The Next Level is Horns Illustrated's look at a Texas Longhorn in the NFL.
Ask the average NFL fan to name the best linebackers in the NFL and it's a virtual guarantee which names will be listed; Patrick Willis, Clay Matthews, Brian Urlacher, Terrell Suggs, and the overrated (in my opinion) Ray Lewis will all lead the way. Derrick Johnson most likely won't be in the conversation but the numbers say he should be at least considered when trying to sort out the linebacker madness.
Johnson cemented his legacy as one of the greatest linebackers ever to play at Texas, averaging over 120 tackles a season from his sophomore year on. Numbers like that made Johnson a no-brainer for the Bronco Nagurski and Dick Butkus Awards in 2004 and Kansas City wisely snatched him up with the 15th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. It's one of the best choices Kansas City has made in the last decade.
In his eight years in the NFL, Johnson has been as steady as they come for the Kansas City Chiefs (outside of a subpar 2009 season) and is the leader of one of the most underrated linebacker corps in the league (Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are monsters). Johnson's consistent play rose to a new level when Romeo Crennel came in as defensive coordinator in 2010. As DJ grew comfortable in Crennel's scheme, Johnson started playing to his full potential as he crushed opposing offenses on way to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections. Johnson rung up 131 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and two sacks in 2011.
Johnson's motor hasn't stopped this season, even with nagging injuries, and it allows the Chiefs to play him as a three-down defender. He's one of those players that just understands the game on all levels. Whether it's stopping the run or dropping back in the pass, no match-up is too big for him. And when you consider his salary for 2012 is nearly eight to ten million dollars less than linebacker partner Tamba Hali (depending on which site you base their salaries on), Johnson's value rises that much more.
So why isn't a linebacker of Johnson's stature getting more love? There are a few factors holding the Texas great down;
1) Johnson's not a pass rush specialist
Linebackers like Clay Matthews get tons of publicity from ESPN and are all over advertisements because the role of pass rush specialist is sexy. Quarterback is the premiere position in the NFL and that goes both ways. We love to see them launch bombs and also get bombs dropped on them. The role of pass rusher simply isn't suited for Johnson. He only has 17 sacks in his entire career. However, while players like Matthews are blowing up quarterbacks, Johnson plays the role of all-around stopper and turnover machine, already forcing 26 so far in his career.
It's a little disappointing that he hasn't forced any turnovers yet this season, but his consistency throughout his career leads us to believe he will turn it around.
2) Johnson plays in Kansas City
The NFL is as much about style as it is substance and to the victor go the spoils. Nobody can question the loyalty of Kansas City's fan base (aside from the idiots who cheered when Matt Cassel was injured recently) but teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys will seemingly always get more chances to display their stars, even if their hyped players are no longer performing at the high level they once were (Again, we offer Ray Lewis's output this season before his season-ending tricep injury). Losing teams don't get to play in prime time games and that means less of an opportunity to make a name around the nation. To prove the point, Kansas City is the 17th most popular team in the NFL, while the Dallas Cowboys are the most popular. Past success (and we do mean past) and buzz translate to star power.
3) The long list of star linebackers
NFL.com created a list where they had professional players rank top 100 in the NFL last season. Johnson came in the 78th spot, which I definitely take some issue with, and ten linebackers were ranked ahead of him. That leaves little room for Johnson to make a name for himself in such a top heavy position. Even Madden '13, which is admittedly no true indicator of talent, has him ranked at the 47th best defensive player in the NFL.
Johnson will likely remain a relative unknown among the NFL masses until Kansas City makes some noise in the playoffs. Luckily, Texas and Kansas City fans all around, we understand what he's all about.