Sam Mellinger

Chiefs’ linebacker Justin Houston deserves better at this stage of his NFL career

‘I want to be able to attack the weakest link’ - Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston

Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston talks about the work going on at team OTAs.
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Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston talks about the work going on at team OTAs.

Justin Houston walks with a swagger toward the next part of his career. Things will be different now, whether he accepts it or not. He is more past than future, more established than rising.

By the time this season is over, he will have made more than $80 million in his career, a total boosted by bungled timing from the Chiefs in waiting until he had recorded his franchise-record 22-sack season in 2014 to negotiate a long-term deal.

Houston is approaching his 30th birthday, which is young in virtually all walks of life except professional football. It is likely that only four members of the Chiefs’ 53-man roster will be that old in 2018. One will be the punter. Another the backup quarterback.

There is every possibility that this could be Houston’s last season with the Chiefs, or at least his last before the team asks him to redo a contract that pays him like a top pass rusher still in his best years.

Publicly, Houston and those around him project confidence that the past is still the future, that whatever natural fade has occurred in his supernatural physical abilities can be made up for with technique, a strong football mind and experience.

“I can feel it, it’s just my body presence,” he said. “When you have surgery, and the surgery I had on my knee, it takes time. As much as you want to be ready, it still takes time to get your pop back and get where you want to be. I think I’m there. I think I’m beyond there right now.”

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston talks about his strength returning to his legs this season during training camp at St. Joe.

This is a stance that bows to the necessary and stubborn confidence required of a man who made it from a town of 30,000 people in rural Georgia to the top of the NFL food chain. But it also defies logic. Two major injuries muddied much of his prime, and constant beatings as an everyday linebacker who rushes the quarterback and plays the run with equal ferocity will eventually take their piece of any man.

But if it was simply about PR, or what a proud athlete tells himself, then this would all be immaterial. This is about much more.

Houston’s place in the Chiefs’ history of pass rushers is secure. His 69 1/2 sacks rank fourth all-time, behind just Derrick Thomas, Tamba Hali and Neil Smith. With three more representative seasons, he would trail only Thomas.

That’s well within reason, too. This is not a column predicting the end of Houston as a good player. Just a sober look at where Houston is in his career, the pounding and surgeries he’s had already, and a contract that always presented 2018 as potentially his last in Kansas City — the Chiefs would save $14 million by cutting him after this season.

The calculus controlling Houston’s future rests largely on his performance this season. The most likely outcome is a renegotiation that retains a respected teammate, but at a lower salary that would bridge the gap between a player in his 30s and a front office led by general manager Brett Veach that prioritizes youth.

Because in a way, this season marks the beginning of the Chiefs identifying Houston’s new place.

In the three years since he signed a contract that made him the league’s highest-paid defensive player, Houston has 21 sacks in 31 games. Seven men have more in the last two seasons. Twenty-three others have been more productive over the last three years.

Raw sack numbers are often severely misleading, but that’s a pretty good description of where Houston is now and going forward — a very good player, but no longer a force of nature.

If you watch film of Houston from 2017 — his first full season since the 22 sacks in 2014 — you see flashes of dominance. His hands are otherworldly strong, and particularly on run plays to his side you see him moving larger opponents with almost comical success.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton talk about the defense during training camp at St. Joe.

He’s a consistent problem for opposing offenses and often the clear focus of their blocking schemes. His sacks and pressures come from a wicked combination of talent, technique and relentlessness — a punch that knocks the offensive lineman off balance, timed with a change of direction aimed directly at the quarterback.

He is brutally disruptive when given the right opportunities — he was essentially a superhero in the Chiefs’ Week 2 win over the Eagles — but the moments of him purely and consistently overwhelming blockers on his own are less frequent.

The Chiefs’ best way to bring out the most effective version of Houston will be to ask less of him — and to demand more of opposing offenses.

Because in that way, the Chiefs have not done right by Houston in recent years. In 2014 (Dee Ford), 2016 (Chris Jones), 2017 (Tanoh Kpassagnon) and 2018 (Breeland Speaks), the Chiefs have used a first- or second-round pick on some form of a pass rusher. Whether each was meant to be Houston’s replacement or wingman is inconsequential, because none have yet provided more than fleeting pressure.

The same way Hali helped Jared Allen, and Houston then helped Hali, coach Andy Reid’s Chiefs have been mostly unable to find a partner for Houston. Last year was perhaps the starkest example: Hali was too old, Ford was too injured, Kpassagnon was too green and Jones was second on the team with 6 1/2 sacks.

But the same way the Chiefs shorted Houston with assistance a year ago, they are now positioned to provide him with abundantly more help.

Ford is presumably healthy and in a contract year. Kpassagnon looks improved and more capable, the Chiefs expect Speaks to contribute immediately, and Jones could be poised for a breakout season.

A thousand factors led to the Chiefs being so bad defensively last season: safety Eric Berry’s injury, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s inability to adjust, weakness against the run and an overall lack of toughness.

But nothing was more critical than their lack of pass rush. The Chiefs didn’t get nearly enough pressure, with Sutton unable to manufacture one with stunts or adapt to the team’s new reality.

That could change this season, but the Chiefs can’t count on Houston being as strong after major knee trouble as he was as a younger man, before the surgeries.

They need to help him, now more than ever. Houston’s future, and in some ways this Chiefs season, depends on it.