While the Texans opted not to deal superstar JJ Watt at the trading deadline, numerous team and league sources believe it is a virtual certainty that he is gone next season, with the veteran adamant about finishing his career with a contender.
Watt, who turns 32 in March, has endured significant pain and injury to continue his career to this point and was among the players and coaches thoroughly worn-out by the tension-filled Bill O-Brien era (the coach/general manager was fired last month). His recent remarks about not wanting to endure "a rebuild," were sincere and, according to several sources who have spoken to him, if anything were soft.
"It's a wrap," said one source with knowledge of the situation. "He knows he only has so many games left and he is ready to go and try to win. The guys in that locker room are bracing for it."
Another source with knowledge of the situation said: "At the end of the day, Cal (owner Cal McNair) respects JJ too much to hold him back. I think everyone in their hearts already knows he is going to be moving on. He's done everything they could have ever asked for, and this chapter is closing."
Several general managers who explored significant trade talks with the Texans came away convinced that a trade is inevitable. Owner Cal McNair has been hopeful of keeping the star around, but the team badly needs draft capital – lacking a first and second-round pick in 2021 – it has been well known in league circles for weeks that Watt would prefer to be elsewhere and hiring a new coach and GM is very unlikely to change that.
"He'll be traded by March, bank on it," said one NFL general manager. "That's a hard trade to make in the middle of the season and there are going to be questions about the medicals. Jack (acting GM Jack Easterby) can't make that trade in November. And the owner probably wasn't quite ready to make it, but it's coming."
The Texans stood pat at the deadline, surprising some rival executives, but ultimately Easterby was in an awkward interim position and was averse to making any moves that could backfire, according to several GMs who had discussions with him. He was holding out for extreme value in trade talks and McNair was hesitant to eat salary to facilitate trades, which several teams believe was required given how much salary they would be assuming in a pandemic with revenues compromised.
Watt has told confidants for weeks that this was coming to a head, and it seems quite unlikely his desire to play elsewhere is going subside. And as averse as the Texans have been to dealing core veteran players, other GMs anticipate that whoever takes over the position in Houston will end up moving at least four to six players to try to reposition for the draft, with Whitney Mercilus, Bradley Roby, Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney and Brandin Cooks the names most frequently mentioned.
"Bill O'Brien made too many mistakes for the next guy to be able to fix them all," said one top NFL executive who has studied the Texans roster and cap ahead of a potential interview for the opening. "That's not happening. That process will take years, and the first step is getting what you can for older players who are making real money."
The Texans drafted Watt with the 11th overall selection in 2011 and he quickly rose to become one of the dominant defensive lineman of his era and a perennial All-Pro performer. He was the face of the franchise for much of his time there and is one of the faces of the NFL. His play has declined some in recent years, and he has played more than eight games in a season only once in the previous four seasons (he has not missed a game yet this season).
His $17.5M contract, with one year remaining, will be prohibitive for some, and the Texans may need to absorb some salary to facilitate the trade, and concerns about his health could also complicate the transaction. Green Bay (Watt's hometown) and Pittsburgh (where his brother TJ is a star pass rusher) are viewed by some as potential landing spots.