Chiefs' Johnson finally reaching elite status
Derrick Johnson remembers when he first walked into the Kansas City Chiefs' locker room. He was fresh out of Texas, carrying all the expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick, and there he was surrounded by a bunch of grizzled veterans.
''Now that I look around,'' Johnson said this week, ''I'm one of the older guys on the team.''
It's true. Johnson may only be 28 years old, but the middle linebacker is already entering his seventh season in the league. Only seven of the 89 players who the Chiefs brought to training camp have been in the NFL longer, and just two of them are on the defensive side of the ball.
''I kind of figure I'm in the prime of my career right now, mentally and physically,'' said Johnson, who is coming off easily the best year of his career. ''Everything is clicking on all cylinders.''
It took a while - six years, 90 games and countless headaches, to be exact.
When he was picked 15th overall in the 2005 draft, many envisioned Johnson as the next Derrick Thomas, the Chiefs' late nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker who represented the perfect blend of speed and athleticism. Even though Thomas was more adept at rushing the quarterback and Johnson at dropping into pass coverage, the two seemed to be cast from the same mold.
Thomas was 6-foot-3, 243 pounds in his prime. Johnson is 6-3, 242 right now.
Most of those comparisons were borne out Johnson's rookie season, when he started all 16 games and made 80 tackles and a couple of sacks. But his numbers started to decline the following year, and by 2009 he started just three games for the Chiefs and made 26 tackles all season.
Then something seemed to click last summer. Johnson couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was a sense of comfort in his second season under head coach Todd Haley, and first-year defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel - who has seen just about everything in his 40-year career - managed to get the best out of him from the moment they began working together.
Johnson started all 16 games as the Chiefs went from also-rans to division champions, making a career high 94 tackles, forcing three fumbles and returning an interception for a touchdown.
''You know, Derrick, like I've said, he did some really good things last year and he did some really good things in training camp,'' Haley said. ''But you know, I think Derrick can be even better, and that's the exciting thing for all of us. And I think he's shown some of that right now.''
He certainly showed it Friday night against the St. Louis Rams, becoming one of the few bright spots during an abysmal stretch of preseason games for Kansas City.
Johnson led the team with eight tackles while only playing about a half, and sacked Sam Bradford on third-and-7 early in the second quarter to help force a punt. But the play that really stood out was on the Rams' previous series, after they had already put together two long touchdown drives and had just taken possession of the ball at their own 8 yard line.
It was second down and Bradford dropped back to pass. He looked to his right, then back to his left, and thought he saw Greg Salas coming open. As soon as he released the throw, Johnson jumped into the path and pulled down a highlight-reel interception while tumbling to the ground.
''That was just a phenomenal play,'' Haley said. ''When I watched it on tape, I just rewound it, rewound it, rewound it. The reaction, the ability to catch the ball, hang on when he hit the ground ...''
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo even singled out the play in his postgame press conference, calling it the right read by Bradford and a good throw that just ended up with the wrong person.
''Not a lot of guys in this league can make that play,'' Spagnuolo said. ''I thought it was a pretty good throw, and sometimes those things happen when you play against elite players.''
The play was especially gratifying to Johnson because, despite all the good things he did last season, he took a lot of grief for what he didn't do: Hold onto a couple of sure interceptions.
''It definitely was one of my bigger plays as far as interceptions, spectacular catches,'' Johnson said. ''He kind of thought his guy was hot routing, wide open, and I just kind of slid under and made the catch. The quarterbacks are so good in this league it has to be a split-second kind of deal.''
Haley believes that's the kinds of play Johnson can make regularly now, the kind of play he perhaps wouldn't have made when he was a younger player. And it's the kind of play Johnson will need to make if Kansas City wants to make it back to the playoffs this season.
''He's working hard at it, he's passionate about it, he's a great teammate, and when you can make plays like that, game-changers and get a sack and do some of the things he's been doing, that's good stuff,'' Haley said. ''If we can get him to show up like that throughout the year, that would sure be a good thing for our defense.''