Justin Houston: The Derrick Thomas comparison

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The late, great Derrick Thomas is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thomas was a standout outside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1989–99, notching 126.5 career sacks to rank 15th in National Football League history. Without question, he earned his bronze bust as a nine-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro.

These days, the Chiefs are blessed with another incredible talent who hails from a SEC school. Justin Houston just finished up his fourth season with Kansas City, breaking Thomas’ franchise single-season sack record in 2014 with 22, eclipsing the old mark of 20. Houston is arguably the best linebacker in football, and the case is a strong one. In addition to being a force in getting to the quarterback, Houston is terrific against the run and in coverage.

Through four seasons, Thomas amassed 58 sacks and forced 21 fumbles. Both totals are astonishing, and were amassed while Kansas City made the playoffs three times, winning one postseason game. Thomas would never have another stretch of such dominance, hitting double-digit sacks in a season three more times over the final seven years of his career. Still, Thomas is widely viewed as one of the most devastating pass-rushers of all-time.

Houston, 26, is a three-time Pro Bowler and a one-time First-Team All-Pro. To this point in his career, Houston has 48.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. While the sacks are fairly close, the forced fumbles are not. Perhaps nobody will ever be as adept at stripping the unsuspecting hand of a quarterback again quite like Thomas.

Houston, much like Thomas, also has the benefit of playing on a defense where other players command attention. Neil Smith was a tremendous defensive end in his day, similar in production to Tamba Hali. It can certainly be said both players have ample help, something every great player needs, despite popular belief. Houston once benefited from Hali drawing double-teams. Now, it’s Houston taking on two, and occasionally three blockers.

It’s incredible how different the two players are, yet are both such wrecking machines. Thomas relied on speed and quick movements, blowing past bewildered offensive tackles to earn a sack, while Houston uses his leverage and strength, applying brute force to impose his will before snatching his prey. The University of Georgia product is also fantastic at setting the edge in the run game, something Thomas wasn’t always good at doing. With Thomas, it wasn’t a matter of effort but style. Thomas had to get up the field quickly or he was ineffective.

The Chiefs have struggled at many positions throughout the year, but linebacker isn’t one of them. Few teams can claim a lineage so rich at any spot that Kansas City has at linebacker, with names like Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch, Thomas, Houston, Hali and Derrick Johnson dotting the all-time roster.

Sadly, the final chapter to Thomas’ career was written too soon. The man known to light up Arrowhead and terrorize John Elway died in early 2000, weeks after being paralyzed in a car wreck on his way to attend the NFC Championship game. For Houston, his future remains bright, with the bulk of his playing time still ahead of him. Assuming Houston’s agent, Joel Segal, and general manager John Dorsey hammer out a long-term deal, it will be a blast watching how it all plays out.

Thomas was unfortunately never able to be part of a championship team in Kansas City. The closest he got was in 1993, when Joe Montana led the Chiefs to the conference title game. Thomas never won another playoff game in three tries, and Kansas City is still waiting for its first playoff win since beating the Houston Oilers that season. Should Houston be a crucial part of the Chiefs’ return to glory and win a Lombardi Trophy, it would certainly be a feather in his ever-growing cap. This season’s Chiefs will most likely field the most talented team Houston has seen during his career in the NFL.

Here’s to hoping Houston can wind up with a comparable career to Thomas when all is said and done. He is one the right track, putting up staggering numbers even in this age of pass-happy teams.

Every city, every team has its identity. Kansas City is known as Sack City. Thomas jump-started the legacy in many ways. Houston has taken the torch.