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It's time for Chiefs to pay Justin Houston

7/16/2014
Kansas City's top pass-rusher, Justin Houston, has 26.5 sacks in his past 32 games. David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT

Those of us who regularly watch the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t find this to be news, but the confirmation was welcome, anyway. Pro Football Focus recently released its list of the 10 most underpaid players in the NFL, and Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston came in at No. 7.

The only surprise was that Houston wasn’t higher on the list. A Pro Bowler in two of his first three NFL seasons, Houston has become one of the league’s best pass-rushers and all-around defensive players. He has 26.5 sacks in his past 32 games, and PFF gave him a higher rating last season than any other outside linebacker playing in a 3-4 system.

For this, the Chiefs are scheduled to pay Houston about $1.4 million this season. No wonder he stayed away from offseason practice, including a mandatory three-day minicamp.

Houston wants to get paid and he wants his money now. The Chiefs should accommodate him.

Houston has clearly outperformed the contract he signed as a third-round draft pick in 2011. Normally, it’s not a good idea to spend sympathy on players who no longer like the terms of the contract they once signed, but Houston doesn’t fall into that category. As a middle-round draft pick three years ago, he had little choice but to accept whatever the Chiefs were offering.

Another bad idea is to pay players based on past performance. The Chiefs have done that too many times over the years and been burned. The latest episode happened last year, when one of John Dorsey’s first moves after joining the Chiefs as general manager was to give wide receiver Dwayne Bowe a five-year contract worth about $11 million a season.

The Chiefs might never get their money’s worth from that deal. But the Chiefs, by giving him a lucrative and long-term contract, wouldn’t be rewarding Houston for what he’s done. They’d be paying him for what he’s going to do.

Houston is 25. Giving him a contract that makes him happy has plenty of benefit for the Chiefs as well. They would be locking up their best pass-rusher and, perhaps, their best defensive player for the foreseeable future.

Is there something about this strategy that doesn’t make sense? Is it ever a bad idea to secure a good, young player for the long term at today’s prices?

The Chiefs would occasionally go wrong with this plan. But there is nothing about Houston’s first three years with the Chiefs, on or off the field, that would suggest it would go wrong with him. He dropped to the third round of the draft in 2011 for allegedly testing positive for marijuana at the scouting combine that year, but there have been no suggestions he’s been anything but a positive for the Chiefs ever since.

Houston won’t come at a bargain price. Green Bay’s Clay Matthews is the highest-paid outside linebacker in the league based on average salary at about $13.2 million. Houston’s Kansas City teammate, Tamba Hali, is next at about $11.5 million.

Numbers in that neighborhood shouldn’t scare the Chiefs. Pass-rusher isn’t a bad spot to hold such a heavy investment, one that now for the Chiefs also includes their first-round draft pick, Dee Ford.

The Chiefs drafted Ford in part as insurance for Houston’s holdout. Ford showed promise as a pass-rusher during offseason practice and could possibly do a reasonable imitation of Houston as a rookie.

Even so, there is no way the Chiefs are a better team with Houston off doing his own thing instead of playing for them. But this shouldn’t be about the immediate future, anyway. The Chiefs would pay Houston for his presence over the longer term, and that is when his deal really makes sense.

Hali turns 31 in November. He has yet to show any signs that his skills or production have begun their inevitable decline.

His price nonetheless goes up next year. He costs the Chiefs almost $11.5 million against their salary cap this season and a little less than $12 million in 2015. Having a tandem of Houston and Ford gives the Chiefs the flexibility to move Hali next year, if they feel it’s necessary, and still carry on with a couple of premier pass-rushers.

It’s always easy to spend someone else’s money. From this corner, though, we’ve generally preached fiscal sanity when it comes to that of Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt. You heard it here months ago that the Chiefs should let offensive tackle Branden Albert walk (they listened). You heard no panic from these parts when, in rapid succession during the opening moments of free agency, they lost Albert, guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, receiver/kick returner Dexter McCluster and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

Each one of those players was worth more to his new team than to the Chiefs. They would have been foolish to pay premium prices for any of them.

That is not the case with Houston. They passed on re-signing any of their five prominent free agents so they could save to spend on what’s really important.

If that’s not Justin Houston, what is?