers like teenager Kaylee McKeown, who broke the women’s 100m backstroke world record on Sunday.
“We are now talking about athletes who are not only going to make the Olympics but are medal chances,” Rooney said.
“We wouldn’t have been talking about her this time last year. She might not have been ready for a position on the team. She is now a legitimate gold medal chance in Tokyo once she gets there.”
For all her confidence about Australia’s performance in Tokyo, Rooney was wary of making predictions about a gold rush for her compatriots.
“I think this will be a more successful Olympics for us than Rio in the pool but individual goal medals will still be difficult to come by,” said the 38-year-old.
“The biggest challenge is to make the jump from minor medals to gold.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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