Should NFL Teams Consider Steep Price of Justin Houston Trade?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMarch 4, 2015

The Kansas City Chiefs gave outside linebacker Justin Houston the non-exclusive version of the franchise tag Monday, which means other teams are free to negotiate a contract with him if they are willing to turn over two first-round picks. It would be a stunning move, but teams make them every year around this time.

Of course, the Chiefs could take less to move Houston if they don’t believe they can come to an agreement and—as Pro Football Talk reported—he would really wait until Week 10 to sign the tender. They don’t have much motive to do that, but it would be a better option than six games of Houston before he hits free agency in 2016.

Unlike the Chiefs, there are teams that have to spend upwards of $100 million over the next two years on player contracts. Not just phony cap dollars, but they actually have to cut checks for that amount to get to the 89 percent floor mandated in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Overpaying Houston wouldn’t be an issue for those teams.  

The optimal team would have a big need for a pass-rusher, no opportunity to draft a great one and desperate leadership. Desperate teams make the most irrational decisions at this time of year.

Those teams spend big money on flawed players, they trade multiple first-round draft picks to move up and get that one player they fell in love with, and they trade picks to acquire players the other team no longer wants or needs. The Chiefs are feeling the sting of trading two second-round picks for quarterback Alex Smith two years ago and then giving him a big contract extension, so they are no stranger to this phenomenon.

At least with Houston, they would get a good return on their investment. He was the NFL’s sack leader and All-Pro in 2014. He’ll also be just 26 next season, which means that most of his next contract will be before he turns the magical age of 30.

The thing that makes Houston so good is that he’s not just one-dimensional. He’s good against the run and in pass coverage. He’s also a disciplined player, having committed just three penalties in his career, and none over the past two years.

Comparison of Top Pass-Rushers
PlayersSnapsPenaltiesSacksPFF Pass-Rush Productivity
Justin Houston105702315.7
J.J. Watt106862115.0
Von Miller92651511.8
Ryan Kerrigan100031313.0
Elvis Dumervil62881911.8
Pro Football Focus

Houston was so good last year that the Chiefs couldn’t take him off the field. He played more snaps than any 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. The Chiefs are in a pinch because they need him to play and to keep his cost down. If the franchise tag doesn’t accomplish that and a team is willing to give up two first-round picks or some other trade packages, it might help ease the pain.

Not only did Houston play the most snaps, but he was also efficient. Houston was even more productive as a pass-rusher than Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who signed a six-year contract worth $100 million in September with a total of $41.9 million guaranteed if he’s on the roster March 15.

That is the kind of commitment a team is going to have to make to Houston, but probably even more because Watt wasn’t a free agent or franchise tagged. The cost is steep, but there are teams that can make it happen.

With the salary-cap floor of 89 percent over four years, there are teams that have a lot of spending to do. Once adjusting for commitments the next two years, former agent and cap guru Jimmy Halsell calculated that the Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants all must commit $100 million in cash to players over the next two years.

Funny Money
TeamUncommitted CashBadly Need Pass-Rusher?Desperate GM?In Position to Draft Top Rusher?
Uncommitted Cash via Jim Halsell

The Chiefs aren’t going to trade Houston to a team within the division, so that leaves the Panthers, Jaguars, Jets, Cowboys, Colts and Giants. The teams that could really use a great pass-rusher are also the Colts and Jaguars.

The Jaguars are also about to get desperate because the new regime is going into its third year. If general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley don’t improve in 2015 with gobs of money to spend, there’s no guarantee both will be back in 2016.

On the other hand, the Jaguars are in prime position to draft one of the top pass-rushers in the draft. That is, unless they trade down with a team looking to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. That kind of draft-day trade would give the Jaguars additional draft capital to replace whatever they have to give up to get Houston, but they wouldn’t be able to make the move until after it’s executed.  

The Colts have already proven they will trade top draft picks for players, as they did when they sent a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for running back Trent Richardson. That could make them more reluctant to make another similar move, but it’s clear that their general manager, Ryan Grigson, believes good pass-rushers are rare and valuable.

“I was always brought up with if you have 12 pass-rushers, give me 13,” Grigson said, via Mike Wells of “You can never have enough pass-rushers and that’s Scouting 101. The hard part is actually finding them and then finding ones that, the handful of them that are clean and really good.”

The Colts also probably won’t be in position to draft one of the top pass-rushers in the upcoming draft. They have the 29th pick, so most of the top pass-rushers will probably be gone.  

According to Pro Football Talk, Houston intends to pursue offers from teams with low first-round picks. With quarterback Andrew Luck under center and a weak AFC South, the Colts are likely to be drafting low again in 2016.

Given how many teams have cap and cash flexibility, there could also be other suitors. The Raiders have so much money to spend that they could sign Houston to such a ridiculous deal that the Chiefs couldn’t match without other serious ramifications. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is on the hot seat, but he isn’t about to give up a top-five pick in 2015; however, in the future he might not care.

Any team that’s desperate enough to just sign Houston away will probably make the move after the draft, so the Chiefs wouldn’t get anything for Houston until next year. If the Chiefs want someone of value for Houston now, it wouldn’t hurt for them to make it known that it’s just two first-round picks or nothing, and to control what team he ends up with to some extent.

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey is also big on building through the draft. Although Houston is tremendously valuable, he just might be willing to let someone else give him a ridiculous contract offer in return for a ridiculous number of draft picks.

It’s not crazy to say Justin Houston is the best defensive player in the NFL right now. He’s at least in the same conversation as Watt and Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller. It’s that fact that could make it hard for the Chiefs to set a price on a trade, but also why teams should be calling about him.

By exploring a trade now, the Chiefs can consider free agents to replace Houston. They would also be able to get draft resources this year, which would make it impossible for a team to swoop in to sign him after the draft.

Every team in the NFL would probably love to have Houston, but a handful of teams should actually consider it. It’s no longer crazy to think it could happen, and the Chiefs left open the possibility by giving him the cheaper non-exclusive tag.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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