What's Next For DJ?

It's been two seasons since linebacker Derrick Johnson fell into the Chiefs' laps in the NFL Draft. One thing is quite clear: Derrick Johnson is not Derrick Thomas.

But he doesn't have to be. We've discovered that Johnson does things Thomas couldn't do well, anyway.

Some Chiefs fans are expecting Johnson to suddenly metamorphosis into the NFL linebacker version of a beautiful butterfly. They wish to see him emerge from his cocoon, leap tall buildings and span 50 yards in a single bound to pluck interceptions from the air. They want him to dominate 11 offensive players all by himself.

Alright, I'm exaggerating, but I don't think this transformation is going to take place. I think we've already seen what kind of linebacker Johnson is – the best Cover 2 strongside linebacker in the league.

It's true. Despite the fact he only played in 13 games last season, Johnson posted more tackles, more sacks, more forced fumbles and more tackles for loss than almost every other Cover 2 strongside ‘backer in the NFL. Minnesota's Ben Leber had more forced fumbles and tackles for loss, but clearly isn't a player with Johnson's talent.

And saying Johnson played in 13 games is factually correct, but barely the truth. When you consider he left the field early in a game against the St. Louis Rams and played sparingly against the Denver Broncos, it was almost like Johnson missed five games last season, not three.

Injury derailed what might have turned out to be a Pro Bowl season. Before suffering a high ankle sprain in St. Louis, Johnson had accumulated 47 tackles, all 4.5 of his sacks and two forced fumbles. Extrapolated out over 16 games, those numbers would have added up to 107 tackles, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles. Impressive indeed – you'd almost think Johnson was playing weakside linebacker with projected numbers like those.

If Johnson had earned a trip to Hawaii last year, it would have been almost unprecedented. Cover 2 linebackers (other than Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher) simply don't go to many Pro Bowls, and especially not strongside Cover 2 linebackers.

Every linebacker that made the Pro Bowl last season was either a middle linebacker, a weakside linebacker, or a strongside linebacker playing in a 3-4 scheme (which might as well be a defensive end) making the trip on account of huge sack numbers.

The same holds true for the 2005 and 2004 Pro Bowl rosters.

The truth is that Johnson might never get the notoriety he deserves banging heads with tight ends. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl with a little-known player named Al Singleton playing Johnson's role. His numbers were nothing impressive.

That is the life of a strongside linebacker. It's the lunch pail position among linebackers. Seldom does it bring the glory of the big-play weakside position – the role that Johnson played in college at Texas, when he became one of the NCAA's most feared defenders.

And you can forget about notoriety – that will always go to the middle linebackers. It's doubtful Johnson will ever be remembered as a great leader when his time as a Chief is up.

But if he can stay healthy next year and play in all 16 games, maybe we'll see the Johnson we saw from the first seven games of 2006 over an extended period. If he can produce consistent results like that over his career, Johnson might gain a reputation akin to that of Jack Ham, perhaps the greatest strongside linebacker to ever play in the NFL. Ham had similar responsibilities in an early version of the Cover 2 defense in Pittsburgh during the Steel Curtain era.

But at least we know this much – when Johnson was criticized on draft day, his weaknesses supposedly included poor tackling skills and an inability to shed blocks. I think those questions have been laid to rest.

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