Justin Houston is a worker. He takes pride in that, and the 26-year-old saw his hard work pay off during a record-breaking 2014 campaign in which he racked up 22 sacks, shattering the Chiefs’ single-season record.
That said, what Houston was doing Tuesday when he found out that he was about to see his hard work pay off again, this time in the form of a massive payday, probably shouldn’t be considered much of a surprise.
“I got a phone call (Tuesday) saying I needed to come to K.C. while I was working out,” Houston said from Kansas City during a teleconference on Wednesday. “I knew if they were going to fly me out here, they weren’t going to fly me out here for nothing.”
Indeed. Houston agreed to a six-year, $101 million extension with the Chiefs that will not only make him the team’s highest-paid player ever, but also the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history.
“Justin has a relentless work ethic on the field and in the classroom, and he provides our team with tremendous leadership,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said in a statement. “He is a fearless competitor, and we are glad he is going to be back.”
Houston said Reid’s presence played a role in his decision to return.
“For me, it was very important (to stay in Kansas City),” Houston said. “I like Coach Reid a lot. He’s a great coach. He helped motivate me, pushed me to become a better player. So any time you get around that type of coach, you love to play for him.”
The deal, which includes $52.5 million guaranteed, makes Houston the NFL’s second-highest-paid defensive player behind Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (six years, $114 million).
Houston’s deal tops the one awarded last September to Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt ― who needed an iconic season to beat out Houston for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2014. Watt’s contract was a six-year, $100 million extension with $51.8 million guaranteed.
When asked if it was important for him to make more than Watt, Houston said he allowed his agent, Joel Segal, to set his price tag.
“I left that up to my agent,” Houston said. “I just made sure to take care of what I had to do on the field … so I just let him handle his job.”
For Houston, the deal represents the ultimate payoff. After extension talks stalled between the two sides last summer, Houston doubled down on his talent, risked injury ― and won.
“I’m a firm believer that if anything is meant for you, it’s going to be for you, no matter the circumstances,” Houston said of the potential injury risk inherent in playing last season without an extension. “So I wasn’t worried about it.”
Wednesday marked the NFL’s deadline for franchise players to sign long-term extensions with their clubs.
Had the 26-year-old Houston ― who received a $13.1 million franchise tender from the Chiefs this offseason ― not agreed to a long-term deal, he would’ve had to play out the 2015 season on the tender (or a one-year deal negotiated with the team) in order to earn an accrued year toward free agency.
He would’ve been under no obligation to sign the franchise tender immediately. In the absence of a long-term deal, Houston could’ve held off on signing the tender, skipped training camp and the preseason and returned shortly before the regular season and still commanded his full franchise salary.
On Wednesday, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t have shown up for the start of camp had a long-term deal not gotten done.
“Probably not,” said Houston, who added he wasn’t sure how long he would have held out. “I’m here now, we got the deal done, so I’m ready to play ball.”
After much wrangling between the Chiefs and Segal over the past year, they renewed talks on Tuesday. Their accord will keep Houston under contract through 2020.
“We’ve said all along: If you can retain your own great football players, that helps you sustain moving forward,” general manager John Dorsey said. “He’s young enough where … I foresee many great years with the Kansas City Chiefs organization.”
Dorsey, who said the deal would not have been possible without the leadership of team chairman Clark Hunt, said the key to getting it done was patience and cooperation from both sides.
“All along through this process, I told you guys that we’ve been in constant communication, and we had (been),” Dorsey said. “I can’t applaud his agent enough, Joel Segal. He did a great job as well in this thing.”
Negotiations stretched back as far as last summer, when Houston skipped organized team activities and the club’s mandatory minicamp to express his displeasure with the lack of a long-term deal.
He reported to 2014 training camp on time, however, and proceeded to have a career season in which he racked up a league-high in sacks and broke Derrick Thomas’ single-season sacks record of 20, set in 1990. And he did so despite often dropping into coverage and playing the run.
According to Pro Football Focus, Houston’s 444 pass-rush attempts ranked sixth in the NFL among outside linebackers, and his pass-rush percentage of 74.9 ― the percentage of times he rushed the passer per passing snap played ― ranked 34th among players at his position.
Houston said Wednesday that his 2014 campaign, for which he earned his third Pro Bowl nod in four professional seasons, was borne mainly of his desire to prove himself. He added that a smaller part of it was to recoup the millions he lost when he slipped from a projected first-round pick in 2011 to a third-rounder due to a positive marijuana test at the NFL Combine.
“It has a little to do with my motivation,” Houston said of his fall in the draft, “but I want to be known as one of the best to ever play the game, so that’s my motivation for my success. I just want to be great at what I do and I take pride in what I do, so I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Now Houston, who had a cap number of $1.4 million last season, is finally getting his money.
And with a new contract in hand, he will be required to report to training camp on time.
“It now kicks off a very positive attitude for training camp,” Dorsey said.
In addition to having Houston in the fold at the start of camp ― veterans report to St. Joseph on July 31 ― the Chiefs will also see a monetary benefit in the short term. Prior to the Houston deal, they had just $536,899 in cap room for 2015, per the NFL Players Association, easily the least in the NFL.
But because of the way NFL contracts are structured ― the first year of deals are cap-friendly because the up-front bonus is spread over the life of the contract ― the deal figures to create a significant surplus of cap room for the Chiefs.
Former agent and salary cap expect Joel Corry said that based on the numbers that have been reported about the particulars of Houston’s contract ― NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweeted Wednesday that Houston will receive a $20.5 million bonus ― the Chiefs can expect to immediately pick up around $8 million in cap space for 2015, which is more than enough to add another veteran or two, should they need to do so.
“I feel that we have enough flexibility within our cap space to do more deals,” Dorsey said.
Houston’s cap number will almost assuredly rise significantly in 2016, but that should not be a significant problem for the Chiefs. Corry ― with a rough, conservative cap estimate of $150 million next year, projects they’ll have more than enough room (roughly $46 million) to accommodate a big number for Houston.
And make no mistake about it, Houston has every intention of earning every dime of his new contract.
On Wednesday, he was asked what makes him confident he will continue his high level of play going forward.
“The work I put in,” Houston said. “Once you get paid, it’s not like you won the lottery. You’ve still got work to do, prove yourself. You still can get better each and every day. So that’s my goal.”