INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It had been in the works for several days, percolating, waiting for each side to offer an approving nod.
Welcome to Indy, Justin Houston.
After spending the first phase of free agency doing little to appease his fan base – giving wideout Devin Funchess a one-year deal that could be worth $13 million hardly eased the mounting concern – general manager Chris Ballard provided the belly-flop splash so many had demanded.
A Colts defense that has lacked a bona fide pass-rush threat since career sack leader Robert Mathis retired in 2016 got its man.
Houston, 30 and 9th on the NFL’s active list with 78.5 sacks, assumed that position after signing a two-year, $24 million contract Thursday. The veteran outside linebacker was released by the Kansas City Chiefs March 10 and considered other options before relocating to Indy.
“It’s been a different process, something I wasn’t used to,’’ Houston said of his venture into free agency. “I just wanted to make sure I took my time and I went to a team that was a perfect fit for me.
“I had a couple of teams in mind, but this was the best fit for me and my family.’’
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Colts considered Houston the premier pass rusher on the market. Negotiations simply had to run their course, which included Houston accepting the market value the Colts had affixed to him.
Before news of Houston’s contract been finalized, Ballard addressed his roster-building approach that revolves around re-signing his own players while only dabbling in free agency.
“If we get to a point . . . (where) a true difference-maker in the free-agent market, I’m good paying for,’’ he said during an appearance on 1070 The Fan. “But they have to be a true difference-maker. Unquestionably. Not the media saying he’s a true difference-maker (but) the tape saying he’s a true difference-maker.’’
The tape and Houston’s eight-year career with the Chiefs offer confirmation of his status as a true difference-maker.
In 102 regular-season games, he’s collected 78.5 sacks, 118 quarterback hits, 96 tackles for loss and forced 14 fumbles. He piled up 22 sacks in 2014 – a tick shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season record (22.5 in 2001) – and has had 18.5 in the last two seasons. In 2018, Houston finished with 9 sacks and 12 QB hits in 12 games, then added two more at the expense of Andrew Luck in the Chiefs’ 31-13 win in the second round of the playoffs.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus oversaw a Colts’ pass rush in 2018 that finished in the middle of the pack with 38 sacks, but ranked 29th in pass-rush effectiveness according to Pro Football Focus. Denico Autry led the way with 9 sacks, but too often Eberflus had to get creative to generate steady pressure. That translated into blitzing a fifth defender, which can compromise the integrity of the scheme when the blitzer doesn’t reach the quarterback.
“At the end of the day you want to do it with four (players),’’ Ballard said. “Until you get that four right and get a dominant right end and a couple of really dominant players on the front, you do it as a group.’’
Houston has been an eight-year catalyst for the Chiefs. He’s a four-time Pro Bowl selection and once was named first-team All-Pro.
Now, that’s his role with the Colts.
“I think they can help me as much as I can help them,’’ Houston said. “I love the way they play – their attitude and their effort they play with on the field. I think we can help each other.
“I just want to be another pass rusher within the scheme that can help cause some more headaches.’’
Before that can happen, Houston will have to make a positional adjustment. In the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme, he was an outside linebacker. Their pending switch to a 4-3 reportedly contributed to management’s decision to release him.
With the Colts, Houston probably will be slotted at right end, often with his hand on the ground.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big difference because nowadays it’s a passing league,’’ he said. “So 70-80 percent of the time you’ve got your sub (package) out there and I’m rushing the passer anyway.
“That’s just going to be part of the game and I get to do that every down and not have to worry about dropping into coverage. So I think my job will be easier than it has been in the past.’’
Houston admitted his relationship with Ballard “played a huge role’’ in his decision to sign with the Colts. Ballard was part of Kansas City’s front office from 2013-16, the last two as director of football operations, before being named Indy’s general manager in 2017.
“Somebody I can trust,’’ Houston said.
He also views the Colts as a team on the rise.
“I feel like they’ve got the pieces they need and feel like I can help them continue to go in the right direction,’’ he said. “They were young and they still played great last year. They had a great team, they continued to build and I just wanted to be a part of that.
“I have plenty in the tank. I think some people don’t believe that so it’s more so what I am about to show the world than myself because I know what I’m capable of.’’
As we mentioned, Houston’s 78.5 sacks rank 9th among active players. He’s recorded at least 10 in a season three times.
The Colts have had a player post double-digit sacks 19 times since the NFL began charting them in 1983, but only Dwight Freeney (seven times) and Mathis (five) have done it more than once.
The one-timers: Erik Walden, Chad Bratzke, Johnie Cooks, Vernon Maxwell, Dan Footman, Tony Bennett and Jon Hand.