Justin Houston's cost outweighs his benefits to the Chiefs

Justin Houston was never going to live up to the then-record $101 million contract he signed four years ago with the Chiefs. Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs will soon part with Justin Houston, the only remaining questions being the method (trade or release) and timing (certainly before the start of the new league year on March 13).

No matter how the Chiefs dispatch Houston or when, they have been setting up for this move for years, or since 2015 when he signed what at the time was the richest contract ever for a defensive player.

Houston was never going to live up to the six-year, $101 million contract, and he didn't. He was a very good player, valuable to the Chiefs when healthy and rolling.

But because of injuries, Houston frequently wasn't available to the Chiefs in the past four seasons. When he did play, he wasn't the best defensive player in the league.

So two years ago the Chiefs began preparing to replace him. They drafted one potential Houston replacement, Tanoh Kpassagnon, in 2017 and another, Breeland Speaks, last year.

Kpassagnon is unlikely to become Houston's successor. The general manager who drafted him, John Dorsey, is long gone and Kpassagnon was a healthy inactive for some games at the end of last season. Both are ominous signs, though a new defensive staff led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could view him differently.

Speaks could easily be the one to replace Houston. He was acquired by current general manager Brett Veach, who traded up in the second round last year to get into position to draft Speaks. The Chiefs plan to switch to a 4-3 base defensive system and Veach recently indicated he believed Speaks was better suited to play an end position rather than outside linebacker, which he played as a rookie.

Speaks may or may not be as productive as Houston. What's for certain is that in the foreseeable future he will be a lot less expensive. Next season Speaks will cost the Chiefs about $1.4 million against their salary cap, compared to the unwieldy sum of $21.1 million that Houston would have cost them.

Speaks would be a bargain if he can approximate Houston's recent production at a fraction of the cost. That's not an unreasonable ask. Houston has averaged 7.5 sacks over the past four seasons.

Veach acknowledged last week at the NFL combine that the Chiefs were discussing with other teams the possibility of trading Houston.

Houston did have 22 sacks in 2014, or a half-sack away from the NFL record. But that season has proved to be an outlier. His best sack season outside of 2014 was 11 in 2013.

Houston didn't fully live up to his potential, in part because of injuries. He played in 16 games just three times during eight seasons with the Chiefs, and none since 2014.

He didn't consistently reach great sack totals in part because the Chiefs often asked him to drop in coverage instead. Only once in his career did he get to rush the quarterback on more than 80 percent of pass plays.

As a comparison, Chicago's Khalil Mack rushed the passer on more than 80 percent of pass plays in all five of his seasons. For Denver's Von Miller, it was five times in eight seasons. For Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, it was five times in seven seasons.

So perhaps the Chiefs didn't utilize Houston properly in order to maximize his production. He was a good player for them, finishing fourth on the team's all-time career sack list with 78.5.

But whatever the reason, the Chiefs -- at least under his latest contract -- never got their money's worth. They'll publicly admit as much when they finally do trade or release him.