March 7, 2013

Dolphins free agency: Chris Houston may come with reasonable cover charge

With Sean Smith possibly on his way out, unheralded Chris Houston is a cornerback option for the Dolphins who could also be affordable.

Adam “Pacman” Jones has more red flags than the United Nations. Brent Grimes tore his Achilles’ tendon just six months ago.

And Aqib Talib was such a headache in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers essentially gave him to New England.

So whom exactly does that leave when the best free-agent option at cornerback might be Sean Smith – the guy the Dolphins are about to let walk out the door?

Try Chris Houston, the best cover corner few outside of NFC North have heard of.

Houston, a six-year veteran who has split his career between Atlanta and Detroit, led the league in interception-return yardage in 2011. And he followed that with perhaps an even better 2012 – even if the statistics weren’t as impressive.

And the best news for the Dolphins, whose top two corners currently on roster are a rehabbing Richard Marshall and a relatively unknown Dimitri Patterson?

Signing Houston probably wouldn’t break the bank. That’s good news for a franchise that doesn’t have a long history of throwing big money at free agent corners.

Last spring, they agreed to pay Marshall $16 million over three years, which is more or less middle-class for that position. Houston will likely command more than that, but he won’t get Nnamdi Asomugha money. (Asomugha, it should be noted, is expected to be cut by the Eagles after he failed to live up to his massive five-year, $60 million contract signed in 2011.)


Meanwhile, Houston’s play has exceeded his compensation; Pro Football Focus listed him as the Lions’ fifth-best value in 2012. The scouting website calls Houston the second-best free agent corner, behind only Grimes.

After missing the first two games of the season with a sprained ankle, he appeared in the final 14, tallying two interceptions and 56 tackles. But his biggest impact didn’t show up on the stat sheet. He was by far the best player in an otherwise porous Lions secondary, and at times would shadow the opposing team’s best receiver.

“Corners are tough to find in the NFL,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “You realize how much you miss a guy when he’s not out on the field.

“He’s played some quality football for us and has worked on some things early in his career that had been weaknesses,” Schwartz added. “He’s a vet, he’s a pro, he’s a guy that’s been productive for us.”


So who, exactly, is Chris Houston?

Born on Oct. 18, 1984 in Austin, Texas, the 5-11, 178-pounder played his college ball at Arkansas.

After forgoing his senior season, Houston was selected by the Falcons in the second round of the 2007 draft. He started 37 games over the next three years before being traded to the Lions for a sixth- and a seventh-round draft pick.

The Falcons questioned whether he would ever be a No. 1 corner, with critics pointing to his ball skills.

Those concerns were mollified in 2011, when he had five interceptions, including one he took back 100 yards for a touchdown. Houston followed that with his solid 2012 campaign.

He’s also not afraid to speak his mind. After Andrew Luck torched the Lions in December, he ripped his teammates, saying “We were too relaxed.”

Houston is active on Twitter, where he often posts pictures of himself (often not wearing a shirt) and tweets under the handle $low Grind (yes, that is a dollar sign instead of an S).

In about a week, he’ll sign a contract worthy of his nickname.

Grimes and Smith might command more money because of their upside, but Houston has been consistently solid for the Lions.

As recently as two weeks ago, Detroit’s decision-makers were high on keeping Houston. But the Lions chose not to slap the franchise tag on him – which would have cost the franchise $10.9 million – freeing him up to sign anywhere he wishes starting Tuesday.

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