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The evolution of Derrick Johnson: A 5-year look

Craig takes a look back at just how awesome Derrick Johnson has become as a 3-4 inside linebacker, and how he got here.

[Editor's note: Remembering this 2014 story on Derrick Johnson today]

They say a fine wine gets better with age. Nowhere is this analogy truer on this Kansas City Chiefs team than all-world inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.  I'm not breaking any news by telling you that DJ is great.  He's transformed himself into one of the top linebackers in the league, year in and year out.

Barring injury or a sharp decline in production, he'll be the Chiefs all-time leading tackler within the next season or two (currently 129 stops behind Gary Spani).  It's not far fetched to think that DJ's number could be hanging proudly in the Chiefs Hall of Fame when he decides to hang them up.  And yet, it wasn't too long ago that DJ was on the outside looking in on the starting lineup.

Let's go through the past five years and see how he's progressed, and why he's such an important part of the Chiefs defense.

2009: Pender-ghastly

It's a year of turmoil in Kansas City.  Carl Peterson and Herm Edwards are gone.  New GM Scott Pioli and new head coach Todd Haley have hired Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.  Oh yeah, and they're moving the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

For his first four years in the league, former first round linebacker Derrick Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance, notching four-plus sacks twice and five-plus passes defensed three times, yet he's failed to put together a consistent full season.  He was a guy who was best in space: able to make the tackle or break up the pass, but really wasn't great at shedding blocks.  This was a problem in the 3-4, as I wrote in one of my earliest posts:

"...slotting in DJ as the other ILB?  Shedding blocks is not his forte, but we're currently lacking a better option.  He's good in pass coverage, but having a guard plow him over every play is not going to get the best production out of him. Derrick Johnson - 3-4 Poor Fit" - From HERE

Well, as we can remember, Clancy Pendergast thought so as well.  DJ played in 15 games (starting three), and notched just 37 tackles.  The team opted for Demorrio Williams to start over DJ, and only brought him in on passing downs.  It was a humbling experience, having to ride the bench for the first time in his NFL career.

He managed his career high in interceptions, even with his limited snaps, and posted another five pass deflections.  It was an abysmal season on defense, with the team ranking 29th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed.  Along with a below-average offense, the team ended up 4-12.  Pendergast was not retained.

I picked on DJ at the end of the year about his "roller-coaster" tendencies, and criticized his ability to take the right angles and shed blockers.  I gave him a "C" grade in that post.

2010: The Resurrection Under Romeo

After Pendergast was let go, the Chiefs went looking for big names at the coordinator positions.  On defense, they picked up former Patriots guru Romeo Crennel.  Romeo was much more familiar with the 3-4 defense than Pendergast had been and implemented some new wrinkles that helped both the linebackers and defensive linemen.

I still wasn't high on DJ in the 3-4 at this point, and throughout all of preseason, it appeared that Romeo preferred the linebacker tandem of Demorrio Williams and Corey Mays to that of DJ and Jovan Belcher.  DJ was still seeing the field as a nickel linebacker and making a mark, but it wasn't until the season started that he was (surprisingly) the full-time starter.  From the posts:

"I will say right now that DJ played like a house on fire and really showed up when we needed him. He was everywhere." - Week 1

"Stop the presses!  We've got some consistency out of DJ!!!" - Week 2

"THIS was DJ at his finest, but the best part is that his "bad" games aren't bad anymore.  Here's hoping games like this happen more often because of it." - Week 7

"Still, another in a line of impact performances this year.  There's no question we're seeing the best DJ we've ever seen." - Week 16

It was safe to say, DJ had turned the corner with Romeo at the helm.  He was stronger, faster, took better angles in the run game, and was outrageous in pass coverage batting down SIXTEEN PASSES.  He forced four fumbles, had 121 tackles, and took a pick to the house.  He helped the Chiefs defense jump into the top 15 in the NFL, and took the team to the playoffs after a 10-6 season.  He missed out on a Pro-Bowl nod, but things were looking really good going into his 7th season.

2011: Recognition Amidst the Rubble

Going into the 2011 season, there were high expectations amongst Chiefs fans.  Jamaal Charles had put on a clinic in the 2010 season.  Rookie safety Eric Berry made the Pro Bowl and looked to be developing nicely.  DJ looked pretty consistent, and before the season started, my only complaint was that he could wrap up a little better.

Then the season started.  Berry and Charles both lost for the season.  Infighting between members of the front office.  Poor performance after poor performance leading to the head coach getting fired.  And yet, DJ was there to pick up the pieces as well as he could.

It was starting to look like the Chiefs had a legitimate star in DJ.

The Chiefs were winning games almost solely on the backs of their defense, and DJ was the leader.  The team finished 7-9, just out of a playoff spot with Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, and Tyler Palko all quarterbacking the 31st ranked scoring offense.  A career high 131 tackles, 9 pass deflections, and two picks led to a Pro Bowl and a first team All-Pro nomination, and deservedly so.

I spent all season praising his consistency, his ability to wrap up, and associating him with Patrick Willis and London Fletcher. It was good company for him to be in at the time, and it was starting to look like the Chiefs had a legitimate star in DJ, even if he bloomed a little later than expected.

2012: Shining Through Adversity

The season started with the appointment of the man who had turned around the defense as the new Chiefs head coach.  Players were healthy, a young athletic freak was drafted to play nose tackle, the pass rush tandem finally looked solid ... and it fell flat.

The team started Cassel and Brady Quinn, each notching one total win, and the offense finished last in the league in points.  The team was awful on the offensive side of the ball (minus Jamaal), consistently putting the defense in bad spots.  Then, after about 2/3rds of the way through the season, tragedy struck the defense with the Jovan Belcher tragedy.  DJ's inside linebacker partner for the previous three years was gone ... but he wasn't.

DJ played seven games in which he allowed less than 2.5 yards per run in his direction, which is even more impressive when he played every nickel / dime snap in those games.  I wrote my first article dedicated to DJ and how important he was to this defense after Week 3.  The term "DJ Special" was coined on the bye week. He was consistently there for his defense, showing up in splash plays and routine ones alike.

He clocked another 125 tackles, three forced fumbles, and another four pass breakups to make another Pro Bowl (amongst a surprising number of Chiefs defensive players).  Perhaps the most amazing stat were the 12 tackles for loss he put in.  He was truly amazing.  At the end of the season, a change was coming, but if one thing was for sure, there were zero questions about Derrick Johnson's ability.

2013: Being the Leader

For the second time in his NFL career, DJ was watching the demise of the front office of the Chiefs.  Pioli and Crennel were out, and in walked John Dorsey and Andy Reid.  They brought a different atmosphere to the team, and with it, the team brought former Jets defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

At the time, I was skeptical of the hire, but I thought it played to the defense's strengths to switch to a one-gapping, more attacking defense.  It turned out to be the right call.  The Chiefs didn't allow more than 17 points to any team until the record-setting Broncos offense finally broke through with 27 points in Week 11.  The offense was effective enough, and the team went 9-0 to start the season after a 2-14 year.

He's no longer the "Yo-Yo" player that Todd Haley put in the doghouse.

DJ led the team, having another seven games under 2.5 yards per run in his direction.  He controlled the line of scrimmage and got the younger players organized on almost every snap in the early going.  This led to career years for Poe, Berry, Houston, and Akeem Jordan.  Not only was he making a difference in his splash plays, but he was putting the pieces together for others to succeed.  Another playoff berth and another Pro Bowl appearance awaited him at the end of the year for his 107 tackles, 4.5 sacks, six passes defended, and two picks.

2014 and Onward

There will be a point where DJ slows down, and at 31 years old and in his 10th season, it's coming sooner rather than later.  However, every year DJ adds another element to his game that surprises me.  He's no longer the "Yo-Yo" player that Todd Haley put in the doghouse, nor is he the player that put up an insane number of pass breakups.  He's become such a well rounded player that he's passing it along to the rest of the guys around him.

Even though he looked a step slower last year, his presence made everyone around him better.  Those are the things great players learn how to do to stay great over a long period of time, and there's no reason to think that he won't be great again this season.  It's fun to look back on that player five years ago and see so many flaws and the things that could stop him from being successful in a 3-4 defense, because now he's amongst the best players in the league at any position.

So here's to you, DJ.  May you continue your arc as one of the best linebackers to play for our Chiefs.

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