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Why it makes sense for Chiefs to pay Justin Houston "JJ Watt money"

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

I absolutely guarantee, with no doubt whatsoever, that at least a quarter of the people who read that title are skipping to the comment section, commenting on Facebook, or tweeting (without reading the article I'm about to write) some version of this:

"LOL Houston is no Watt he's not worth the same money Watt is the best in the league Houston's not."

That is going to happen. Even after I've predicted it will happen. But that's OK. It's the life I've chosen.

But I'm here today to explain to you exactly WHY Houston is worth "J.J. Watt money" that we've heard so much about. My arguments will have very little to do with what a fantastic player Houston is. I've detailed that many times.

Here I wrote about his utterly statistically historic 2014 season. Here I wrote about Houston's multifaceted abilities as a pass rusher and how he's virtually impossible to stop. And here I wrote about why it's sort of a myth that Houston was a byproduct of his (exceptional) supporting cast.

Houston is one of the best 2-3 defensive players in football. It's just a fact. He's that good. Now, here's the part where someone says "yeah, but he's not as good as J.J. Watt so it doesn't make sense to pay him as much!"

And that's where the heart of this article is. What does "J.J. Watt money" mean? It means this contract.


There's your infamous J.J. Watt money.

WAY too many people simply heard "Six-year, $100 million contract" and then stopped paying attention. This is absolutely the wrong way to discuss NFL contracts.

The simple fact of the matter is that NFL free agency contracts are almost NEVER played out in their entirety. Either a player starts to underperform and is cut once he's cleared of dead money, or he plays very well and uses upcoming free agency as a bargaining chip in order to get an extension done early. Some rookie contracts are generally played out. Free agency contracts? Hardly ever.

Look closely at the structure of the above contract. Most specifically, look at the "cap hit" every season. That is the single most important number when it comes to a team building around a player. The most common concern cited for signing Houston to J.J. Watt money is that it will cripple the Chiefs long term.

Except that's not what this contract does. Instead, the cap hit doesn't rise above $15 million until the final two years of the contract. More importantly, in those last two years, there is NO GUARANTEED MONEY remaining on the deal. That means the team could easily cut a player on his contract in those last two seasons if he's not longer worth that size a cap hit.

This contract, though sizable, isn't remotely the "franchise killer" it's been made out to be. People need to understand that before considering whether Houston is worth that amount.

Now, to the "Houston is no J.J. Watt" argument. I agree that Houston is not as good as Watt. But NFL contracts are never, ever, ever, ever a straight comparison of player ability. They're just not. If you're viewing them as a straight comparison you're doing it wrong.

Cap Inflation Matters. A lot.

Every year the salary cap rises. It's called cap inflation. What that means is that today's $10 million a year contract takes up less of the salary cap (again, ALL that matters is percentage of cap, not the raw numbers) than it did 10 years ago. Or even five years ago.

Quick example. Let's say the cap is $100 million. I pay you $10 million. It's 10 percent of the cap. The next year the cap goes up to $110 million. I pay you the exact same $10 million. Only now, that amounts to roughly 9.1 percent of the cap. Then it goes up to $120 million. Now that $10 million is only 8.3 percent of the cap. Look man, we're saving money! Inflation.

So what does this have to do with Watt? The fact that Watt signed his contract the summer before the 2014 season. You know, a year ago. When the salary cap was set to be $133 million. The salary cap for the 2015 season has been said a shade above $143 million.

So NFL teams have $10 million extra to play with this year than they did in 2014. If you don't think $10 million is a big deal, consider the fact that the entire draft class can be signed for less than that. Jamaal Charles is an $8 million cap hit this season. That's right, the difference in cap from 2014 to 2015 is enough to fit a superstar running back.

And in case you're interested, the cap is going to keep increasing over time. While it won't always be massive jumps like the last two years, the fact that the NFL is swimming in money and dominates the ratings game is going to continue to change the picture with regards to what the cap is.

All this means that today's "massive" contract is tomorrow's "bargain."

This is why Russell Wilson can ask to be the highest paid player in football and have a shot at getting it, despite the fact that he's not remotely as good as Aaron Rodgers.

Cap inflation, especially the last several years, is a game changer. So "J.J. Watt money" isn't worth the same today as it was a year ago when it comes to the only number that matters; cap percentage.

Bargaining Position: Negotiation 101

J.J. Watt, in addition to signing his contract a year ago, signed it with a year remaining on his old contract. What that meant was that no matter what happened in the negotiations, the team was going to retain his services without having to use the (very expensive, especially after the first year) franchise tag on him.

If you don't think that changes the potential numbers on the table, you've never sat down at a real negotiation table. Never mind a negotiation table in which the stakes are nine figures.

Bargaining position is everything. Houston's agent can say to the Chiefs "sure, you can keep from paying him, but he'll eat up a big chunk of your cap this year and a MASSIVE chunk of it next year. So you're just kicking this down the road a year to where we'll be in an even better position. Also, if you use the franchise tag on Houston next year, you're losing all your leverage with (insert player name here). So ... really, guys?"

Don't think a statement very similar to that hasn't been said. There's a reason either Alex Smith or Justin Houston had to get signed last year; they needed the tag available for the other guy (yes, I would've tried to sign Houston first, but that ship has sailed).

Now to be fair, I'm not sure whether there's an emergency situation where the franchise tag is going to be required next season. Dontari Poe's option was picked up by the team, so he's signed through 2016. Beyond him I'm not sure I see any necessities. However, the team is going to want the option of tagging Sean Smith in case Marcus Peters and Philip Gaines don't work out as planned. Then there's that whole Derrick Johnson guy (that one should get done regardless, but still).

And don't underestimate the tag's price, either. The second year of a franchise tag is substantially more expensive than the first year. So in other words, the Chiefs leverage gets worse next offseason and Houston's position gets better.

The main point is that Houston is a year closer to freedom than Watt was when he signed his deal. That year gives him more leverage than Watt had at the time. So even if you were to ignore everything else, the increased leverage Houston possesses could be enough to overcome the edge Watt has as a player when it comes to the size of a contract signed.

So now you know what it means to say "Justin Houston is worth J.J. Watt money." It is an absolute fact, and if the Chiefs were able to land him for that kind of contract I'd be thrilled. I anticipate his agent is asking for at least a little more.

MAN I hope this gets done. Hopefully for J.J. Watt money...

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