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Chiefs Draft Profile: James Houston IV balances linebacker and edge-rush skills

The Chiefs reportedly hosted the Jackson State prospect on a ‘top 30’ visit.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 03 East-West Shrine Bowl Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we creep closer to the 2022 NFL Draft, we will hear reports of prospects that the Kansas City Chiefs are hosting for an official, top-30 visit.

On Tuesday, Scott Kennedy tweeted that Jackson State defender James Houston IV was scheduled to visit the Chiefs on Wednesday. Houston is a hybrid player with experience as both an off-ball linebacker and edge rusher at the college level. Every NFL team is allowed 30 “visits,” in which they can meet draft prospects and introduce them to coaches and other members of the organization.

After not receiving an invitation to the NFL Combine, Houston put up incredible numbers at his Pro Day — and apparently, the Chiefs took notice.

Here’s a closer look at him as a prospect:

Background

As a three-star recruit at linebacker, Houston originally signed with the University of Florida. After redshirting his first season, Houston contributed in each of the next three years — totaling 100 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in that stretch.

Following the 2020 season, Houston entered the transfer portal without a destination in mind. Reports indicate that he was concerned about his playing time in 2021. That led to him arriving at Jackson State, where he put on a show: Houston racked up 20 sacks and six forced fumbles last season as more of an edge rusher, earning All-SWAC first-team honors in the process.

As NFL teams like the Chiefs observed his Pro Day from March 23, Houston had incredible results: a 4.7 40-yard dash time, 39-inch vertical, and 10’5” broad jump. He put up these numbers at roughly 6’1” and 244 pounds.

Film evaluation

We’ll start with his play in 2021, where he primarily played on the defensive line from the edge. 95% of his defensive snaps came in an alignment outside of the tackle along the line of scrimmage.

From that position, he boasts burst and explosiveness in short areas — utilizing the few advantages he has at his size for that position.

Houston consistently flies off the line of scrimmage and uses that momentum to take on blocks well and is constantly grabbing and reaching as he pursues the ball carrier — always trying to affect the play even if he can’t get a solid tackle.

Another advantage he understands how to use with his physique is the leverage advantage he gets playing with such a low center of gravity, making tall offensive tackles really work to dig him out on outside rushes. In this clip, he shows natural bend around the corner — while also showing the ability to engage and rip through a block to win.

Houston grew as a pure pass rusher as the season went along, and that showed up in some of the late-game rushes he would deploy. Against Southern, Houston didn’t rely on any inside counter moves for most of the game, but he began to hammer them late in the second half. It led to a few difference-making impacts.

How he fits with the Chiefs

In the NFL, it’s much harder to succeed as an edge rusher at his height and frame. Plus, he may have come in at 244 pounds — but he reportedly played at a weight around 20 pounds lighter than that in 2021, and it’s impossible to tell if he loses some of the burst and explosion when putting on extra mass.

He will have to find his way as an off-ball linebacker first, which he isn’t a stranger to.

You see some of the same skills that made him a great player from the edge in 2021 — whether that’s utilizing power through momentum or having quick feet in short areas.

However, there are some examples where Houston doesn’t appear to have the movement skills of a player that can be trusted a lot to do their job in coverage and make plays in space. If he’s playing from off the ball, he’s at his best in condensed boxes against the run where he can wreak havoc.

That leads me to project him as a base-formation linebacker, likely the SAM position that utilizes his hybrid abilities without putting him in too many disadvantageous spots as a linebacker in coverage or an edge defender against the run.

The bottom line

Houston’s natural ability as a pass rusher at the SAM linebacker position is something the Chiefs rarely utilize but have shown interest in trying to work in with past offseason acquisitions like Kamalei Correa or Jeremiah Attaochu.

Even if Houston never sees regular-season snaps, the team’s interest in this type of player could further indicate a plan to have hybrid players along their defensive front.

If the Chiefs do follow through and bring Houston on, the team’s plan for him will be very intriguing to learn about and follow this summer.