INDIANAPOLIS — Last offseason, the Indianapolis Colts made a gamble that paid off handsomely for them.
Knowing that quality pass rushers don't typically come available on the open market — they usually are signed to lengthy extensions or acquired via trade — the Colts jumped at the opportunity to sign Justin Houston after the then-30 year old was released by the Kansas City Chiefs.
It was a move for the Chiefs that both saved the team some money and reportedly allowed them to move forward with players they felt were a better fit in their new defensive scheme.
The Colts were confident, however, that Houston's talents off the edge would prove valuable in any system he played in — and especially in their own.
By the end of the 2019 season, Houston would prove the Colts right, finishing with his first double-digit sack season in five years.
Back for more in 2020, Houston is certainly an appreciated asset on Indy's roster. But, as NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund points out, the 10th-year veteran is actually the team's "most underappreciated player." She writes:
"In his first season on the Colts, Houston led the team with 11 sacks. (No other Colt had more than five.) I know what you're thinking: How can a four-time Pro Bowler, former All-Pro and single-season sack leader be underappreciated? Well, there seems to be the notion that big-ticket free agents are rarely worth the market price. But worth is a function of cost, and in 2020, Houston will account for only the 29th-highest cap value among edge rushers, per Over The Cap."
Currently, Houston is eighth in the NFL among active players in career sacks (89.5), 13th in tackles for loss (109) and is tied for 15th in forced fumbles (16), which has resulted in four Pro Bowls and one First-Team All-Pro nod.
So, like Frelund said, how can one of the most notable pass rushers of the last decade still be underappreciated?
Well, many people thought that when the Chiefs let Houston go that he may not have much left in the tank, but he bounced back in his first season with the Colts in 2019 with his best performance since 2014.
That 2014 season was a historic one for Houston, whose 22.0 sacks fell just a half-sack short of tying Michael Strahan's all-time NFL single season record.
After that season, though, Houston found some bad luck in the injury department. He didn't play all 16 games in any of the next four seasons, and he averaged just 7.5 sacks per season over that time. While those are satisfactory numbers for many players, it was below the standard that Houston had set earlier in his career.
Then the 2019 offseason arrived, and Houston became a salary cap casualty for the Chiefs, landing him in the Colts' lap.
The change of scenery appeared to be exactly what Houston needed, as he finished with double-digit sacks for the first time in five years, completing his first season in Indy with 11 sacks.
He had a stretch of six games in a row from Weeks 5-10 with at least one sack, totaling seven during that span. He wound up as one of 18 NFL defenders to reach double-digit sacks on the 2019 season.
Houston's total numbers on the season were 44 tackles (13 for loss), 11 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumbles recovered, 18 quarterback hits and one safety.
And while Father Time is undefeated, there's nothing indicating the 2020 season is the year that Houston begins to slow down.
In fact, a huge acquisition that the Colts made this offseason could help Houston stay productive and consistently leave him with one-on-one matchups and fewer double teams.
In March, the Colts traded for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who is widely considered among the top interior defenders in the league. The attention that both Buckner and Houston will command should provide the two of them, and those around them, with plenty of opportunities to disrupt opposing offensive lines week in and week out.
"I mean, Justin is one of the best in the game," Buckner told reporters about his new linemate recently. "He is a talented player against the run and obviously against the pass. I mean, he is a quarterback's worst nightmare."