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Free Agent Spotlight: Outside Linebacker, Justin Houston

An affordable veteran presence looking for a rebound year and his first Super Bowl? It could work...

There’s something special about players like Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, and teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sure, there were plenty of doubters when Brady signed on with the Bucs last March, but twelve months later everyone is a believer.

It’s easy to believe what you’ve seen with your own two eyes, and it’s clear the Buccaneers knew what they were doing in the 2020 off-season, and are well on their way to bringing back an equally - if not more - competitive roster in 2021.

For veteran linebacker Justin Houston, this is the kind of team that looks really attractive if given the opportunity to jump aboard. So attractive, these deals tend to happen at a fraction of the cost it would have taken to get him elsewhere.

Justin Houston’s Career Thus Far

Kentucky v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Justin Houston entered professional football in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft after being drafted by the Matt Cassel lead, Kansas City Chiefs.

Todd Haley and Romeo Crennel shared head coaching duties that season and the team went 7-9, finishing fourth in the AFC West. Their third-round rookie linebacker started ten games for them though and turned in five and a half sacks and a fumble recovery.

In 2012, Romeo Crennel was the full-time head coach and Matt Cassel was still the starting quarterback. The team went backward, but Houston went forward, earning his first of four-straight Pro Bowl appearances.

Things finally started looking up for both Houston and the Chiefs in 2013 when the arrival of head coach Andy Reid also ushered in the Alex Smith era, and the franchise's first season with eleven or more wins since 2003. That season, Houston had a career-high eleven sacks giving him two years with double-digit sacks in his first three NFL seasons.

The young man had proven he belonged in the NFL. Just in case there were any doubters though, he threw down opposing quarterbacks twenty-two times in 2014, getting his first - and only - First-Team All-Pro nod.

After the 2014 season though, things went south a bit. Mostly due to injuries, Houston didn’t hit double-digit sack numbers once in his final four seasons in Kansas City after hitting the mark three straight seasons, and three of his first four in the NFL.

He did have nine and a half in 2017 and another nine in 2018, but in 2019 the player and franchise parted ways. The player who became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL History in 2015, became a free-agent, just four years later.

Such is the business.

In 2019, Houston signed a two-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts worth $24 million with $18.5 million in guarantees.

That season, he hit double-digit sacks again for the first time in five years, and watched his former team win the Super Bowl.

Houston finished 2020 with eight sacks, giving him nineteen total during his two-years in Indianapolis. Set now to see free-agency again, we know Houston wants to play. The question is: Where will he land?

Why It Works

As of right now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t have a starting-caliber outside linebacker opposite of Jason Pierre-Paul.

There are reasons to believe Shaquil Barrett and Tampa Bay can work out a deal for him to return of course, but I’m writing this based on what is, at the moment.

Green Bay Packers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

We would all rather see the Buccaneers’ defense with Barrett continuing to be a part of it. If he’s not though, Houston is a serviceable replacement which gives the Bucs a year or two to further develop Anthony Nelson into the next starter or find a new prospect who will be.

Even if Barrett comes back, the motivation for Houston to be a part of a team with Super Bowl aspirations and a real shot at reaching those goals could be enough to motivate him into taking less money, and even a lesser role.

But....

Houston proved to all the doubters he could still be a contributing member of a good team. In fact, his sack total from 2019 would have led the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs defense that year.

Again this past season, Houston’s ‘down year’ of eight sacks would have led Kansas City who maxed out at seven and a half from defensive tackle, Chris Jones.

So, maybe Houston isn’t ready to fill a back-up role, and it’s starting opportunity or bust for the 32-year old. He isn’t over the hill yet, and certainly has every right to bet on himself.

It’s just a matter of his priorities.

What’s The Cost?

This is an interesting conversation. Houston averaged $11.5 million per year according to OverTheCap.com, and played at a valuation level of $5.2 million during the past two seasons.

So, it’s fair to think the number for landing Houston would likely be around the $8 million range, but that’s my speculation on the matter, only.

Again, chances to win aren’t everywhere and Super Bowl titles don’t grow on trees, even those belonging to super rich guys.

Houston made a lot of money on his last deal with the Chiefs. In total, OTC estimates Houston has earned nearly $100 million during his career thus far.

If you’ve made that much money, could you take a couple million less in this next deal to play with the Buccaneers and Tom Brady? I know I could...

What We Don’t Know

...but we don’t know if Houston could, or will. And we don’t know where he values himself. Given the state of the Buccaneers’ salary cap, if they don’t re-sign Barrett then shelling out $8 million to Houston while drafting a future replacement isn’t so hard to fathom.

If they do keep Barrett in Tampa though, then Houston may need to dip down into the $4 million range for a shot at Los Angeles and Super Bowl 56 in 2022. This time, it would be the Chiefs watching their former player, going for the big win.

Make The Decision

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There’s a lot to digest with Houston, here. So what do you think? What would you tell Jason Licht to do if you had a say so in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2021 roster construction?

For more free-agent profiles, make sure you check out our looks at Adrian Peterson, Haason Reddick, Patrick Peterson, K.J. Wright, Leonard Floyd, and Aaron Jones.

Poll

When it comes to Justin Houston, what would you have the Buccaneers do?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Sign him, no matter what
    (7 votes)
  • 28%
    Make a reasonable offer
    (44 votes)
  • 34%
    Have a conversation and see where it goes
    (52 votes)
  • 22%
    Check back after the NFL Draft
    (34 votes)
  • 9%
    Nothing
    (15 votes)
152 votes total Vote Now

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