The first big domino to fall ahead of Wednesday's franchise-tag negotiation deadline: Kansas City OLB Justin Houston reportedly struck a six-year deal with the Chiefs worth a staggering $101 million—$52.5 million of which is guaranteed money. That price tag makes Houston the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history and the second highest-paid defender in the league, behind only Ndamukong Suh (six year, $114 million).
Three thoughts on Houston's new contract:
1. "Quarterback money" is not just for quarterbacks anymore: There was a time not all that long ago when NFL quarterbacks had a definitive stranglehold on the salary market. Between Suh's record-setting deal, the $100 million extension J.J. Watt inked last September and now Houston's score, the winds are changing. Dominant front-seven defenders are almost as rare as franchise quarterbacks, and the market has begun to bare that out.
Houston is not on Watt's level (who is?) when it comes to dominating all facets of a game, but the Chiefs were wise not to overlook his incredible 22.0-sack performance from 2014. Houston's also just 26 years old, so had he hit the free-agent market this year or next, teams would have been lining up around the block to hand him a deal similar to the one he received.
The amount guaranteed is of greater importance than the overall total—few high-priced players make it all the way through the non-guaranteed portions of their contracts without being released or traded, or agreeing to a restructured extension.
Watt had $51.8 million guaranteed; Suh was up near the $60 million barrier. Expect to see those numbers continue to climb upwards as players seek to have more of their money locked into place, even if it comes at the expense of contract length.
The Houston deal also helps set a guideline for Von Miller's upcoming contract negotiation. Miller's on track to be a free agent following the 2015 season, though the Broncos very well could take a similar approach with him—utilizing the franchise tag to buy some more time to negotiate a long-term deal. Houston targeted Watt's contract as a goal. Count on Miller to do the same with Houston's $101 million.
2. From uncertainty to another year of Houston and Hali: As the 2014 season came to a close, Chiefs fans had every right to wonder if they'd seen the last of their team's Houston-Tamba Hali pass-rushing tandem. Hali's contract at the time put Kansas City on the hook for $12 million in 2015, making him an obvious cut candidate, while Houston's impending franchise-tag dilemma also left his situation uncertain.
Fast-forward six months and the Chiefs' defense has both players back for at least one more season—Hali previously agreed to take a pay cut so as to stick with Kansas City for 2015.
That, in a word, is huge for this team's chances. Losing either guy would have forced Kansas City to seek out a replacement in free agency (no easy task given the franchise's tight cap situation) or the draft. It tried the latter path in 2014 by selecting Dee Ford in Round 1. He has barely scratched the surface of what the Chiefs hope he can be, and Ford did not look ready to inherit Hali's gig on a full-time basis.
Kansas City finished second in points allowed and seventh in total defense last season. The pass rush was instrumental, generating 45 sacks (fifth-best in the NFL). Between Houston, Hali and nose tackle Dontari Poe, the Chiefs can enter this coming season still confident in their abilities to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.
3. Keep an eye on the cap: There is no use pretending that Houston's massive contract is somehow a bargain for the Chiefs, but it might be in the not-too-distant future. The salary cap rose approximately $10 million from the 2014 season to '15, checking in at $143.8 million. Early word has been that it could climb somewhere between $150 and $160 million for the 2016 campaign.
Those increases are playing a role on negotiations now, with both teams and players eyeing how contracts could inflate right alongside the cap. Such developments will continue to allow teams to tiptoe around the books. For example, Suh's cap hit for 2015 is just $6 million but it elevates to an eye-popping $28 million next season. He may restructure his deal multiple times while in Miami, as he did in Detroit. The knowledge that an extra $7-$17 million in cap space will be coming, though, made the Dolphins' job easier.
By the time Houston gets into year three or four of this six-year contract, an average salary of $16.83 million may not seem all that stunning. Same goes for the $52.5 million guaranteed. The league will keep permitting teams to spend more money, and those teams will do so.