After breaking Chiefs sack record, linebacker Justin Houston heads into uncertain offseason

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KANSAS CITY, Missouri — In the hours after a four-sack performance gave Justin Houston the Chiefs' franchise record, all he could talk about was how close Kansas City came to making the playoffs.

Houston insisted his new single-season mark would hit him some day. He might be on a new team by the time it happens.

The Pro Bowl linebacker became a free agent when the season ended, putting the Chiefs in a difficult situation. Their attempts at striking a long-term deal last offseason when nowhere, and Houston's 22-sack season has given him even more leverage in negotiations.

"It's the part of the business side that I don't want to talk about," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said Monday. "I can say it's ongoing business, ongoing conversation."

If the Chiefs slap Houston with the franchise tag in March, they would have until July 15 to agree on a multiyear contract, so there is plenty of time to work out a multiyear contract. But if no deal is reached, the Chiefs would have to pay Houston a one-year deal averaging the top five salaries at his position.

That temporary solution comes with its own problems.

For one thing, the Chiefs would still be left negotiating with Houston's representatives on a long-term deal. But the more immediate issue is exactly how Houston is classified. He has always been listed as a linebacker, but he often lines up as a defensive end. And for the purposes of the franchise tag, defensive ends tend to get paid more than linebackers.

Not surprisingly, the notoriously media-shy Houston refused to discuss his pending free agency after Sunday's 19-7 victory over San Diego. He merely said, "I haven't even thought about that."

"I'm still heartbroken about not going to the playoffs," Houston said. "That's what I base my goals on. The individual records, it'll mean something when I'm done playing."

The records are piling up in a hurry.

Houston finished just a half-sack behind Michael Strahan's record for a single season set in 2001. The only other players with 22 sacks in a season were Mark Gastineau with the Jets in 1984 and Jared Allen, who once played in Kansas City, with the Vikings in 2011.

His sack total edged Texans start J.J. Watt for the league lead, which means Houston will be the second recipient of the Deacon Jones Award. The Colts' Robert Mathis won it last year.

"It's something special to watch," Chiefs defensive back Ron Parker said. "Watching how they game-plan for him and Tamba (Hali) all year 'round, it's just crazy how they try to double-team him and chip him, and they still get off every weekend."

Chiefs defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson even alluded to the Hall of Fame when describing Houston, even though he's only played four seasons in the league.

"I told him, 'That's greatness,'" Vickerson said. "He talks about it all the time, how he wants to put his name on that board. He wants to put on one of those yellow jackets at the end of his career. He has the right mindset. I couldn't be happier for him."

Houston already has 48 1/2 sacks in his career, three shy of passing Mike Bell for fifth in franchise history. His two-season total of 33 is a half-sack behind the best two-year stretch of Thomas' Hall of Fame career, and his 13 multi-sack games rank fourth in franchise history.

Now, the big question is whether he'll be able to climb any of those charts.

The Chiefs have plenty of holes to fill this offseason, and that could have a major impact on Houston's future. Running mate Hali has a massive salary cap figure for next season and could be released if his deal isn't restructured. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe has failed to live up to his massive contract and could be released. Both of those scenarios could free up money for Houston.

Then there's the fate of Eric Berry, the safety who is battling cancer. Berry also carries a large contract into next season and it's unlikely he'll be able to play.

"That part will come eventually. What I'm worried about is Eric. I care about his person, his health, his well-being," Dorsey said. "That's what I'm focused on as we move forward here."

NOTES: Reid said he expects LB Derrick Johnson and DE Mike DeVito to participate in some part of the offseason program. Both tore an Achilles tendon in Week 1. ... C Rodney Hudson will hit free agency but said he wants to return to Kansas City. "No question," he said. ... QB Alex Smith (lacerated spleen) said he feels fine and will not miss any offseason work.


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