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Uncertainty of salary cap could impact J.J. Watt’s head start on free agency

Mike Florio, Charean Williams and Myles Simmons take turns drafting the teams they want to see sign J.J. Watt, including a family reunion, a return to Watt’s college roots and an AFC South rival.

Plenty of teams reportedly are interested in free-agent defensive lineman J.J. Watt. But it’s one thing to be interested and it’s quite another to start putting firm financial offers on the table.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the 2021 salary cap, the question becomes whether teams will start putting firm financial offers on the table for Watt before they know what the cap will be.

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, chair of the league’s finance committee, has said that the salary cap may not be finalized until a few hours before the start of the new league year. It can’t be lower than $175 million. Some think it will be in the range of $180 million. Some think the NFL wants to finalize new TV deals by then in order to move some money around and push it even higher.

How can any team make a firm commitment to Watt -- who falls in the broad gulf between superstar and player operating under a rookie deal -- without knowing what the cap will be? Someone may want him badly enough to roll the dice with their best guess. But that will be a calculated risk.

The same mindset applies to plenty of other veterans who are either available or whose contracts are expiring. How can, for example, the Buccaneers have meaningful negotiations with players like linebacker Lavonte David and receiver Chris Godwin (among others) without knowing what the cap will be?

The safest move could be to assume that it will be $180 million, and if it’s any higher then the excess should be treated as found money. But if the assumption lands at $180 million, that will mean less money for Watt than what he could get if it comes in higher.

So, basically, his 33-day head start on free agency may not ultimately mean all that much, if teams don’t have a clear and firm understanding as to what the cap will be.