In one of the more ridiculous player acquisition periods of the past decade, the Bears were forced to stay relatively quiet.
While the Ravens inked Earl Thomas to a monstrous four-year, $52 million contract, Chicago brought in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on an affordable, short-term deal. Le’Veon Bell chose to take his talents and his catastrophically terrible rap album to East Rutherford, New Jersey, so the Bears worked through the lower tier of the running back market and wound up with Mike Davis.
Even though my main argument heading into free agency was that the Bears should remain aggressive, I’m not terribly mad. Thomas, Bell, and Tyrann Mathieu, along with quite a few others at positions of need, were given long-term deals well out of Chicago’s price range. There was nothing they could do about that, and most of their main targets are either signed or gone.
However, there is still one major free agent out there whose signing with Chicago would make a statement. One man remains on the market who could vault the Bears over the top.
His name, of course, is Justin Houston.
Houston was released by the Chiefs shortly before free agency began, and with good reason. Since signing a monstrous extension after an even more monstrous 2014 season (in which he set the Chiefs’ all-time single-season sack record with 22), he has played 43 out of a possible 64 games. Houston would have accounted for $21 million in cap space if he were on the roster, and he isn’t worth that much at this stage in his career.
That being said, Houston by no means stopped being a useful and productive player after signing his contract. Over the last four years, Houston averaged just over 11 sacks per 16 games played. GMs around the league have shown in the past week that they will do anything for a weapon like that, provided that weapon isn’t 30 years old and injury-prone.
On Houston’s tape, a couple traits jump out right away. He is a master of manipulating offensive linemen with his hands, often attacking the shoulder pads and then ripping underneath. The other move he likes most is his two-handed swipe, which he’ll use to gain a step or two of outside position on a tackle, at which point the play is essentially dead.
That two-handed swipe is so effective because of the second aspect of his game that sets him apart from the rest – his bend around the edge. As a premier outside rusher, Houston will always take the shortest possible path to the quarterback when he is able to beat his blocker. This is a skill that isn’t coachable; either you have it or you don’t. And Houston certainly does.
Houston is more than strong enough to be stout in run defense, as well as work an inside shoulder-turn move. He’ll create turnovers, too, setting an astounding and career-high five forced fumbles in 12 games in 2018.
His tape and numbers make it pretty clear that Houston can still play at a very high level. Age and health are really the only downsides.
Houston will not be cheap. Even at 30 and with injury issues, elite pass rushers are going to be paid. And based on what I saw from Houston in 2018, he is very much still an elite pass rusher.
However, there hasn’t been a single report about an interested team thus far. This either means he’s weighing multiple offers and taking his time, or it means he hasn’t received much serious interest. I tend to think it’s the first option, given his skill set and positional value.
If they haven’t already, the Bears should offer him a 2-year, $20 million deal, with about $15 million guaranteed. This would be a so-called “mercenary” deal, or a short-term, high-AAV contract to join a contender. They have enough cap room (give or take $15 million), and arguably their largest need lies at the edge rusher spot, alongside Leonard Floyd and Khalil Mack.
If he were to sign with the Bears, Houston would create a devastating three-headed monster for Chuck Pagano to work with. He would split time relatively evenly with Floyd, potentially keeping his numbers down and making a very useful player easier to extend, while cutting into Mack’s snap count a bit and keeping him fresh.
Of course, Pagano would find a way to create personnel packages with all three of them on the field at the same time. Houston and Floyd both have experience rushing from the inside, with Floyd usually taking part in a stunt and Houston’s speed being too much for most guards. When an offense breaks the huddle on third and long and sees Floyd, Akiem Hicks, Houston, and Khalil Freakin’ Mack staring at them, they may feel slightly less confident about what they’re about to do.
So as the second wave of free agency gets underway, Ryan Pace a decision that isn’t really a decision to make. Going after Houston is a no-brainer, and it would go a long way towards solidifying the Bears’ place as a Super Bowl contender.
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