Success in defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s 3-4 scheme necessitates a pair of sure-tackling inside linebackers to halt opposing rushing attacks. It also requires that both backers be heady enough to diagnose plays ahead of time and not fall victim to play-action passes. For the most part, Will Compton proved adept in both categories as the Redskins’ 2015 season played out.
But Washington will likely want to look outside their current roster to find a player to fulfill those obligations opposite Compton. The Kansas City Chief’s 11-year veteran Derrick Johnson, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 9, would be a perfect complement. With a 6-foot-3, 242-frame, Johnson is well equipped to cover the league's larger tight ends.
Granted, Johnson has spent his entire career in Kansas City, and he recently stated that he couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else. The Chiefs, for their part, would undoubtedly like the franchise’s all-time leading tackler to stay. But keeping Johnson may be a challenge. Several key pieces from the Chiefs’ defense last season are hitting free agency, including safety Eric Berry, linebacker Tamba Hali and cornerback Sean Smith--all of whom figure to rake in big money on the market.
At 33, Johnson is technically past his prime, but he doesn’t appear far removed from it. His teammate, Berry, had one of the most spectacular comeback seasons of all time after undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but in any other year, Johnson would have been deserving of the Comeback Player of the Year award, which is truly remarkable for a player his age.
Pro Football Focus named Johnson the best defensive player on the Chiefs defense last season. The site also gave him the 10th-highest overall player grade of the unrestricted free agent class. He’s got plenty left in the tank. He proved it with a strong performance against the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card game after playing a full slate of regular-season games. Though he may have lost a step off the elite speed he entered the league with, Johnson can still keep pace with the best of them.
Despite suffering what could have been a career-altering injury in Week 1 of the 2014 season, Johnson's production didn't drop in the slightest when he returned to the field in 2015. Still, his age and 2014 Achilles tear may drop his market value into the Redskins’ range. If the team were to cut Perry Riley, saving the $4 million, the cost of upgrading to Johnson wouldn’t be too steep.
For years, Johnson was among the league’s best-kept secrets at the position. Recognition seemed to elude him even though his impact was apparent shortly after being drafted in 2005.
Johnson’s notoriety has risen in parallel with the Chief’s elite defense in recent years. It wasn't until 2011 that he made the AFC’s Pro-Bowl roster, but he’s been a mainstay ever since. If you subtract the 2014-15 season lost to injury, Johnson has made four consecutive Pro-Bowl appearances. His ferocity hasn’t waned over the course of his career, either, as evidenced by the hit he laid on teammate Jamaal Charles during the 2014 Pro Bowl, in which Johnson was named MVP.
Many questioned the hit. After all, players go to great lengths to avoid injury in the Pro Bowl. It was clear after the game, though, that there was no mal-intent involved. Johnson was just playing his brand of football and it didn’t mesh well with the Pro Bowl’s style—something Redskins fans can relate to.
Washington has had a number of blunders in signing veteran free agents, but they’ve also had some hits--perhaps none better than the 2007 signing of veteran inside linebacker London Fletcher, who was 32 during his first season with the Redskins. Johnson, who was 32 at the time of his Achilles injury, certainly won't be challenging the inimitable iron man's consecutive games record.
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But the way Johnson recovered from the injury suggests he may be one of those special players who can keep the forces of nature at bay longer than the rest. On the off chance that negotiations between Johnson and Kansas City go south, Washington would be wise to step in.
Dan Roth is a freelance sportswriter and Breaking Burgundy contributor. Follow Dan on Twitter @danrothdc.
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