Could Justin Houston Become A Salary-Cap Casualty?


Dec 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston (50) puts on his helmet against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Houston has been franchised by the Kansas City Chiefs. That is anything but unexpected. In fact, it would have raised a lot of eyebrows if they had not.

But could he become a casualty of the Chiefs’ salary-cap issues?

Wait . . . What?!?! It sounds ridiculous (and it may be), but let us look at where we are in the Houston-signing saga and how we got here.

Well before the 2014 season ended, we knew that the Chiefs were going to be in a bind with Houston. He is young at only 26 years old and just broke Derrick Thomas’ single-season sack record. He was only a half-sack away from breaking Michael Strahan’s all-time NFL record. But while Houston’s play put him in unquestionable elite status among his peers, his salary was only about $1.6 million.

Unfortunately, as clear as it was that Houston had earned a big payday, it was equally as clear that the Chiefs lacked the resources to give it to him. Even after giving him the franchise tag, the Chiefs have to find a way to pay him. Cutting A.J. Jenkins, Donnie Avery, and Anthony Fasano was a good start, but a lot more has to happen. According to ESPN, the Chiefs are currently ~$6M over the salary cap now that Houston’s salary is added to the payroll. And that number assumes he is considered a linebacker and not a defense end, which is a slightly more expensive designation.

As free agency approaches, franchising Houston was the only logical move for a team with a superstar they do not have the money pay. But you likely already knew all that.

The surprises came as reports rolled in throughout Monday that (a) Houston had only been given a “non-exclusive” franchise tag, and (b) he would be pursuing offer sheets from other teams. See Patrick Allen’s story on these developments here.

Unless you are someone who is really into the details of NFL rules and contracting, then the entire preceding paragraph may not make much sense. The simplified version is that “non-exclusive” tags don’t prevent a player from leaving the team . . . even though that is the general purpose of the franchise designation. However, it does mean that the Chiefs get something if Houston goes elsewhere—two first-round draft picks.

In a nutshell:

  • The Chiefs tagged Houston, which was no surprise.
  • The Chiefs used a “non-exclusive” tag that allows him to pursue other options, which may come as somewhat of a surprise.
  • Houston is reported to be “aggressively pursu[ing]” offers from other teams, which is the opposite of what he previously said.

What is the result of all of that? Not much. The Chiefs haven’t guaranteed that Houston will stay, just that they will be compensated if he leaves.

The question is why Kansas City would leave the door open for Houston if re-signing him is the biggest priority?

The general explanation is that it is all a combination of calculated risk and an agent talking big, trying to drive up his client’s price. A “non-exclusive” tag is cheaper than the “exclusive” variety, and two first-round picks are a pretty steep price for any team to pay. So it could be that the Chiefs tried to save a little money and bet that no other team would be willing to outbid them and dish out two first-rounders. There is some logic in that explanation, and it could very well be the truth.

But another thought has occurred to me: Could it be that both sides realized Kansas City does not—and will not—have enough cap space to keep both the player and the team happy?

As noted above, after the tag, the Chiefs are around $6M in the red. That is with having already made several of the more obvious roster cuts. Kansas City has yet to deal with the contracts of Dwayne Bowe, Tamba Hali, or Eric Berry. A combination of restructuring and cuts to those contracts would clear up enough room to keep Houston, but would it be enough to also adequately address the other needs of the team?

Keeping Houston would be a big win for the Chiefs. And even though his tag gives him options, it is still an offer that he can sign at any time. So there is no reason to start panicking and having flashbacks of Jared Allen just yet. But every personnel move has to make sense in the greater scheme of what effect it has on the team as a whole.  And if you have to move heaven and earth just to ensure No. 50 stays in red and gold for a year, then what will the rest of the team look like?

Signing Houston does not give any help to a lackluster offensive line and receiving corps. If the rest of the team ends up looking something like what was on the field in 2014 (i.e. inconsistent), then would you still consider the signing to be worth it?

You also have to consider the future. And by the future, I mean next year, when Houston would again be in need of a new contract and pay raise.

The Chiefs can certainly find a way to keep Houston in Kansas City. And my gut says it is more likely than not he will be back. But the facts remain that the Chiefs are cash-strapped, and Houston wants to be paid. If he demands a number that the executives at One Arrowhead Drive feel will handicap the rest of the team, then his non-exclusive tag could be signal they are willing to let him go elsewhere.

Next: Rumor: Chiefs Expected To Cut Or Trade Dwayne Bowe

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