Who knows where
It wasn’t two years ago that Johnson was set to become an unrestricted free agent, but the cumbersome nuances of the NFL’s labor climate did the Chiefs a favor. Over 200 players who were scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2009 season became restricted free agents instead.
One of the affected players was Johnson. With the 2010 season being an uncapped year, players on expiring contracts needed six or more years of service to become unrestricted free agents. Johnson had only logged five.
Following a frustrating 2009 campaign that saw him lose his starting role and relegated to sub-package duty, it would be hard to imagine Johnson re-inking with the Chiefs if given an opportunity to test the open market.
And, at the time, how much would the Chiefs have been willing to offer the former first-round pick following a disappointing season of reserve duty?
But with Johnson becoming a restricted free agent instead of an unrestricted free agent, offering the gifted linebacker a one-year tender was a no-brainer. Kansas City slapped a first-round tender on Johnson and the rest is history.
“It definitely was hard for me to go through something that I’ve never gone through before,” Johnson said of his rocky 2009 season. “But whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and that’s the situation God had put me in to make me stronger and get me better mentally and physically on the field and it panned out great for me.”
Former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley wanted more to see more consistency out of Johnson and new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel offered a fresh slate to compete for a starting job during the 2010 offseason.
After an intense position battle with Demorro Williams spanned from offseason workouts through training camp, Johnson was named the Chiefs Opening Day starter at weak-side inside linebacker prior to the 2010 season opener against San Diego.
Some three months later, Johnson was playing the best football of his career and agreed to a long-term contract extension with the Chiefs. His consistency was no longer in question.
“I found a guy that I knew had ability and I found a guy that was going to be given a chance to compete for the job and that’s what he was told, that he would be able to compete for the job,” Crennel remembered of the 2010 offseason.
“I think he took the bull by the horns and he competed every day, did a really good job and he won the job and after winning the job he continued to try to perfect his skill at that position and became a really good player as a result of it.”
Johnson’s in-season contract extension sent a strong message of professionalism throughout the Chiefs clubhouse.
The player showed no ill-will toward the front office following a frustrating season and the front office showed its willingness to reward a player who worked hard on and off the field to improve his situation.
“The situation happened and I had to fight through it, that’s the main thing,” Johnson said. “I really never want to go back to that situation or bring up anything that was said or was predicted about my play beforehand. But right or wrong it happened and I fought through it and I’m just trying to hopefully keep this ongoing.”
Johnson set a career-high with 147 tackles last season after tallying just 33 stops the year before. This year, he’s shattered the Chiefs single-season tackle record with 172 tackles through 15 games.
He’s has also become the unquestioned leader of the Chiefs defense, orchestrating the huddle as Kansas City’s on-field play-caller. A mark of consistency on and off the field, Johnson was honored with his first Pro Bowl invitation this week.
His situation with the Chiefs has come a long way over the last two years.
“Derrick has played consistently over the two years that he’s been the starter since I’ve been here and he’s been on the field just about every play, every snap of defense,” Crennel said. “He calls some defenses, he kind of orchestrates our adjustments out there and he’s done a really good job.”
Johnson averaged only 21 defensive snaps per game two years ago before playing in over 1,000 snaps last season. He’s averaging more than 60 plays per game this season.
Consistency has been at the center of Johnson’s remarkable turnaround. He’s one of the NFL’s best redemption stories in recent years.
“I was more consistent this year then I was even last year,” Johnson said. “You never know when you get your chance to get accolades, go to the Pro Bowl or anything like that so you’ve just got to keep your mind positive and you’ve got to be motivated every time you go out on the field, regardless of the situation.
“It was a hard situation for me a couple of years ago but you keep your head down and eyes closed and don’t get distracted and keep working.”