With a 4-3 record through the first eight weeks of the season, the Chiefs are still in the thick of the AFC playoff picture, and their defense, which ranks ninth in DVOA, has played a central role in the club’s success. One key cog in Kansas City’s defensive unit might not be around for the long-term, however, as sources tell Rand Getlin of Yahoo! Sports that linebacker Justin Houston and the team are “worlds apart” in extension talks, meaning the NFL’s current sack leader is likely to either become a free agent at season’s end, or be slapped with the franchise tag.
We’ve heard before that Houston was expected to play out his contract, despite the fact that, as Getlin reports, the Chiefs and Houston representatives have been discussing a long-term pact for the better part of a year. If Kansas City does opt to place the franchise tag on Houston’s, he will earn a fully guaranteed salary of between $12.9MM and $15.1MM — the figure will be set once the 2015 salary cap is set. Per Getlin, league sources expect Houston to meet, or possibly exceed, the $30.8MM that J.J. Watt received when he signed an extension with the Texans.
Houston, a Georgia product, was selected in the third round of the 2011 draft. In 50 games (44 starts), Houston has registered 164 tackles and 36.5 sacks; he’s tenth in the league in sacks during that span. Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics (subscription required) confirm that Houston is an outstanding pass-rusher, and also give him a positive grade in pass coverage. Overall, he grades as the second-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league this season, second only to Khalil Mack.
In the final year of his rookie deal, Houston is earning just $1.406MM, and counts only $1.598MM against the cap. The Chiefs have a little more than $3.5MM available in 2015 cap space, so it might be tough for them to justify a franchise tagged player on their roster. However, Kansas City could cut fellow pass-rusher Tamba Hali to create more than $5.5MM in cap relief, while releasing lesser players like Anthony Fasano or Mike McGlynn could open up even more cap space. Regardless, a long-term deal would probably make better financial sense for both parties — but it doesn’t sound like that outcome is likely.