Justin Britt had a lot of time to contemplate his future last season, ultimately arriving at a strong conclusion.
The veteran center was convinced he had a lot more football left in him after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in 2019 and being released by the Seattle Seahawks.
A free agent for the entire season last year, going unsigned by the Green Bay Packers following a tryout, Britt now has a clean bill of health and an opportunity to prove he’s one of the top centers in the NFL again after signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Texans.
To reach this point, Britt has worked tirelessly to regain the strength and flexibility in his knee and his confidence in the muscle memory it takes to operate at an elite level again.
“Yeah, I had to not only teach my ACL how to work again, I had to slowly teach it football and tell it to be there when I want to kick slide,” Britt said. “But I mean, mentally, I never really let it escape me. So, it's more physical than anything. But just kind of creating that routine throughout the week and what my game day is going to look like now, but that's the fun part is building that routine that you want to follow and just be at your best.”
The Texans showed confidence in the former Pro Bowl alternate when they signed him to a deal that included a $500,000 signing bonus and a $1.5 million base salary. Britt can make an additional $1.2 million through per-game active roster bonuses, a rate of $75,000 per game. He has additional incentive clauses that can potentially boost the maximum value of the deal to $5 million.
Britt, 30, had plenty of downtime last year, time he spent with his family and going on long bike rides.
“I had a lot of time on my hands last year, so there was a lot of talk like, ‘Oh, he's retired,” Britt said “People thought I was retired. I never said I was retired. I was just at home. I was getting paid to be at home essentially. I mean, it was just a perfect year for my situation to unfold the way it did, but I was itching to get back.
"I was talking to my agent (Dave Butz) every week. ‘Who's calling? What's it look like?’ And nobody wanted to pay me respectful money. I feel like I've done enough to kind of earn that. So grateful that the organization here gave me the opportunity. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder, but I mean, it's nothing personal. I just want to go out there and win some games, be at my best, and provide for my family.”
Healthy again, Britt is eager to prove that the Seahawks were wrong to give up on him. While he’s not bitter about parting ways, it’s definitely a motivating factor for him.
“In the back of my mind, I was hopeful that I would still have a job last year,” Britt said. “But at soon as they cut me, it was kind of like, ‘All right, screw you. I’m going to get right.’ I took that approach every day, rehabbed out of my garage during the first part of the pandemic. I feel like I had the right approach and I knew how to attack it.”
Because it’s been such a long time since Britt has played in an NFL game, Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field is significant for him personally.
However long he’s on the field, Britt intends to make it count.
“I'm just going to go out there until they pull me,” Britt said. “I mean, I don't think I anticipate playing a whole lot, but I'm just going to go out there until they tell me to stop.”
“Well, I'm approaching this game way differently than someone like (Pro Bowl left tackle) Laremy (Tunsil) might. You know, he played last year, I didn't, and that's kind of the story of my whole season is everything I'm doing, I'm approaching a little differently. It kind of feels like my first game in a while. I'm excited to get out there and get my feet wet again and get the rhythm of the game again.”
At 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Britt has started at offensive tackle and guard in the past. He’s regarded as a natural center, though, because of his blocking skills and a nasty streak honed by his wrestling background as an undefeated (45-0) state high school champion growing up in Lebanon, Missouri.
Britt has started 86 of 87 career games played, lining up at center his past four seasons after initially playing right tackle and left guard.
When Britt tore the ACL in his left knee against the Atlanta Falcons in 2019 and missed the remainder of the season along with last year, it ended a run of durability after missing just two starts in his first five NFL seasons.
The Texans could use some rhythm after going 4-12 last season with general manager Nick Caserio overhauling the roster with 53 new players. Britt adds grit to the position and represents and upgrade from former starting center Nick Martin.
“We want to go out there and start the season off with the right kind of mindset and set the tone of what we've been working for, what we've been striving for,” Britt said. “But this preseason is for growth. It is for learning. Failure is okay, but we definitely want to go out there and play our best.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128