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Rapid reaction: three thoughts on the Chiefs’ release of Justin Houston

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Let’s think about what this move tells us about the team’s intentions in free agency

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs — as many expected — released outside linebacker Justin Houston on Sunday. Here are some quick thoughts on what it means.

1. The market for a player of Houston’s age and abilities is soft.

This isn’t meant as a dig at Houston. It is instead to say that if the Chiefs could have found a team that was willing to take on his $15.25 million salary in 2019 — as well as his $17.5 million salary in 2020 — the team would be announcing a trade deal instead of an outright release.

There have been a lot of conversations in recent days about what the Chiefs could have obtained in a trade for Houston. But let’s be real: if the Chiefs were willing to release Houston outright — which we now know they were willing to do — they’d have taken any draft pick in exchange for him.

The plain facts are that Houston’s contract is just a little too pricey, his age is just a little too advanced and his recent production is just a little bit too far off — or some combination of any (or all) of those factors — to make another team give up a draft pick to get him before free agency begins.

Make no mistake: Justin Houston will play for another NFL team in 2019; let’s not forget that Houston was rated as PFF’s 80th best player last season. He may be a step slower than he used to be, but he’s still in the top tier of NFL players. But other teams knew the situation and therefore knew the Chiefs would have to release Houston early to have room to operate during free agency. They acted accordingly.

2. The Chiefs must be planning an immediate move (or moves) in free agency.

By releasing Houston now, the Chiefs will have to absorb $7.1 million in dead money for his contract but will give them an additional $14 million in cap space with which they can work in free agency.

They could have given themselves a little more space (about $1.5 million) against the 2019 cap by designating Houston’s release as a post-June 1 cut, which would have moved that same amount of dead money into the 2020 contract year, but they can’t make that designation until free agency opens on Wednesday — and even worse, the cap space they’d get from releasing Houston wouldn’t be available until June 2.

So the Chiefs must believe they will need this cap relief right away — which strongly suggests they will be adding players in free agency. Starting on Monday, they’ll (legally) be able to negotiate with players who will become free agents on Wednesday, and in those negotiations, it will be useful for everyone involved to know the Chiefs have cap room.

Now... whether the Chiefs are planning a big move in free agency — or several small ones — is hard to predict. But Houston’s release at this moment makes it clear the Chiefs intend to do something.

3. The evolving situation with Dee Ford could have something to do with Houston’s release at this time.

We’ve been hearing all weekend that the Chiefs have been in negotiations with two teams — the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers — over a trade for franchise-tagged Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford.

On Sunday, the tea leaves appeared to be pointing to Green Bay as a more likely trading partner for Ford, but if such a deal is in the works, it is apparently not done yet.

As NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport explained on Sunday, it might be that the teams have already agreed on trade compensation and are now working out the details on a new contract for Ford in Green Bay. A trade for Ford would have immediately opened roughly the same amount of cap space ($15.4 million) as releasing Houston.

So if a deal for Ford was already in the books, the Chiefs could go into Monday with about the same cap room as releasing Houston — which they might have preferred to do to keep their options open; they could always release Houston later.

But if a deal for Ford is going to take another day (or more) to work out, the Chiefs might have been in a position that they had to release Houston in order to be sure they’d have the cap room they think they’re going to need as the legal tampering period opens.

Or... it could also be that the Chiefs have always planned to release Houston and chose Sunday to do it.

We’ll know a lot more in the coming days. It’s all likely to make much more sense when we see exactly what the Chiefs are planning to do.

So hang on — it’s going to be a busy week!