December 23, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Vick Ballard (33) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali (91) attempts to defend in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. The Colts won 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
The contractual elephant in the room entering this spring for the Chiefs was that of Tyson Jackson. The former number three overall selection in a very underwhelming 2009 draft class was scheduled to make $14.72 million this season; but with pressure from the Chiefs front office and the apparent concession by his agent that he wouldn’t make more than what the Chiefs were offering him on the open market, Jackson restructured his contract to $4.2 million to avoid being cut.
As a Chiefs fan, you know Jackson has come around as one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping, but has failed to produce a consistent pressure in the backfield. For him to take the pay cut makes sense, and although humbling, he was realistic. This now leads me to my next, and main, point: the contract of Tamba Hali.
Once Jackson’s contract was resolved, Hali’s contract was then the biggest on the team, and Hali will make over $12 million this season. That was after signing a five year, $57.5 million deal before the 2011 season after being franchise tagged. When Hali was tagged, he was one of the premiere pass rushers in the league, and was coming off a 2010 season in which the Chiefs made the playoffs and he had 14.5 sacks. In 2011, Hali followed it up with 12 sacks, but last season, his sack total dropped to 9; still a respectable number, but single digit sacks aren’t what you want from the highest paid player on your team.
And Hali is no longer the best outside linebacker on the team. That honor belongs to Justin Houston. Houston is entering his third year with the Chiefs, and is coming off a 10 sack season. But Houston is more than a one-dimensional pass rusher, a term often associated with Hali (and rightly so), and placed third in run stops (28) last season while finishing fourth overall among “3-4” outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Additionally, Houston has 13 sacks and 57 quarterback pressures over his last 20 games.
It can’t be determined how many sacks Houston has because extra attention is being paid to Hali, or how many sacks Hali is robbed of because of either called or uncalled holding penalties, but as far as complete 3-4 outside linebackers are concerned, Houston is definitely more of one than Hali. Ever see Hali drop back into coverage well? That’s what I thought. And while Hali’s contract does get cheaper over the two remaining seasons after 2013, it still comes to about $9 million per season. If Hali’s numbers continue to dip, and Houston continues to develop into one of the best linebackers in the game – his ascent is already being recognized by a Pro Bowl invite and being ranked the 49th best player in the NFL last season by NFL Network – then the Chiefs might find it the right move to make Houston their premiere pass rusher while moving on from an expensive Hali.
Unless, of course, Hali was willing to restructure his contract like Tyson Jackson. But it’s one thing for a guy that’s never lived up to his draft status to restructure, and another thing for a guy that’s been on top of the league to restructure. It’s a good thing, however, that Hali does recognize just how talented Houston is. “I love getting sacks, and we’re going to compete on that note,” Hali recently said of Houston. “As an athlete, I can’t compete with the kid. He’s that much better.”
For now, let’s enjoy two players near their prime: Houston on the way up, Hali on the way down.