As most NFL teams waited in limbo for the NFL to set the 2021 salary cap ceiling, the Arizona Cardinals acted anyway.
They signed defensive end J.J. Watt to a two-year contract that could pay up to $31 million, including incentives. According to reports, $23 million is guaranteed.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora revealed some of the more nitty gritty items on the contract Wednesday morning.
We’ll get into the weeds of this in a second.
What Watt will be paid is different from how his contract reflects on the team’s salary cap. Considering the Cardinals have so many free agents at key positions, the latter matters from the broader view.
Arizona has the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com’s Jason Fitzgerald. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.
The Watt signing becomes even more interesting considering what general manager Steve Keim told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf only two weeks ago.
“Teams are going to have to be mindful of the fact the cap is dropping. You can manipulate that, but that’s kicking the can forward, and at some point in time you have to pay the penalty,” he said.
The Cardinals could alleviate some of the cap issues by making cuts, and you’d expect that would happen when there’s a better sense of what the cap will be set at.
Getting back to Watt, though, it’s clear that there is some kicking the can forward. At least to next season.
Based on Rapoport’s and La Canfora’s details of what goes into Watt’s pockets, we can assume a few things if this is a true two-year contract and the signing bonus isn’t strung into 2023 or beyond (the Cardinals pushed the cap hits to future seasons with De’Vondre Campbell’s and Jordan Phillips’ deals signed last summer).
If Watt’s contract is a straight two-year deal, the $12 million signing bonus should be pro-rated to count $6 million against the cap in each of 2021 and 2022.
Obviously, pro-rating it longer would further drop the cap hit.
If it’s just two years, his base salary in 2021 of $14.5 million (reading the tweets as money in his pocket) makes his actual salary after the bonus $2.5 million. Paired with the assumed pro-rated money, he will count $8.5 million against the cap — not bad considering what he’s expected to bring to the table.
Of course, that sets up Watt to be pricy next season, when the Cardinals can hope the pandemic has begun to pass and the league’s salary cap heads back in an upward trend.
For 2022, Watt can earn $13.5 million in his pocket before the sack incentives, but there’s that $6 million pro-rated from the signing bonus that jumps his cap hit to $19.5 million if he remains on the team.
It’s a risk for the Cardinals, but for the reasons mentioned elsewhere, they obviously feel it is worth taking. Arizona got a jump-start on other NFL teams before the league year switches over on March 17.
“(GM) Steve Keim and I were talking about it, and it was just crystal clear: We needed to go for it,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday.
Bidwill also suggested that the Watt surprise in the Cardinals’ favor is just the beginning of an incredibly active offseason.
“I think there’s going to be a seismic shift in talent across the NFL. You got teams that are projected to be well over the cap, you got teams projected to be well under,” the owner said. “I know every … potential free agent out there (is) thinking they’re not going to be released, but there are going to be a bunch of surprises to people here in a few weeks when everybody has to get under the cap.
“I see a big shift, a seismic shift in terms of the talent moving around. It’s going to be an opportunity. We just felt like this was a great opportunity for us to get a terrific player, terrific leader, somebody who’s a culture changer and really brings accountability to the locker room, to the weight room, to the practice field.”