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Report: Patriots called, but were ‘never close’ to a J.J. Watt deal

Related: J.J. Watt announces he is signing with the Arizona Cardinals

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Yes, everyone, the Super Bowl line above is a joke. That’s where we are now. We have to make fun of our own failures and faceplants until we get back to at least .500 again. For you young whippersnappers who have only ever known Patriots Super Bowls and the post-curse Red Sox, I realize this is disorienting, but that’s how this works.

Anyway, as you probably saw while you were finishing your morning coffee and avoiding all the work you blew off on Friday afternoon, J.J. Watt broke the news that J.J. Watt is signing with the Arizona Cardinals — which, notably, unless I missed something, has never been one of the teams he was linked to in his 2.5 weeks of free agency:

Good for them. Glad J.J’s happy. Meanwhile, since we are still Patriots fans and it is all about us, this begs the question: were the Patriots ever in the mix to sign him?

Cause the 2020 Patriots’ run defense was, there’s no way to say this nicely, piss-poor in 2020. The Pats ranked a lowly 26th in rushing yards allowed per game, averaging 131.4. They gave up 17 scores on the ground on the season, which puts them tied for 18th in the league for rushing TDs allowed. As it often goes in football, there’s a plethora of reasons for this, ranging from Rona opt-outs to a lack of defensive tackle depth to several young guys playing at the second level of the defense to choosing to play more dime defense than ever before, but the point is, all the numbers match your eyeball test. The run defense stunk out loud in 2020 and they also only sacked the quarterback 24 times all season, which ranks 27th in the league. J.J. Watt’s pretty good at that too.

So, fortunately for those of us who were wondering if the Patriots could’ve had a chance to make what our man Keagan Steifel called the perfect match of J.J. Watt and Bill Belichick a reality, the answer from The Athletic’s Jeff Howe is that the Patriots pulled the Danny Ainge classic. They called to see what was cooking, and decided the price was too high to make it work.

Bummer. In the meantime, there’s a few takeaways here from a Patriots perspective, even for a bit of news as innocuous as “they called and that was pretty much it”.

First and foremost, for all that we heard this year from guys like Tom E. Curran about how the Patriots were gearing up for an “extremely aggressive offseason”, this would certainly appear to indicate two things:

  1. The Patriots, Bill Belichick, and new de-facto GM Dave Ziegler aren’t going to get into a top-dollar bidding war, even for a player with J.J. Watt’s trophy room and first-ballot Hall of Fame talent.
  2. Bill’s been famously loath to give edge rushers the bag in the past, at least after the Adalius Thomas Experience at the tail end of Dynasty 1.0. He tends to prefer to find edge-setting and pass-rushing help via the draft and with undervalued free agents and trade acquisitions, and this would seem to confirm that Bill very much does not want a Von Miller or JJ Watt-level contract on the books anytime soon.

Finally, and apologies if this is a Captain Obvious observation, but Bill doesn’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about jumping in on any of the big-name high-stakes trade and free agency action we’ve seen so far, whether that was Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz, or J.J. Watt now. And a decent part of the reason for that may very well be, as many Pats fans are acutely aware, the list of New England’s pending free agents is about as long as the scroll Jafar drops to the Sultan in Aladdin.

Allocating $31 million over two years to one guy, no matter how good of a defensive lineman he is, is probably not the best way to approach a roster with as many question marks as the 2021 Patriots currently have. If you go by average annual value for the deal Watt ended up signing, that’s roughly 25% of the cap space the Patriots are projected to have this offseason, all for one player. Bill’s never wanted a top-heavy team, even when he was paying guys like Gronk, Stephon Gilmore, DMac, and Shaq Mason, so avoiding tying up that kind of money on J.J. Watt (or, presumably, anyone else) stays consistent with the Belichick M.O. of building a deep roster with a strong “middle class”.

And hey, if you’re disheartened by the Patriots’ lack of action this offseason so far, it’s OK; we’re used to playing football here until February, which means there’s usually about 6 weeks between the Super Bowl and free agency. Since the Patriots season ended on January 3rd, it’s been almost eight weeks now, so, it’s kind of like New England football jet-lag. But take heart. Free agency hasn’t even technically started yet.