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BENZ: J.J. Watt to Browns instead of Steelers? Signals seem to lean that way

TIM BENZ
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2021, file photo, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) waves to fans as he walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith, File)

Former Houston Texans star J.J. Watt may not join his brothers with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he may come to the AFC North.

According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Watt is "seriously considering" a contract with the Cleveland Browns. Because, according to sources she has, the Browns have salary cap space ($21.7 million, 10th best in the NFL), along with a "strong supporting cast and a positive environment."

Cabot says that Cleveland management was quick to dial-up Watt's representatives to express interest.

In terms of the scheme, Watt would be a clearer fit in Cleveland's 4-3 than in Pittsburgh's 3-4. Also, Myles Garrett would still demand most of the blocking attention up front at the opposite end position. Not to mention, Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon is a free agent, and he ruptured an Achilles tendon at the end of last season.

A ruse? All that said, when I saw a lot of smoke about Watt leaning towards Cleveland, my first thought was that it was just a ruse by Watt's agent to goose interest out of the Steelers.

In other words, maybe the Steelers wouldn't be inclined to heighten their already tenuous salary cap situation just to sign Watt. But maybe general manager Kevin Colbert would change his mind if failing to do so meant seeing him twice a year in the division.

Who knows? Maybe that makes T.J. Watt less inclined to sign a contract extension and wait for free agency to go to Cleveland, too.

Far-fetched to be sure. I can't see why T.J. Watt would mess around with long-term security and up-front money with a big contract extension now, just to wait until free agency so he can stay with J.J. in Cleveland for one year or so.

But, hey, what agent is above pandering to NFL rivalry paranoia?

Cap angle: Another reason I was dubious of the story at first was the cap space angle. I mean, the narrative for three days since Watt's release had been that he didn't care about money. He's given a ton away to charity. He's made over $100 million already. I thought he either just wanted to play with his brothers or play for a Super Bowl contender.

Then, I talked to Matt Thomas of SportsTalk 790 in Houston. And he is getting the same vibe about Cleveland as a potential landing spot for Watt. And he believes the Browns' spending flexibility is very much an issue.

"I would assume that J.J. would listen (to the Steelers)," Thomas said. "But, frankly, I think J.J. is thinking, 'I have maybe two or three years left. I need to make as much money as possible.' I would lean towards teams that have some salary cap space ... I had a gut feeling on the show on Tuesday that J.J. Watt is going to be a Cleveland Brown."

Scheme may play role: Thomas has lots of other reasons why he thinks the Browns are a good fit for Watt. He's on board with my belief that scheme plays a role in Watt's thinking. He also advances the theory that adding some defense is exactly what the Browns need to perhaps get to the Super Bowl out of the AFC next year. And Watt hasn't been close to a Super Bowl yet.

Furthermore, Thomas believes that Watt might not want to go down the easy road everyone expects of him choosing Pittsburgh or Green Bay, just because of the obvious family connections. That Watt may simply still want to do his own thing.