Rarely (if ever) does a guy finish his rookie contract with a 20-plus-sack season. Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston did just that, and now the question becomes whether the Chiefs will find a way to keep him with a long-term deal or apply the franchise tag.
An agreement seems unlikely at this point. The Chiefs weren’t willing to meet Houston’s position at times when he had far less leverage than he currently enjoys. Now, the 22 bales of hay are in the barn and Houston’s expectations won’t be any lower than they were during the season, when the Chiefs failed to meet them.
It makes application of the franchise tag, barring a sudden change of heart, a virtual certainty. And that’s when things could start to get interesting.
During the season, Houston’s plan was to gladly accept the franchise tender, and the $13 million or more that goes along with it. After one of the best seasons an NFL pass rusher ever has had, Houston is now content to let things percolate.
If the market goes haywire for available pass rushers like Greg Hardy, Jason Pierre-Paul (if not tagged), and Jerry Hughes, Houston’s leverage shoots even higher. Then there’s defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. If he sets a new high bar for all defensive players, Houston with his average of 1.22 sacks per game over the last two seasons could argue he should at least come close.
The wildcard in Houston’s case will be the willingness of other teams to consider signing him to an offer sheet, knowing that, if the Chiefs don’t match, the price will be a pair of first-round draft picks. With the Bills giving up a top-10 pick, another first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick to get receiver Sammy Watkins a year ago, why not at least ponder pursuing Houston with a low first-round pick in 2015 and, if a team that finished with a good enough record to be low in the draft order this year has Justin Houston, a low first-round pick in 2016?
The difference, of course, is the investment in the player. Watkins cost the Bills $19.9 million for four years. Houston may want $19.9 million per year.
The possibility of another team signing Houston to an offer sheet could prompt the Chiefs to apply the exclusive franchise tag, which would give him the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in 2015. It also would make a Terrell Suggs-style linebacker-versus-defensive end tag fight more likely, since the gap between the two positions likely will be even higher based on 2015 cap numbers for the two positions.
However it plays out, the application of the tag to Houston likely will be something far closer to the beginning of the process than the end of it.