J.J. Watt, Albert Haynesworth and future of NFL contracts

Posted by Joe Mags on September 03, 2014 · 9 mins read

J.J. Watt has been underpaid since the moment he joined the Houston Texans. And now he isn’t.

Watt’s massive new contract guarantees him $52 million, and could pay him up to $100 million over the next six seasons. In terms of annual average salary and guaranteed money, he will be the richest defensive player in the history of the NFL.

As Tim Mullhaupt wrote on Tuesday, if anybody is worth that kind of money, it is Watt. At 25, Watt has never missed a game, and he averages a dozen sacks and fifteen tackles for a loss per season. He’s also an incredible locker room presence, someone who’s monstrous size matches their intensity for the game; there is no football player I’d rather have on my team and rather not see lining up against me.

When I saw that Watt inked an $100 million contract, what immediately came to mind was the last defensive player to do so — a player with much of the same size and accomplishment as Watt — Albert Haynesworth.

The 6-foot-6, 320-pounder, at the height of his powers, seemed to change every single play at the line of scrimmage. But that was only when he was healthy and, more accurately, when he felt like it.

Haynesworth’s deal with the Washington football franchise in 2009 could have yielded him a fat stack — $115 million over seven seasons — if he met certain performance incentives. After 20 games and two seasons, however, Haynesworth was traded to New England for a fifth-round pick. Washington had seen enough.

What happened? In short: Haynesworth hustled them.

According to former teammate Chris Cooley, Haynesworth wanted to get released by Washington immediately in order to pocket the guaranteed money due to him in the contract — $41 million, $33 million of which was paid to him in the first thirteen months of the deal. Haynesworth even told is teammates, apparently, that he was sure another team would offer him a lucrative one-year contract in the aftermath, and that he would successfully hustle that team and keep their money as well.

(For the record: Washington ended up paying Haynesworth $36 million; New England “invested” $5.4 million in his services for six games; and Haynesworth made another $700,000 from Tampa Bay after the Bucs reluctantly claimed him off waivers from the Patriots. That’s $42 million over three years to pathetically underachieve. Nice.)

Hindsight is 20-20, sure, but there were signs that Haynesworth wasn’t worth the staggering investment Washington made on him — the swiping his cleated foot over Andre Gurode’s face in 2006; his infamous record of taking plays off.

That won’t happen to Houston. Watt has been a company man since he was drafted No. 11 overall in 2011, the first draft following the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement that capped rookie salaries. Watt signed a four-year, $11 million deal with the Texans; Anthony Davis, the previous year’s No. 11 draft pick, inked a $37 million rookie contract.

In fact, the top selections from the 2011 NFL Draft lost unspeakable amounts of money compared to their 2010 counterparts. The first sixteen selections in 2010 were guaranteed about $393 million combined on their rookie deals; the first sixteen players off the board in 2011 were given $217 million in guaranteed money.

Including Watt, 12 of those 16 players drafted in 2011 have already made the Pro Bowl. At the same time Watt was ascending as the game’s best defensive player, all while being paid like a league-average starter, Rolando McClain, the No. 8 selection in the 2010 draft, profited from $23 million in guaranteed money on his way out of the NFL.

Oh, and there’s Sam Bradford’s contract, which never, ever, ever worked out for St. Louis.

In placing a limit on what rookies can make on their contracts — one of the only things the NFL has gotten right over the past five years — performance is now the determining factor in salary. That was a healthy precedent to set: the 2010 NFL Draft made Eric Berry the richest safety in league history before playing a single down.

This new rule is seemingly broken each off-season, however, when a QB that isn’t named Manning, Brady or Brees signs a mammoth new contract. (See: Andy Dalton’s new deal.) Is having Dalton at QB as valuable to Cincinnati as having Watt is to Houston?

The answer is not black or white, but shades of grey.

First of all, there is no disputing J.J. Watt is a better football player than Andy Dalton. And while most would agree a great QB trumps a great individual defensive talent, nobody outside of Ohio is clamoring about Dalton as a future Hall of Famer. (Note: Dalton is a Pro Bowler, and he has made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. He’s also really, really bad against pressure.)

With all that said, Cincinnati was not comparing Dalton to Watt when they inked him to a long-term deal this August. (Sidebar: I can’t really think of any legitimate comparison between Dalton and Watt, outside of aliens crash-landing from outer space at a Houston/Cincinnati game, looking at Dalton and Watt standing next to each other, and making the calculation that they are two of the same species, however different they may look… Wait, did I just solve racism?)

Head coach Marvin Lewis was thinking about his window — how many more years could this Bengals team be a playoff threat, how many more years will he be employed by the team — and compared that to the quarterbacks available to him. Dalton only had one year left before he hit free agency, where he would certainly be fielding offers from plenty of rival teams. Could Cincinnati risk losing him for nothing? And how would they replace him — Would they sign a lesser quarterback at a bargain price? Use a top draft pick in 2015 and start a rookie QB? Trade picks and players for another team’s starter, or worse, backup?

All of these options are flawed. The easiest choice was to stick with the guy they had, pay him market value — the total salary in Dalton’s deal is irrelevant; he is guaranteed just $17 million over the life of the contract — and make a run with a talented core on both sides of the ball.

What does any of this have to do with Watt? Houston had their own controversial QB under center in recent years; choosing to let Matt Schaub walk at the end of last season was the inevitable conclusion to a disappointing tenure with the Texans. Unlike Cincinnati, Houston was willing to replace Schaub with a cheaper option (enter: FitzMagic) and use the leftover coin on solidifying the rest of their roster.

It is a myth that you need to have an elite QB to win the Superbowl. Russell Wilson is not Peyton Manning; Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning will never be confused with Joe Montana. But to win in the postseason, your quarterback does need to rise to the occasion, make some big throws, limit mistakes and, at the very least, be a neutral and not a minus.

Andy Dalton is mostly a plus, and occasionally really bad, but he is also very young. But Matt Schaub was a minus, and Houston is banking on Fitzpatrick being a move back to neutral at the NFL’s most important position.

Signing Watt for the long haul and paying him top dollar represents a fairly new concept, though. Most teams do what the Bengals did: make your quarterback the face of the franchise, give him the big contract, and build the team around him. Houston gave the money to Watt, paired him up with the most elite defensive prospect in years, and have unapologetically tooled the team to be defense first, second and third.

And if we learned anything from this past Superbowl, it’s that a crazy, freakish defense can trump even the game’s best offense. Paying Watt elite-QB money is Houston saying that they think the Watt/Clowney combination is more valuable than the average starting quarterback.

And I think they are right.