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Did the Cowboys miss a chance to improve with J.J. Watt heading to Arizona?

Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is signing with the Arizona Cardinals giving the Dallas Cowboys fewer choices among impact players to pursue.
Credit: AP
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) plays against the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

DALLAS — Former Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt announced that he will be joining the Arizona Cardinals for the 2021 season.

According to reports, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year signed a two-year contract worth $31 million to join the NFC West club, which finished 7-9 in 2020.

If that is what it took to get a legendary pass rusher, even if he will turn 32 on March 22, wouldn't it have been worth the Dallas Cowboys' effort to try to bring Watt in as an element to address the team’s franchise-worst defense from 2020?

Watt, it should be noted, is coming off a very down year by his standards with 5.0 sacks in 16 starts. At that rate, Watt would fit right in with a Cowboys defense that finished tied with the New York Jets for the 12th-fewest sacks in the league last year with 31. 

However, Watt was still a force in the trenches; the Texans were just so horrendous defensively – Houston (160.3 YPG) was the only team worse than Dallas (158.8 YPG) at defending the run in 2020 – that Watt’s effort was obscured. It wasn't like with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who played at a truly elite level despite the club's 4-12 finish where the Texans seemed to innovate ways to lose games. 

Watt's 14 tackles for loss were tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. His seven pass breakups were the most from Watt since 2015, the last time he collected a Defensive Player of the Year award. Even his pick-six on Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions was his first such play since 2014, another big year for Watt where he once again garnered top defensive player honors.

The former 2011 first-round pick from Wisconsin is no longer dominant to the point that he can lead a defense by his lonesome, even though he still commands the attention of offensive coordinators. But he can still be a key contributor and possibly an All-Pro on a defense where he doesn't have to do it all.

Probably the biggest problem for why Watt couldn't fit in Dallas was the scheme. The Cowboys are staying with a 4-3 alignment under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who ran nothing but the 4-3 as coach of the Atlanta Falcons from 2015-20. Recall that Watt has not played in anything but the 3-4 defense over the course of his entire career. 

Not only were the salary cap-hampered Texans fretting over his $17.5 million cap hit, but they are also transitioning to the Tampa-2, which deploys a 4-3 front, under new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. 

If Watt had keyed in on coming to Dallas, he would have had to face the same scheme quandary that he left at the southern end of Interstate 45. The Cardinals under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph run a 3-4 defense with Joseph being an understudy of Wade Phillips, who was with Watt during his first three seasons in the league.

Going with Watt is also more of a win-now move rather than a continuation of developing young guys, which is a philosophy the Cowboys have deployed under vice president of player personnel Will McClay. If the Cowboys kicked Watt inside at defensive tackle, where he made second-team All-Pro in 2014, he would be taking snaps away from young guys the Cowboys like, such as third-year Trysten Hill and second-year Neville Gallimore. 

Dallas also would get a mystery box of availability in Watt, who has played a full 16-game complement just twice since 2016; the other three seasons were over by Week 8 with a season-ending injury. Dallas also has two pass rushers they like on the edge in defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, who gave Dallas 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 10 games.

Ultimately, adding Watt may not have been the best for the player or the organization. The 2021 season will reveal whether it was a bad decision on Dallas' part.

Do you think the Cowboys should have pushed to sign J.J. Watt to enhance their beleaguered defense? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.