The Kansas City Chiefs turned things around in a big way in 2013, but as the team tries to build on last year's successes, the realities of life in the salary-cap era in the NFL loom large over the team.
Arguably the Chiefs' most valuable players on offense (quarterback Alex Smith) and defense (outside linebacker Justin Houston) are both entering the final years of their contracts. Houston, who tied for the team lead last year with 11.0 sacks, skipped minicamp and may miss the beginning of training camp due to unhappiness over his contract situation.
Houston's absence from workouts has led many to speculate that the 25-year-old may have leap-frogged Smith in the extension pecking order. If that proves to be the case, the Chiefs may have solved one problem, but in doing so they're going to create several more.
That isn't to say the Chiefs shouldn't lock Houston up. That sort of goes without saying.
Houston was a large part of Kansas City's torrid start last year. Over the first six weeks of the 2013 season, Houston tallied a staggering 9.5 sacks, including a 4.5-sack eruption against the Philadelphia Eagles in a prime-time Week 3 win.
If that doesn't adequately demonstrate Houston's value to the Kansas City defense, perhaps this number will:
#Chiefs' defense surrendered 25.2 ppg during OLB Justin Houston's 5 missed games, to just 16.3 points allowed with Houston in the lineup.— Pro Football Spot (@pfspot) July 14, 2014
Frankly, the Chiefs' defense with Houston and without him last year looked like two different teams, so of course the team wants the youngster in the fold for the long term.
Unfortunately, that's also not a cheap proposition.
According to the contract data at spotrac (subscription required), the top five outside linebackers in the NFL in terms of average salary make about $11.4 million per season. That's also just under what teammate Tamba Hali makes from the extension he signed in 2011.
That's probably the floor for a Houston deal, and a contract that makes him the NFL's highest-paid linebacker is a very real possibility.
And that's where the problems come in.
For starters, there's the small matter of Smith's deal. The Chiefs currently have just over $10 million in cap space for 2014. Fitting long-term deals for both players under the cap will probably take some serious back-loading.
Does Justin Houston deserve to be the NFL's highest-paid outside linebacker?
Signing Houston before the season (but not Smith) creates a situation where the Chiefs could either be looking at a bidding war for their starting quarterback or the possibility of franchise-tagging a signal-caller.
That was a pricey bet in 2014, folks, to the tune of over $16 million.
The decisions won't get easier moving forward. In 2016, running back Jamaal Charles hits free agency. So does half the defense, including Hali, linebacker Derrick Johnson, nose tackle Dontari Poe and safety Eric Berry.
That's a lot of potential holes to fill around Houston in the near future.
It isn't all doom and gloom, of course. The salary cap should increase a fair amount each of the next two seasons. Johnson and Hali will both be well on the wrong side of 30 when their deals expire and will likely either be let go or signed to team-friendly short-term deals.
It's also not as if the Chiefs and general manager John Dorsey have a ton of say in the matter. No general manager worth his salt is about to let a viable starting quarterback or an edge-rusher just entering the prime of their careers get anywhere near the exit door.
And so the Chiefs will re-up Houston and then Smith (or vice versa). From there, the team essentially has a two-year window (this season and next) of relative stability.
And then life is going to get really interesting for Dorsey and the Chiefs.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.