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For Packers, Justin Houston is a risk worth taking

Despite missing 16 games over the past three seasons, Justin Houston remains a highly effective pass rusher who fills a massive void in the Packers defense.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Though the Green Bay Packers have weaknesses to address on both sides of the ball, the need to improve the pass rush inarguably ranks among the top priorities of the offseason. Longtime outside linebacker Clay Matthews hits free agency later this week, and fellow edge defender Nick Perry could join him should the team decide against paying his $4.8 million roster bonus. The loss of either or both would deplete an already shorthanded position group, forcing general manager Brian Gutekunst to spend an inordinate amount of his resources to restock.

While the incoming rookie class features an abundance of enticing pass rushers, many will struggle to contribute early in their careers. That puts the onus on Gutekunst to explore free agency for veteran aid, though that path contains complications as well. The franchise tag removed most of the top options from the market, leaving a handful of flawed free agents with overwhelming leverage. Even Dee Ford, a Pro Bowl edge defender limited by the tag, will likely cost a premium draft pick and a lucrative multiyear extension to acquire. The combination of high demand and limited supply has left the Packers and Gutekunst with no easy choices.

But another possibility arose Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs announced the release of Justin Houston. The team reportedly made the decision earlier this month after failing to find a trade partner. Now, the veteran edge rusher has a head start in his search for a new home.

Houston occupies a unique space among the available pass rushers. He doesn’t possess the long career runway offered by Trey Flowers yet has more recent production than Anthony Barr or Preston Smith. Houston generated nine sacks in just 12 games last season, a robust figure that would have ranked second on the Packers. More impressive still, his 54 total pressures in 2018 nearly matched his output from the year prior when he registered 62 over 15 games. When he plays, Houston can still produce at an extremely high level.

If signed, Houston would immediately upgrade a Packers defense that too often relied on interior pressure and blitzes to generate a pass rush last season. After injuries decimated the line -- Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, and Muhammad Wilkerson missed a combined 22 games in 2018 -- coordinator Mike Pettine lacked the horses necessary for an effective defense. An edge rusher like Houston, while not a cure-all at this stage of his career, diversifies Pettine’s personnel and reduces the burden to harass the quarterback on the rest of the defensive front.

At the same time, availability has become a major concern for Houston. Knee and hamstring injuries have cost Houston 16 games over the past three years, the equivalent of a full season. Those issues, combined with an unwieldy contract paying $15.5 million this year and $17.5 million in 2020, undoubtedly contributed to the soft trade market the Chiefs encountered earlier this offseason. Now over 30 and four seasons removed from his last 16-game campaign, the risk of further injury only increases.

Still, capable pass rushers always have appeal, and despite the Chiefs’ inability to trade Houston, a number of teams could pursue the veteran in free agency. That list includes the Packers, who not only can offer Houston a starring role in an aggressive defense but also now employ his former position coach. Mike Smith coached outside linebackers in Kansas City this past season and drew strong praise from Houston. When the team fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton following the AFC Championship Game, Smith and other members of the staff left for opportunities elsewhere. With Smith situated in Green Bay, the Packers have a sizable recruiting advantage should they choose to use it.

Of course, for the Packers to bring Houston aboard, the two sides need to agree on a price. The fact that teams balked at his previous cap numbers strongly suggests that his next deal will involve a steep pay decrease, perhaps falling below the $10 million threshold. Conversely, Houston could hold up Brandon Graham’s recent three-year, $40 million agreement as an example of what the 2019 market will pay a 30-year-old pass rusher. The two players share an agent, virtually guaranteeing that the new deal will arise in any negotiation for Houston.

The Packers ultimately have more reasons to pull the trigger on Houston rather than balk at his injury history or contract demands. Rebuilding the pass rush requires more than just investing a high draft pick or two at the position, and Houston can immediately step into a starring role. Adding the former All-Pro, along with the healthy return of the defensive line and the incoming rookie class, should give Green Bay a chance to turn the unit around in short order.

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