Two years ago, the Chiefs chose to part ways with one of the most iconic pass-rushers in franchise history n and replaced him with Frank Clark. Was this the right move, or is Houston the one that got away?
In March 2019, the Kansas City Chiefs announced they would be releasing veteran all-pro pass rusher Justin Houston. After seven seasons with the Chiefs, including a season with 22 sacks, Houston was released to sign with another team.
Just one month later Brett Veach traded the Chiefs 2019 first-round pick, 2020 second-round pick, and swapped third-round picks with the Seattle Seahawks for Frank Clark. In addition to acquiring Clark, the Chiefs signed him to a five-year, $104 million deal, instantly making him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the league.
Fast forward to the week of Kansas City’s second consecutive Super Bowl and all of Chiefs Twitter is up in arms over a tweet made by PFF’s Mike Renner.
Did the Chiefs really downgrade with Frank Clark? Or is this just analytic trolling? In order to properly settle this debate, we need to acknowledge what we know and what we don’t know. We as fans don’t know the inner-workings of contract negations and player’s attitudes about that. Sure, we can infer somethings such as Justin Houston was upset about his contract in 2015 which is why he held out.
However, we have no idea how that impacted his departure in 2019. Or if he was willing to rework his deal. We also don’t know about the quality of leadership provided by players- again we can infer somethings from games, press conferences and mic’d up videos but ultimately we have no clue if Houston was a better leader than Clark. While it is fun to let these narratives creep into the analysis of the move, the truth is we have no clue and probably never will.
In two seasons with the Chiefs, Clark has accumulated 14 sacks, 66 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 29 QB hits, and 52 hurries. Additionally, Clark has a 50.2 run defense grade from PFF. Clark has started 29 regular-season games for the Chiefs and an additional 6 games in the playoffs.
In the playoffs, Clark has accumulated an additional 8 sacks, 18 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, and 10 QB hits. There is no doubt that Frank Clark has been a huge part of the defensive turnaround for the Chiefs, especially in the playoffs. Clark has had two really strong post-seasons which is ultimately why fans view the signing as a success.
Frank Clark is paid like one of the best pass rushers in the game his deal is similar to that of players such as Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa, and Khalil Mack, the problem is we shouldn’t have to wait till the post-season for Frank Clark to start playing.
Add in the fact that Clark also cost the Chiefs a first and a second-round pick and the price really doesn’t equal the total production. Sure, he has had some strong games in the post-season but who truly decides the narrative there? Was it Clark or the offense that scored 51, 35, 31, 22, and 38 points in those games? One of Frank Clark’s best traits is playing on the same teams as Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.
While this may seem hyperbolic you have to keep in mind without his post-season numbers, the Clark contract and trade is an utter disaster. Most Chiefs fans were very frustrated with Clark headed into the post-season of 2019 because of his lack of pass rush. Fast forward to the Raiders game in 2020 and the narrative about the Chiefs pass rush was once again negative.
Truthfully, the only way the Chiefs defense could get consistent pressure all year was through the blitz. Despite being 9th in blitz percentage and having $200 million tied up in the defensive line KC still only ranked 19th in total sacks in 2020 and 20th in hurry percentage. The numbers are not indicative of a team that is paying a top 5 pass rusher.
Since leaving the Chiefs for Indianapolis Justin Houston has accumulated 19 sacks, 69 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 30 QB hits, and 21 QB hurries. In that time Houston has received a 61.1 run defense grade via PFF. In his one playoff game, he contributed with a half a sack. One of the criticisms of Houston was that he was never healthy, since joining the Colts he has never missed a game.
Houston also switched defensive schemes to a 4-3 where he has played a more traditional defensive end role rather than a stand up outside linebacker. Houston has also proven that he can fit into a 4-3 scheme.
Houston signed a two-year, $24 million deal with the Colts after leaving the Chiefs. In that time, Frank Clark has counted $25.8 million against the Chiefs cap. So not only did he cost more to acquire he also cost more against the salary cap as well.
Houston, of course, is older. He is entering his age 32 season while Frank Clark is just 28. The problem with that argument is the Chiefs will likely eject on the Frank Clark deal after the 2021 season when he is cheaper to cut than to keep on the roster.
So arguing Clark’s youth at this point is more or less pointless because of his underachievement on the contract. What’s the difference between 29-year-old Frank Clark leaving in free agency and 32-year-old Justin Houston leaving? Maybe a compensation pick? Definitely not enough to make up the difference given in the trade for Clark.
The bottom line is this: Do the Chiefs win the Super Bowl with Justin Houston instead of Frank Clark? In my opinion, the answer is yes. Because if you put Justin Houston back on this roster you’re also adding two more highly drafted players on the roster as well. Here are a few names who were taken around the Chiefs’ 2019 first-round pick: Dalton Risner, Deebo Samuel, Sean Murphy- Bunting, and AJ Brown. The 2020 second-round pick? Jeremy Chinn, Antonio Gibson, and Logan Wilson. Is this hindsight being 20/20? Of course it is. And so is citing Frank Clark’s post-season stats as justification for the trade.
“One of Frank Clark’s best traits is playing on the same teams as Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.”
The truth is the best quarterback Justin Houston has had is one season of Patrick Mahomes and if it weren’t for Dee Ford he would have gone to the super bowl. Frank Clark will forever be a Chiefs legend because of what he did in the post-season, but make no mistake, those opportunities had to be given to him by an entire roster and organization.
Justin Houston leads Frank Clark in sacks, tackles, tackles for loss, QB hits, grades out as a better run defender, and has been healthier. Imagine with me, Frank Clark on the Colts and Justin Houston on the Chiefs. Do you think Frank Clark would still be highly regarded? Or would he be viewed as a bust because he played in one playoff with Phillip Rivers who retired the next day and Jacoby Brissett? Just remember this season as we see teams sign valuable free agents that Frank Clark counts $25.8 million against the cap this season as well.
Ultimately, it worked out. Kansas City got a ring and kept the Lamar Hunt trophy in Kansas City for two years, and that was always the goal. However, the next goal is to become a dynasty and to see continued success and dominance for years to come; that goal is much more difficult because of the Frank Clark deal.
The Chiefs still win the Super Bowl in 2019 with Justin Houston, another 1st round pick, and more cap space, I have no doubt. Of course, Justin Houston is a free agent this off-season and the Chiefs could use an upgrade at the edge…