INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts made major waves last week when they brought on veteran edge defender Justin Houston to bolster their pass rush.
While some have pointed to Houston’s age (30) and injury history as reasons to question the move, overall it has been met with much praise and fanfare.
Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus is among those applauding the move, counting Houston as a bargain free-agent signing who has a proven track record and immediately upgrades the Colts’ pass rush. According to PFF:
“As PFF Data Scientist Eric Eager wrote earlier this month, Houston was a truly great player for the Chiefs, earning over a 75.0 PFF grade in all but his first NFL season, and an overall grade above 90.0 in each season from 2013 to 2015. He was a force as a pass-rusher as well as a run defender, racking up 408 total pressures and 285 run stops on over 6,400 career snaps for the Chiefs, and in our wins above replacement (WAR) metric, Houston was worth over four and a half wins, trailing only Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce among his teammates during that period.”
Houston has undoubtedly been one of the NFL’s most productive edge players over the course of his eight years, totaling 78.5 sacks, 96 tackles for loss, 14 forced fumbles and another 10 recovered.
In PFF’s history (since 2006), Houston ranks fourth among edge defenders with at least 2,500 pass-rushing snaps in both the percentage of pass-rushing snaps he’s won (16.3) as well as percentage of snaps producing pressure on the quarterback (15.3).
Regarding Houston’s injury history, he is currently free from any major issue and has been since the 2016 season.
In 2013, he missed five games due to a dislocated elbow, but rebounded to play all 16 games in 2014 en route to a a historic season in which he finished a half-sack shy of tying Michael Strahan’s NFL single-season record of 22.5.
Houston’s 2015 season ended prematurely when he was forced to undergo ACL surgery, which bled into 2016 and cost him 16 games between the two seasons. However, since then, Houston has not missed much time — at least not with anything serious. He played in 16-of-17 games in 2017 (playoffs included), and missed four games in the middle of last season with a hamstring injury.
The Colts currently have a healthy version of the four-time Pro Bowler, who also has plenty he wants to prove to the NFL world.
There’s not much to indicate that Houston still can’t be a menace off the edge for the Colts. Since 2017, there have been 10 edge defenders who were 30 or older reach at least 10.0 sacks.
Some also point to the fact that Houston will be playing defensive end with his hand in the dirt in the Colts’ 4-3 base system after playing outside linebacker in the Kansas City Chiefs’ 3-4 defense his whole career. That's not as big of a deal as some might think.
Like he will be doing here in Indy, Houston had plenty of opportunities in a three-point stance in Kansas City, and he actually did it quite well. In his 414 career pass-rushing snaps as a defensive end, he has a grade of 87.9, which ranks 11th among the 171 edge defenders with 300-plus snaps as a defensive end, according to PFF. Among those players, Houston’s 17.6-percent pressure rate and pass-rush productivity of 21.5 both rank first.
As for how Houston and all that ability fits in specifically with the Colts, it’s a huge boost.
“Over the last 13 seasons, only three Colts players at the position have topped 50 single-season pressures, and if it weren’t for Jabaal Sheard (67 pressures in 2017 and 56 pressures in 2018), the last edge defender to top 50 single-season pressures would have been Robert Mathis, who did so in 2013,” Chichester said. “Houston will now line up opposite Sheard to give the team the consistency they so badly needed at the position last year.
“In 2018, Colts edge defenders not named Sheard, a group which consisted of five players, combined for just a 57.4 pass-rushing grade and 76 pressures,” Chichester continued. “Whereas Houston single-handedly tallied an 89.1 pass-rushing grade (which was the second-best mark of his career) and produced 59 total pressures.”
As you can see, while the Colts do have some nice, young pass rushers they've invested in, the Colts get a proven game-wrecker in Houston while the younger players can continue developing.
We also saw as recently as this January that Houston’s still got it. He sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck twice in the Chiefs’ Divisional Round playoff win over the Colts, and Houston also welcomed Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to the postseason rather rudely: