After recently claiming that he and Tamba Hali make up the NFL’s best pass-rushing duo, the Kansas City Chiefs paid linebacker Justin Houston as if this was a fact. With the deadline looming for the Chiefs and Houston to come to terms on a long-term contract, the two parties agreed to a record-setting, six-year, $101 million pact. Over half of the contract is guaranteed, and it is the richest contract in NFL history for a linebacker.
Earlier in the offseason, the Chiefs applied the franchise tag to the All-Pro linebacker, which would have paid him $13.2 million under the one-year tender. But Houston made it clear early on that his preference was to hammer out a long-term deal. He sat out during the team's offseason practices, waiting for the big payday, one that seemed to slip away as the deadline associated with tagged players crept ever closer. But both sides ultimately came to a mutual agreement, making Houston one of the league’s highest-paid players.
Over the past 43 games played, Houston has racked up 43 sacks, leading the league last year with 22, just a half-sack short of Michael Strahan's single-season record. There is little doubt that Houston is among the top pass-rushing linebackers in the league, given his youth, quick progression, and production in just four years. With a 3-4 defense, the Chiefs rely greatly on their outside linebackers, and Houston is certainly the present and future of this scheme.
Last year, Kansas City’s defense ranked second in both points and passing yards allowed per game. Certainly, Houston played a significant role in these rankings, constantly getting to the quarterback, forcing pressure, and drawing the attention of extra blockers. If the Chiefs wanted to remain atop these rankings for years to come, they needed to ensure that Houston would remain with the team for the foreseeable future.
Houston’s contract draws significant comparisons to the one J.J. Watt signed last year, which was $100 million over six years with around half of that guaranteed. Essentially, these deals were the exact same, and each player received All-Pro recognition last season. Watt is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year honoree and has a considerably bigger profile than Houston when it comes to making headlines off of the field. However, Houston's importance to his own team cannot be understated as Kansas City aims to get back to the postseason in 2015.
The going rate for these elite defensive players seems to have hit the six-year, nine-figure rate, as Ndamukong Suh signed for $114 million as the most-prized free agent on the market earlier this offseason. However, it’s also important to note the prevalence of restructured contracts in the NFL. Whenever large, long-term contracts are signed, restructuring at some point almost seems inevitable, and this includes offensive players too. So after a few years, don't be surprised if Houston's contract goes the same route.
Houston and Hali make up just one of several elite pass-rushing duos. For the Ravens, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil combined for the most sacks in the NFL last year, although they are both over 30 years old. In Denver and Buffalo, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams create a mix of youth and experience, much like Kansas City. The Rams and Texans both have the best youth and potential with the likes of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, and Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, respectively. Clearly, the Chiefs are up there in terms of duos, although it was essential to keep Houston on the roster, as Hali may only have limited time left in his success.
It might be difficult to believe that Houston is worth as much as Watt, but his cost was only going to increase if the Chiefs let him enter free agency next offseason. While Watt is arguably the best player in the NFL, Houston is just as important to his team as Watt is to his. So is Houston worth his full contract? He’s certainly worthy of a top contract, especially if he continues upon last year’s success. He’s proven and young, a lethal combination. While Watt may be more valuable, he just might have been underpaid. It's a lot of money, but it's better to see this contract for its guaranteed money. Playing all six years under this exact deal may not happen, so it's hard to say now that Kansas City overpaid Houston substantially. He's entering his prime, so for now, the first few years should be worth it.
Now let's celebrate: