Projecting a Contract for JJ Watt


The other day there was some discussion on Twitter about Texans’ Defensive End JJ Watt receiving a contract extension worth in the ballpark of $23 million a season. That number seems crazy, so I figured I may as well jump in and take a look at Watt and where he might stand in the market and the type of contract I think he could receive.

The Player

Watt is a unique talent in part because of the position he plays on the field. In general most defenses that employ a 34 front do not have defensive ends that generate a great deal of pressure on passing downs. For the most part the 34 DE is responsible for occupying blockers, eating up space and allowing the linebackers make plays on the football. Much like defensive tackles, the 34 defensive end is not a position that gets noticed that often as their contributions go well beyond the stat sheets.

But Watt is different. He has the prototypical size of the defensive end in the 34 front, but he gets to the QB, and he gets there often. He is very disruptive and makes plays in the running game behind the line of scrimmage.  His ability to bat down passes is actually a topic of conversation among coaches and the media alike. He would seem to be a one of a kind defensive player.

The Stats

When we look at where Watt ranks I think there are a few categories we need to examine, because all are relevant to his eventual contract. The first thing I think that is worth looking at is his performance among 34 defensive ends.

Let use some of the numbers provided by Pro Football Focus for players with over 50% snaps.  Over the last three seasons the average 34 DE converts 1.2% of his rush attempts to a sack and 8.2% to a pressure. Here are the top 10 seasons over that time frame in terms of pressure conversion.

Player Year Sacks/Rush Press/Rush
J.J. Watt 2013 2.1% 16.4%
Cameron Jordan 2013 2.7% 14.5%
J.J. Watt 2012 3.7% 13.2%
Kyle Williams 2013 2.4% 12.9%
Justin Smith 2013 1.5% 12.1%
Mike Daniels 2013 2.1% 11.7%
Justin Smith 2011 1.2% 11.7%
Antonio Smith 2013 1.9% 11.2%
Calais Campbell 2013 1.8% 11.1%
Antonio Smith 2011 1.5% 10.9%

There are a few interesting takeaways from this. One is that Watt has been the most consistent player and is about two times as productive as the average player at the position. But as we look more at this list two things jump out at me. One is that his teammate, Antonio Smith, has two of the top seasons as well on this list. Smith is a very good player, but it may indicate that Watt is being given opportunities in the Texans defense to attack the passer that is not common to other teams. The other thing I notice is that out of these top 10 seasons, 7 came in 2013.


In general we are now getting a greater number of players who are playing over 50% of the snaps and maybe more of these players are getting the green light to “go get the QB”.  Maybe we should call this the “Watt effect” as the Texans defense has shown an ability to be more aggressive up front from the end position. Looking further at the group of data for the last three years, the position has grown from just 13 qualifiers in 2011 to 21 in 2013. 62% of the 2013 players produced a better than average season compared to 47% and 38% the year before. The position is getting more productive and efficient at rushing the passer. That is something that may make Watt less unique than he was in 2012.

If we expand our list to include all pass rushers from the outside (34 outside linebackers and 43 defensive ends), the numbers change. The average pressure now jumps to 10.6%. The average sack rate is 1.8%. What is our top 10 when we expand the field?

Player Year Sacks/Rush Press/Rush
Jerry Hughes 2013 3.6% 19.3%
Elvis Dumervil 2013 3.1% 19.1%
Robert Quinn 2013 4.0% 19.1%
Aldon Smith 2011 4.5% 19.0%
Trent Cole 2011 3.1% 18.9%
Cameron Wake 2013 2.5% 17.9%
Justin Houston 2013 3.0% 17.8%
Chris Long 2011 2.7% 17.2%
Michael Bennett 2013 2.4% 17.2%
James Harrison 2011 3.4% 17.0%

There is no JJ Watt in this group. His best season ranks 13th. His second best season ranks 44th. That does not mean we can not use this positional group as comparison points, especially when we start looking at consistency, but it makes it more difficult to value Watt as a once in a generation player, which is something most seem to be doing.

Of course there is another aspect to the NFL and that is run defense. PFF tracks a stat called stops, in which they determine a tackle that constitutes a loss for the offense. Here are the top 10 seasons in that category since 2011.

Player Year Stops/Run
J.J. Watt 2012 17.1%
J.J. Watt 2013 13.7%
Cedric Thornton 2013 12.4%
Justin Smith 2012 11.8%
Akiem Hicks 2013 11.4%
Muhammad Wilkerson 2012 10.9%
Tyson Jackson 2011 10.6%
Calais Campbell 2012 10.4%
J.J. Watt 2011 10.2%
Kenyon Coleman 2011 10.1%

This is a dominant showing by Watt, holding not just the top two spots, but three of the top 10 seasons outright. The only other players to appear on both lists are Calais Campbell and Justin Smith, neither of whom did it when their pass rushing was also top 10 in the same year. The average 34DE generates a stop on 7.2% of his snaps, so again he is probably close to double the average. This is once in a generation type of performance.

If we expand this list to the overall rusher market, Watt is still going to rank on top. This is essentially a dominant category for 34DE’s. The only non 34 ends in that top 10 are Anthony Spencer in 2012 (11.7%), Frostee Rucker in 2011 (11.6%), and Terrell Suggs in 2013 (11.3%).

There are some other stats that people can point to, but in general I don’t believe they would drive the price that much. His batted passes was pretty crazy in 2012 (PFF credited him with 15), but he’s had 10 total in his other two seasons, so I wouldn’t put that much stock in it.

Setting the Market

The gold standard for defensive players is Mario Williams’ $16 million per year bloated contract with the Buffalo Bills. Williams is a player that most very good players can match up with statistically, but this is one of those contracts that most consider an outlier. The contract itself is a byproduct of the Bills lack of success, desperation to be relevant, and general unappealing location. Still that will be the high end mark of probably any contract.

Here are the list of the relevant multi year contracts to the discussion on Watts as well as the two year average performance leading up to the new contract.

Player Year Signed APY Full Guarantee Sack % Pressure % Stop %
Mario Williams 2012 $16,000,000 $24,900,000 3.3% 16.1% 2.6%
Clay Matthews 2013 $13,200,000 $13,200,000 2.6% 14.2% 6.7%
Charles Johnson 2011 $12,666,667 $32,000,000 2.3% 14.8% 7.0%
Trent Cole 2012 $12,131,250 $14,500,000 2.6% 14.5% 8.8%
Chris Long 2012 $12,050,000 $23,550,000 2.1% 15.6% 3.5%
Tamba Hali 2011 $11,500,000 $11,500,000 2.7% 12.9% 3.9%
Calais Campbell 2012 $11,000,000 $17,000,000 1.6% 8.4% 8.7%
Michael Johnson 2014 $8,750,000 $16,000,000 1.8% 11.0% 7.0%
Everson Griffen 2014 $8,500,000 $19,800,000 1.7% 11.6% 6.8%
Cameron Wake 2012 $8,300,000 $17,000,000 2.7% 15.6% 6.7%
Paul Kruger 2013 $8,100,000 $13,000,000 2.7% 13.1% 5.7%
JJ Watt ? ? ? 2.9% 14.8% 15.4%

Setting the Price

There are a few reasonable comparisons here. In terms of pass rush productivity, Watt ranks similar to Charles Johnson and Trent Cole, while being slightly less productive than Cameron Wake and Chris Long. Those names should immediately give us our minimum values for Watt. Wake, who was a bit older than some of the others, signed a lower contract in Miami and is the only player with high level production who failed to break the $12 million mark, which is clearly our low end of the marketplace for Watt.

From there Watt is going to have to point to a few factors to try to drive the price up. One is that his sack conversion rate is very high. A sack is always going to be more valuable than a pressure and teams put a premium on that. That said his 2012 season is the major factor in his ranking and each year that he produces in the 10-12 sack category will makes teams less likely to put the premium on the sack. In that respect he needs a strong sack year in 2014 if he can not reach an extension now.

Secondly it is clear how important he is to the run game. The 15.4% really stands out among this group, but again 34DE’s are expected to do well in this regard (he’s still a phenom) and run defense is not really a big barometer of salary. You can find a number of very good run defenders who were basically brought in to play on the veteran’s minimum. Others known more for run than pass play are pretty much earning in the ballpark of $5 million a season.

Another factor is that Watt is a proven full game player. Some of these other players were not. Watt more or less plays every snap of the game such that no salary is needed for a backup. He’s like Jared Allen in that regard in that he never takes a play off. Players who, when healthy, were top snap guys that are on the above list were Williams, Hali, Campbell, and M.  Johnson. Most of the others played often but more along the lines of 80-85% rather than in the 90’s.

The most recent relevant example that Watt should point to is Matthews. Matthews’ contract is very recent to the market and represents the worth of a cornerstone defender to his franchise. Matthews was also under contract at the time of signing and the Packers had similar leverage with the franchise tag that the Texans will have with Watt. Watt compares favorably to Matthews as a pass rusher, and using these numbers, in the realm of 4-11% better. If we split the range it brings us to around $14.2 million a season.  That’s probably a fair number to work from.

Going from there it’s really justifying additional money for being a pure full time player and an exceptional run defender. It might be realistic to get a team to throw you an additional $1-2 million for that aspect of the game, though many teams may just consider it a waste of resources since the NFL is a passing league. My feeling is a team would max out around $15.5 million unless they threw some backend money on the contract to equal the Williams annual value.

Negotiating with the Texans

Watt will likely have to take a discount if he signs an extension this season. Right now the Texans essentially control Watt’s rights for the next three seasons at a price tag somewhere around $23 million, depending on the cost of the franchise tag in 2016. The 2016 figure is not protected for injury, so at this point the guarantee is just $8.87 million.

If we value Watt’s extension at $15 million a year and assume a virtually guaranteed total of $40 million, that means he is essentially absorbing a minimum of a $54 million injury risk(the cost of the 16 franchise tag plus $40 million protected in the extension) by playing the next two seasons. If he has to play year 3 on the tag then it’s a $40 million risk. For Houston to absorb the risk they need to receive something in return.

Besides the injury risk, Watt also takes on a skill risk. As we discussed earlier the team was proving to be a good pass rushing team from non-traditional spots under their old coaching staff. Does that continue with the new staff?  How well does Jadeveon Clowney play in the defense?  His emergence could make Watt expendable if the cost gets too high, the way others made Williams expendable in Houston.

Another important aspect to signing now is opening up the path to future earnings. If Watt were to sign an extension this year it would likely be a 4 year deal, running through 2019. That would leave him open to a new contract at 30/31, an age where he could still be very productive.  If he is forced to play out the next three seasons he would probably have to sign a pure five year deal, leaving him 33 years old when he hits free agency again. He won’t get much at that age.

What I would do to come up with a fair price for the Texans is to estimate the likelihood of serious injury or skill declines to discount the amount that the team is guaranteeing Watt by extending him now. A study last season by Jenny Vrentas of MMQB indicated that there is around a 3% ACL tear rate in the NFL, which is usually regarded as the worst possible injury. Beyond that we could probably assume a 1%-2% probability that he suffers a different type of serious injury or would see his skills materially decline at the age of 25/26 as he completes his contract.

If we discount that $40 million guarantee at a 4% rate back from the 2016 season into the 2014 season, we would reduce his salary by about $3 million.  This type of guarantee is usually equal to the new money in the first two years of the contract. The remaining seasons would not be changed due to signing early as there was never any protection in those years to begin with. That would bring the fair contract value, in 2014, down to about $14.4 million a season. Each year that Watt survives the season without injury and performs well will increase the cost of his contract since he has less to gain by signing early.  There are a few ways to play with the numbers based on franchise tags, cap inflation, positional value inflation, etc…, but $14.4 million seems like a pretty reasonable baseline number.

In terms of cash flows I would look at the structure of the Matthews and Williams contract as a guideline. Both are reasonable expectations unlike Johnsons which is very top heavy and Long’s which is an even spread. I’d try to push for the four year extension rather than a five year extension. If the Texans insisted on five years then I think the final season should be tied to the franchise tag that year. There is so much uncertainty in the NFL that you would not want to commit to 2020 without seeing what the 2015 salary cap is. It would give the team a benefit they should not receive. That being said, the four year contract is one most likely only available in the 2014 season and that in 2015 the length will be five years.

Here is what I would think is a reasonable set up for the contract:

Bonus P5 PG Roster Cash Cap Dead
2014 $15,000,000 $1,907,385 $0 $16,907,385 $6,576,197 $27,795,197
2015 $0 $9,219,000 $0 $9,219,000 $12,219,000 $21,219,000
2016 $0 $6,400,000 $500,000 $6,900,000 $9,900,000 $9,000,000
2017 $0 $10,500,000 $500,000 $11,000,000 $14,000,000 $6,000,000
2018 $0 $10,200,000 $500,000 $10,700,000 $13,700,000 $3,000,000
2019 $0 $11,250,000 $500,000 $11,750,000 $11,750,000 $0

This works out to a four year contract worth $57.6 million. The first year new money take is $24,150,000 and the full guarantee about $26.12 million with another $6.4 million protected for injury. He’ll receive a $15 million signing bonus, which is pretty much the maximum that the team can add to the salary cap without removing Andre Johnson from the roster. While his cap charge is high in 2015, the Texans salary cap is in much better health. If you went to a five year contract I’d expect the guarantee to be higher  (around the $40 million discussed above) and cash numbers slightly higher on the front end as well.

Of course it will be interesting to see what happens in reality with Watt, but this is the ballpark I would think we would be looking at right now. I think his value could both rise or fall depending on how the year plays out. The closer he gets to free agency the closer he can get to the $16 million Williams number, especially if the salary cap keeps increasing at a rapid pace.

I would think both sides should consider a deal this season. Houston is going through a remake of the roster and I think this move would ensure Watt is the face of the franchise and be good for PR in the event things with Johnson continue to get ugly. The cost itself is relatively reasonable and the team will have the ability to walk away via trade or release if they want to move on as early as 2017.

Watt will earn around $10 million more than if he was forced to play the franchise tag game and at least have some added security. Houston has been known to restructure contracts for cap relief and all he needs is a restructure in 2017, which we have kind of made a decision year based on his cap charge, to more or less lock in his cash for 2018.  Plus he gets free agency in 2020 with this deal rather than 2021. So I think its relatively fair for both sides and within the market as constructed and Watt’s contributions and performance thus far in his career.