Ryan Pace is no stranger to making bold moves for AFC West pass rushers, and one of the best reportedly just became available.
The Kansas City Chiefs will release 30-year-old outside linebacker Justin Houston, according to FanSided. It’s worth noting that move wasn’t announced on Monday’s list of transactions. But the report comes as little surprise with the Chiefs fighting a tight cap situation and preparing to allocate roughly $16 million to fellow outside linebacker Dee Ford in 2019 under the franchise tag. Coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach also must look ahead with All-Pros Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones both eligible for deals next offseason.
Pace’s Bears are fighting their own tight cap and have even more – a lot more – tied up in their outside linebacker corps, where more than $28 million is reserved for Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts. However, the drop-off from the starters to the backups with Aaron Lynch set for free agency is stark. And in addition to an aggressive wheeling-and-dealing general manager in Pace, the mastermind behind the trade for Mack, the Bears are coached by former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.
Houston hasn’t played a full 16-game regular season since 2014, when he came within half a sack of breaking Michael Strahan’s record of 22. However, Houston finished the 2018 campaign on a tear, recording five sacks in his final four games en route to nine for the season, adding two more in the divisional-round demolition of Andrew Luck’s Colts.
In short: Houston still is a difference maker when he’s healthy, and the challenge for any team in search of pass-rush help will be striking the right balance to make an offer that reflects his outstanding body of work (78½ sacks, 32 passes defensed and 14 forced fumbles) with the reality that he’s missed time in four consecutive seasons and has multiple knee surgeries in his medical background. Adding to the equation is what appears to be an epic incoming rookie class of pass rushers. But the Bears, unlike many of the other potential Houston suitors, don’t have premium picks to address in earnest their pass rush, perhaps increasing their interest in a ready-made stud like Houston.
Pace already has shown the necessary risk-taking mentality to make this happen, and he repeatedly has vowed to explore adding anyone he views as a potential upgrade. That means the Bears should be expected to kick the tires on Houston, whose potential addition would give new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano the best trio of edge rushers in the NFL.
It’s a long shot, however, with the Bears sitting with less than $11 million in cap room only nine days from the start of the new league year after already using likely their two biggest cost-saving bullets: releasing Dion Sims and restructuring Kyle Long’s contract. It’s likely the Bears already asked the Chiefs about Houston’s availability. The biggest difference in light of this report is that it wouldn’t require draft capital – now or later – to acquire Houston.
Because he’s being released, Houston won’t necessitate any form of compensation in terms of current or future compensatory picks. But he’s also now available to 31 teams, many of which have more cap room than the Bears, not to mention a starting outside linebacker vacancy. The Bears can offer the allure of working in tandem with two Pro Bowlers, which would be a good way to get the most from the oft-injured vet, in addition to an energetic coach with whom he’s familiar and an upstart division-winning roster.
But it’s unclear exactly what Houston will be looking for on the open market. He signed a six-year, $101 million contract, including more than half guaranteed, the offseason after flirting with the NFL sack record. Perhaps the top goal for a player still trying to reach his first conference championship is linking on with a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Bears will enter 2019 as one, and somehow landing Houston would go a long way toward making them the favorites in the NFC.