The Kansas City Chiefs spoke with representatives for Justin Houston about an extension before last season. When they were unable to reach a pact, the defensive star made a big gamble by playing out the final year of his rookie contract.
The Chiefs rewarded their standout pass rusher handsomely on Wednesday. The team and Houston agreed to a six-year, $101 million contract just hours before the deadline for a long-term deal, the culmination of long negotiation that made the All-Pro the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history.
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"I just had to make sure I took care of what I needed on the field," said Houston, who left the negotiations in the hands of his agent, Joel Segal.
"Once you get paid," Houston added, "it’s not like you won the lottery. You still have work to do. You can still get better each and every day, so that’s my goal."
But in some ways, Houston did win the lottery. His massive new deal includes $52.5 million guaranteed, FOX Sports 1 NFL Insider Mike Garafolo confirmed.
That makes Houston’s contract the richest in franchise history, too. The only defensive player to sign a larger deal is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who agreed to a six-year, $114 million pact with the Miami Dolphins earlier this year.
"In situations like this, you have to have a degree of patience," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. "What’s good is it kicks off a very positive attitude for training camp."
The big deal is the payoff for a big season: Houston broke Derrick Thomas’s franchise record with 22 sacks. He had four alone in a dynamic season-ending game against San Diego, leaving him a half-sack short of the NFL’s single-season record set by the Giants’ Michael Strahan.
Those gaudy totals sent Houston to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and earned him first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his four-year career.
Still, the sides continued to make slow progress when the Chiefs were forced to use the franchise tag on Houston. If he signed the tender, he would have played this season on a one-year deal worth about $13.1 million, and they would have been in the same predicament next season.
So with the deadline approaching on a long-term deal, negotiations finally picked up. Segal met with the Chiefs on Tuesday, and Houston soon got a phone call to fly to Kansas City.
"I knew they weren’t going to fly me out here for nothing," he said.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the negotiations? How quiet they were. There were no leaks and no posturing, despite the high stakes.
"You just have to be consistent day in and day out, and kind of peck away, and make sure communication is ongoing," Dorsey said. "Joel did a great job as well in this thing."
Houston was considered one of the top linebackers in the draft coming out of Georgia, but a failed test for marijuana at the scouting combine caused his stock to slide. The Chiefs wound up taking him in the third round, in retrospect a massive bargain — or downright steal.
He has only made roughly $3 million over the course of his rookie contract. For that small price, Kansas City got 200 tackles, 48 1/2 sacks and five fumble recoveries.
Houston has also grown into one of the leaders in the locker room, helping keep things together when a rash of injuries struck last season. Despite losing linebacker Derrick Johnson and tackle Mike DeVito in the opener, the Chiefs still had one of the AFC’s top defenses.
Houston skipped the Chiefs’ entire offseason program, including their mandatory minicamp, rather than signing his franchise tender. But all along, coach Andy Reid expressed optimism that the sides would reach an agreement before the start of the season.
Reid also wasn’t concerned about the missed workouts.
"I think he’s working out, absolutely," Reid said at the end of offseason work. "That’s just him by nature, so he’s not going to let things slide on his side."
Fellow linebacker Tamba Hali, who went through a similar negotiation with the Chiefs in 2011, said he had been in touch with Houston throughout the offseason.
"He’s working his tail off," Hali said. "Like any player he wants to be here, but again, we know our league is a business and you have to allow that business to work itself out."
Dorsey declined to address the specific terms of the contract, though its long-term nature means the Chiefs should receive some salary cap relief. That could come in handy with several others entering contract years, including Johnson and cornerback Sean Smith.
"We’ve always said, if you can retain your own football players, great football players, that helps you sustain going forward," Dorsey said. "I feel that we have enough flexibility to where we’ll be able to do more deals."