Even as the NFL offseason slows down and enters the training camp hype video stage, one market remains weirdly active: the free agent EDGE market. There are more veteran free agents available than there usually are, and accordingly, we’re seeing surprising May moves like Ryan Kerrigan signing with the Philadelphia Eagles and Melvin Ingram taking a visit with the Miami Dolphins.
Kerrigan recently experienced a dropoff in play as younger rushers have taken over the starting roles in Washington. He played 38% of the snaps last season, a career-low, after playing 57% the year before; in each season, he delivered 5.5 sacks. At 33 years old, he signed with the Eagles for $2.5 million. Ingram, who’s also over 30, missed time last season and failed to grab a sack in the seven games he played.
But both of those players have interest—to this point, there’s been little interest in former-Indianapolis Colts defensive end Justin Houston. Houston is also over 30, but he’s actually been remarkably more productive than either player. Houston delivered 19 sacks on over 60% of the snaps across the last two years with the Colts, which is the 10th-best number in the league over that stretch. He never even missed a game.
So, why no interest? Houston may be holding out for more money than Kerrigan’s deal and reasonably would like to sign with a Super Bowl contender, as he’s been on playoff teams for much of his career with a ring. There are a few teams who fit that bill, and while they may not have a ton of salary-cap space now, more room can be created with post-June 1 cuts and roster cutdowns. I’ve got three teams that should be creating room (~$5 million) to bring in Houston and bolster their pass rush.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have perhaps one of the weakest EDGE rooms in the league, where failed free-agent signing Frank Clark represents a massive cap hit without much on-field impact; and backups Taco Charlton, Mike Danna, and rookie Joshua Kaindoh all represent uncertain options for an already thin rotation. For as much as defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wants to blitz, defenses still need a pass-rush presence on base downs. Kansas City doesn’t have that at all.
While I’m sure the team would like to add an EDGE, the question isn’t whether or not Houston makes sense for Kansas City, it’s whether or not Houston would be willing to go back. A hamstring injury kept Houston out of all but five games in 2018, having failed to play all 16 games since his 22-sack 2014 season; turning 30 and due over $20 million on his massive extension, Kansas City cut him for cap relief. Houston could sign with the team and play with a chip on his shoulder, churning out the production we saw above.
Does Houston harbor bad blood for Kansas City? It certainly is possible. He did a lot for that franchise and was traded away just as it began its dominant run with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. If the door is permanently closed in Kansas City, that’s understandable. But if it’s open, a return makes too much sense for a competing team in need of Houston’s immediate talent.
Speaking of competing AFC teams, if Houston instead really wants to stick it to his old team and sign with its top contender in the conference, there’s a spot for him in Baltimore.
The Ravens love using a rotation of rushers on Don Martindale. Last season, Matt Judon, Pernell McPhee, and Tyus Bowser all took between 52 to 42% of the snaps; they were in line for a similar rotation between Judon, McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, and Tim Williams in 2019 before McPhee and Williams both went down with injuries early in the season.
Houston has benefitted from a rotation in Indianapolis, which has helped him stay healthy in his advanced football age. He doesn’t offer the coverage drop versatility the Ravens prefer from their EDGEs, but he’s a better pass rusher than anyone currently on the roster. Even if the Ravens keep him as a third-down rush expert, he can win the one-on-one reps created by the Ravens’ aggressive and duplicitous fronts. If Houston is ring-hunting and Kansas City is off the table, Baltimore is the ideal landing spot.
Los Angeles Chargers
Remember when the Los Angeles Rams signed Leonard Floyd on a one-year, $10 million deal last offseason, it was questioned vigorously, and Floyd became a designated wide alignment rusher with 13 sacks? That was a testament to defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who knew that he needed a quality outside track rusher to play with his three-down fronts on base downs, as well as a looper on his stunts and twists.
The Los Angeles Chargers still need that. I know they could have returned Ingram and elected not to, so they may be satisfied with where they’re at. But Ingram has always seen so much of his production come as a move piece, and I don’t think he wins on the outside track as much as you might want. Such isn’t the case for Houston, who remains a strong high side rusher even at this stage in his career.
The question is: What do the Chargers do with Joey Bosa when they’re playing their three-down Tite fronts. Is he a 4i-tech who plays inside the tackle, taking the Aaron Donald role? Or is he the wide rusher like Floyd was? Given the lack of talented interior players on the Chargers depth chart, Bosa would play that interior role, leaving the outside rush player available for Houston. Can he drop in coverage enough? I think so, but again, it really depends on what the Chargers want to do here.
It also depends on if Houston views the Chargers as a Super Bowl contender, which...some do!