Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.
The selection: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Honorable mentions: Clay Matthews, Ryan Kerrigan, Connor Barwin, Jason Worilds, Aldon Smith
After looking at all of the run stoppers and pass defenders at the linebacker position, it is not time to focus on the pass-rushing specialists. It is difficult to find an elite pass rusher in the NFL, so when you find one, you better keep him. That is exactly what Kansas City should do this offseason with its budding starlet Justin Houston. Houston is coming off a year where he racked up 22 sacks and finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, only behind J.J. Watt. At the age of 26, Houston is entering his prime and showing the league why he is truly an elite player.
Plenty of players have big seasons after having no production the year before. Houston has racked up at least ten sacks in each of the last three seasons. His 22-sack performance this past year was beyond impressive, but consistency over the past three seasons is even more so. Houston has played 43 games over the past 3 years. Over the course of those 43 games, he has recorded 43 sacks. Houston did not drag down the quarterback in every game in that span but to have an average of one sack per game is pretty impressive. For some reference, Ryan Kerrigan has averaged 0.64 sacks per game over the past three seasons and Clay Matthews has averaged 0.81.
Houston’s tackling abilities are off the charts as well. In his four-year career, Houston has tallied 234 tackles. That total is nothing too impressive for an edge rusher but of the 234 tackles, Houston was assisted on only 36 of them. Again, for some reference, Connor Barwin was assisted on 59 of his 232 tackles in his career and Kerrigan was assisted on 66 of his 247 tackles. Houston’s ability to wrap up the ball carrier on his own is a huge asset as more often than not, these linebackers are responsible for making crucial open field tackles. Being able to take the ball carrier down without assistance saves coaches a lot of worrying.
Pass rushers in addition to simply bringing the quarterback down are often relied on to generate impact plays. Houston has shown some improvement in that department this year. He has forced at least one turnover in every year he has been in the NFL. This past season though, Houston knocked four fumbles loose, tied for second most in the league. If Houston continues to be a source of turnovers as an elite pass rusher, he could become one of the most valuable defensive players in the league.
Outside of his pass rushing skills, Houston’s talents as a run stopper and coverage linebacker are more than passable. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged 4.75 pass deflections and 4.5 run stuffs. Those are more solid numbers for a player who is usually sent after the quarterback rather than dropped in coverage or relies on shutting down the ground game. Houston definitely could improve as a run defender, which would mold him into a more complete player.
The injury history that Houston carries is of little concern. He has only missed five games in entire career. The only major concerns will be centered on him being able to maintain his level of production in the coming seasons. After putting together such a stellar campaign, it is difficult to turn around and put up those same kinds of numbers again. Watt just became the first player in NFL history to ever record 20 sacks in multiple seasons. Odds are we will never see Houston his the 20 sack mark again but if he is consistently piling on 15 quarterback takedowns per year, he will be one of the greatest pass rushers in recent league history.