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Packers among teams interested in ex-Badgers star J.J. Watt, but does he seek a homecoming?
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Packers among teams interested in ex-Badgers star J.J. Watt, but does he seek a homecoming?

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GREEN BAY — J.J. Watt fits the prototype of the free agent Brian Gutekunst was already thinking about pursuing three months ago.

To what degree the Green Bay Packers general manager actually goes after the former University of Wisconsin star has Badgers and Packers fans alike on the edge of their offseason seats.

Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber was first to report over the weekend the Packers are among the roughly dozen teams to express an interest in Watt, who was released by the Houston Texans on Friday after 10 seasons that included three NFL defensive player of the year awards and five Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections — but also a few injury troubles in recent years.

Depending on his asking price — and given the number of teams reportedly interested in Watt, he could make himself a good chunk of change if he wants to — the Packers should have as good a chance at anyone at landing Watt, the Pewaukee native who has played in just eight career postseason games during his decade in Houston.

Watt, who turns 32 next month, never advanced beyond the AFC divisional round of the playoffs with the Texans, who made the playoffs six times during his career, winning just four games before being eliminated each postseason. In 2020, the Texans went 4-12 a year after taking a 21-0 lead on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs before losing 51-31 to the eventual Super Bowl LIV-champions.

So if Watt’s goal is to play for a championship contender, he could do worse than returning to his home state and chasing that elusive Super Bowl berth with a team that has the NFL’s reigning MVP at quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and has reached back-to-back NFC title games.

One NFL scout said Monday afternoon that putting Watt inside as a pass rusher alongside defensive tackle Kenny Clark in sub packages with Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary as the edge rushers could give opposing offenses fits, though it’s not clear what system new defensive coordinator Joe Barry intends to run and how Watt would be deployed in that system.

It’s also reasonable to wonder where Watt’s game stands. He had four straight double-digit sack seasons from 2012 through 2015, when he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in ‘12, ‘14 and ‘15, but he played in just eight total games in 2016 and ‘17 combined because of injuries. He rebounded in 2018 to post 16 sacks en route to his fifth first-team All-Pro selection, but he’s had a combined nine sacks over the past two years — including just four in 2020.

That said, according to ESPN Stats & Information, no edge rusher in the NFL was double-teamed more than Watt last season (30.1%) and he was able to play in all 16 games and 1,013 snaps (91.43%).

“I think there’s been very little drop-off in his game,” Texans defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said before Houston’s Jan. 3 regular-season finale. “When you have somebody that’s that talented, offenses key him and try to take him away. Through no fault of his own, we haven’t been able to generate enough heat opposite him, so if we were able to do that then maybe we’d be able to take some of the heat off of him and his numbers would be even more impressive than what they are. But I don’t think there’s been any drop-off, which is an incredible achievement, really, considering all the things he’s been through in his career, particularly from an injury standpoint.”

And yet, the Texans opted to release the player that had been the face of their franchise — the kind of moving Gutekunst had been anticipating to be the trend this offseason.

Expecting the NFL’s salary cap to drop because of the league’s losses from the mostly empty stadiums the COVID-19 pandemic had wrought, Gutekunst correctly predicted back in November there would be a free agent market that would consist of good players who’d find themselves unemployed as their teams worked to pare salaries from their books to account for the cap going down instead of up. Before the new league year begins on March 17, the number of players in that pool should grow significantly.

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Speaking during a Zoom call with reporters after signing franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari to an extension, Gutekunst acknowledged “the ‘21 cap situation, again, is problematic. Everyone is trying to figure out how they’re going to solve that going forward.” But he also sounded intrigued by the players who could be available.

“Obviously, we have some players that are coming up that we’d certainly like to re-sign if we can,” Gutekunst said, referring to running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, center Corey Linsley and cornerback Kevin King among others. “This year, I think, is going to be a unique free agent class, only because a lot of teams are going to be trying to get under the number, whatever that comes out to be.

“The players that might become available to us during the March period may be a little different than it has in the past, and we want to have some flexibility to do those things if we can. ... We’ve always believed that we’d like to take care of our own first, that’s very important to us, but we’d also like to have some flexibility to see what the market might bring in March.”

Watt, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, was scheduled to earn a $17.5 million base salary for 2021, the final year of a six-year, $100 million extension he signed on Sept. 2, 2014. If money is a secondary factor in his decision-making, he could also opt for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have his two brothers — edge rusher T.J. and fullback Derek — on their roster.

But T.J. Watt is entering his fifth-year option year as the Steelers’ 2017 first-round pick and is seeking an extension, while Derek Watt is entering the second year of a three-year, $9.75 million deal and is set to count $3.8 million against the salary cap in 2021, making his future in Pittsburgh a bit murky as well.

According to the website OverTheCap.com, the Packers are still nearly $20 million over the projected 2021 salary cap of $180.5 million, even after converting Bakhtiari’s $11 million roster bonus into a signing bonus to clear $8.3 million in cap room last week. That likely will lead to multiple veteran players, including outside linebacker Preston Smith, inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, defensive end Dean Lowry and backup offensive tackle Rick Wagner, being released or asked to take pay cuts.

What that leaves the Packers financially to offer Watt remains to be seen, but he did make it clear during his visit to Green Bay for joint practices during training camp in 2019 he grew up a Packers fan and the gravitational pull of home is strong. He was even excited about the Packers-Texans preseason game that year, having missed a December 2016 regular-season game at Lambeau because of injury.

“Being a kid growing up, I went to one day of training camp and I watched from the fence, and I went over to the (players’) parking lot and threw a T-shirt over for autographs,” Watt said during an appearance at the American Family Championship golf tournament at University Ridge in 2019 before training camp kicked off. “I’ll never forget looking through that fence and just thinking to myself, ‘Those guys do this for a living.’ That, to me, was one of the coolest things in the world.

“I literally couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that they got to play football for a living. So that was one of those moments that led me down that path to where I am today. And for me to go back there and to practice there and be able to play in Lambeau, I think it all comes full circle for me and it’s going to be a really, really cool experience. I’m more excited that we’re playing a preseason game there than I am a regular-season (game) because I get to do the practice experience and kind of live out that dream that I had as a kid.”

Watt ended up not playing in that exhibition game, but he was able to be on the field in pregame warmups and soak up the stadium’s history and ambiance — including playing catch with his dad, who was in the stands.

“We used to play catch in the backyard, pretending I was Brett Favre,” Watt said after that game. “So, to be able to play catch at Lambeau with my dad on the field, it was pretty cool.”

Now, they might get a chance to do that again. During those Packers-Texans practices in 2019, Watt admitted to being surprised by the number of fans wearing his No. 99 jersey. There was even one fan who wore a Packers version of it.

“To see people wearing my jersey outside of this stadium at this practice, even though I’ve tried to wrap my head around it, I don’t think I’ve fully wrapped my head around what it means and how special it really is to be playing on a practice field where guys like Brett Favre and Reggie White have played,” Watt said then.

“It’s special. It’s really special. I would tell every kid out there to chase their dreams because when you get the chance to accomplish the dream you had as a child, it’s one of the coolest feelings in the world.”

Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures

Check out photo galleries from every game of 2020 through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.

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