The Kansas City Chiefs don’t have a lot to feel good about right now but one bright spot amidst a season of injuries and disappointing losses is the development of OLB Justin Houston.
A third-round pick with first round talent, Houston slipped in the draft after reportedly failing a drug test at NFL Scouting Combine. Since being drafted there have been no signs of trouble with Houston. In fact, the rookie seems to be very silently going about his business in his rookie season.
After a promising preseason, Houston began the year in a timeshare with Cameron Sheffield. Houston was playing most running downs and them coming out in favor of Sheffield in passing situations. The rookie struggled mightily early. Pro Football Focus gave Houston an overall grade of -8.6 through his first four games.
Since then, however, Houston has been slowly showing improvement. His Pro Football Focus grades in each game have been trading much closer to average than poor.
Remember, in the Pro Football Focus grading system, a player who does something poorly on a play receives a negative grade, a player who makes a good play receives a positive grade. Players who have no impact on a play or who otherwise do their job to no great negative or positive effect will receive a 0. Most plays in the Pro Football Focus grading system are graded a 0. It is when a player does something of note, good or bad, that their grade starts trending in one direction or the other.
Since his poor start, Houston has received grades of -0.4, -0.7, 0.0 and -0.3. These numbers are not overly impressive but they indicate that instead of consistently being a liability, Houston is moving in the right direction.
Last week, however, Houston had his best game as a pro. It was a strange game to say the least. The Broncos ran the ball on the Chiefs over 50 times, rarely challenging the Chiefs down field.
Early on in the game, the Broncos were finding success in the running game. After 17 defensive plays, the Chiefs made some changes, yanking safety Jon McGraw and OLB Andy Studebaker in favor of Reshard Langford and Houston.
Houston played 54 snaps on Sunday vs. the Broncos. 46 snaps were against the run, 5 he rushed the passer and 3 saw him drop into coverage. Houston graded out +3.1 in run defense, -0.4 in pass rush and 0.0 in pass coverage. He finished the day with an overall grade of +2.8. That was the highest grade for any Chiefs defender. He had five tackles, four of which were considered “stops” meaning they resulted in an offensive failure.
Houston seems to be following a rather neat pattern of improvement. Three of his first four games were poor, all four of his next games were closer to average and he has begun the third quarter of his rookie season on a positive note.
It is important to remember that Houston did not have the luxury of experiencing the normal NFL offseason. He didn’t get to go through rookie camps or OTAs. The fact that he seems to be improving around the midway point of the season is a very good sign for a player the Chiefs absolutely need to be a difference-maker opposite Tamba Hali in future years.
The Chiefs still have questions along their defensive line, but Houston becoming a productive, every down starter would go a long way toward solidifying a defense that seems to have a very bright future. Eric Berry will be back next year at SS and will join Kendrick Lewis at FS who appears to be improving by leaps and bounds in his second season. Add to that excellent cover corners and Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers and a linebacker group featuring Tamba Hali, Jovan Belcher and Derrick Johnson and you have a pretty formidable group of players for Romeo Crennel to utilize. The key, of course, will be for Houston to continue his upward trend.
In a season that looks like it could turn quite ugly, quite quickly, player development this season could be the key to success in 2012.