As the Chiefs move on from DJ, let us remember his legacy

As Free Agency looms for the NFL’s 32 teams, some are already making decisions about their roster. The Raiders are cutting Sebastian Janakowksi, who’s been with the team since they drafted him in 2001. The 49ers resigned center Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension.

Kansas City is also one of those teams.

Already moving on from Alex Smith, and there’s a good chance Tamba Hali’s day in KC are also over, Derrick Johnson, the leader of the defense since he took the field in 2005, will become a free agent on March 14. The linebacker has embodied everything that has made up a long line of excellent Kansas City linebackers. The 1,154 tackles, 27.5 sacks, 14 interceptions – four of which were returned for touchdowns, 40 QB pressures, 23 forced fumbles and 8 fumble recoveries in 182 games hardly tells the tale of Johnson’s lasting legacy.

Whether it was intercepting two passes for scores in the 2009 season finale at Denver that tied an NFL-record, or making three of the four stops on the goal-line against Oakland in 2011, he was either around the ball or heading its way. Not only a fantastic player, but he was a commendable leader. It was his teaching that allowed fellow backer Reggie Ragland to step in and immediately become a productive member of the defense, and likely the reason the decision not to re-sign Johnson to begin with.

Being drafted 15th overall coming out of Texas, Johnson became the third Butkus Award winner to play for the Chiefs, joining Derrick Thomas and Percy Snow. He started every game for the Chiefs in 2005, the first Chiefs player to start all 16 games during his rookie campaign in the last 20 years. The franchise’s all-time leading tackler won the Mack Lee Hill Award, given to the team’s best rookie. Johnson also earned the Derrick Thomas Award in 2011, the team MVP award voted by his peers.

Despite his contributions to a team that quite frankly has not returned the favor (one playoff win in his tenure), Johnson’s age (35) along with the need for a younger defense ultimately spelled the end of an incredible era. The  sure-fire Chiefs Hall of Famer and four-time Pro Bowler intends on continuing his football career in pursuit of a championship (a certain AFC team comes to mind), but his departure signals that Kansas City is finally ready to move on. They’ve ignored the position for some time, mainly because of Johnson’s play, but the last couple years have seen him take a step back. Two Achilles tears will do that, but rather than forcing Justin March-Lilliard (too small) or DJ Alexander (special teams ace) to play in a defense that doesn’t offer much protection for its inside linebackers, they should have taken to the draft or free agency to help ease the transition.

Allegedly, DJ was willing to take a paycut to return to Kansas City, but still, no dice. Brett Veach has proved to be a real savage.

Free agency doesn’t boast a lot of young inside backers, and the Chiefs don’t have a ton of cap space, but that could certainly change with more trades, releases, or restructures. Not having a first round pick (as of now) will also make it hard to grab a guy like Roquan Smith or Rashaan Evans. However, the Chiefs do have last year’s fifth round pick, Ukeme Eligwe, who could very well earn his way into the starting rotation. Chiefs will certainly grab someone to play inside backer in the draft.

Now, let’s take a look back at our Derrick Johnson favorites:

10. Recovering from TWO torn achilles: It’s hard enough for players to return from a torn achilles, but Derrick Johnson did it TWICE. The first time happened in Game 1 of the 2014 season. He returned in 2015, but not only did he return, he earned his fourth Pro Bowl (116 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INT, 2 forced fumbles).

Johnson went down again in Game 13 of 2016, on Thursday Night Football against the Raiders. He returned for 2017, but he saw a dip in production (71 tackles) and showed signs of an aging player.

9. The 2010 season: After a disappointing start to his career, Johnson broke out in 2010, recording a career-high 121 tackles (although he would top that the next two seasons). It was good enough to cash in on a 5-year, $34 million contract. He backed up the contract with three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, including an All-Pro 2011 in the first year of the contract (career-high 131 tackles, 2 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 2 sacks, 1 TD).

8. January 30, 2011: Pro Bowl TD!

In the All-Pro year of 2011, Johnson iced the AFC’s Pro Bowl win with this score:

7. October 23, 2011: Early in the second quarter, DJ makes three of four stops in a goalline stand in Oakland:

It was the Chiefs third win in a row in a stretch of four straight wins after an 0-3 start. They finished the year 6-10. The signature win came in Week 15 over undefeated Green Bay.

5-6. January 26, 2014: The 2014 Pro Bowl

This game is memorable for two reasons: 1) Johnson was named MVP and 2) he had a “DJ special” for teammate Jamaal Charles (the first year in a different Pro Bowl format, when teammates can go against each other, drafted by legends Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders).

His hit on Charles:

Eric Berry also had an INT in this game and the Chiefs co-led the league with 10 Pro Bowlers (49ers). Team Rice won 22-21.

4. December 10, 2017 : The “Beast Mode” hit

DJ’s still got it!

3. December 6, 2015: The hit of all Derrick Johnson hits:

Poor Jalen Richard.

2. January 3, 2010: The 2 pick-6 game

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In the first year of the Todd Haley era, Johnson spent most of the season in Haley’s doghouse, starting only 3 games, playing in 15, but mostly as a special-teamer.  In Week 17, the 3-win Chiefs went into Denver with a 5-game losing streak – losing to the Donkeys 44-13 at Arrowhead just four weeks earlier. He picked off Kyle Orton twice, and took both back to the house.

In the 44-24 win, the Chiefs eliminated Denver from the playoffs, and Jamaal Charles set a new Chiefs record with 256 rushing yards and two scores.

1. January 8, 2017: The “Forward Progress” hit

To this day, I have no idea how this was not a fumble. If it was called correctly, the Chiefs could go on to win the game as they maintain momentum. But, the Chiefs in the playoffs, so…

But, WHAT A HIT. What a way to go out in what ended up being his last game in a Chiefs uniform.

For fun, here’s a Jim Ross voiceover of DJ’s big hits, including one we did not include on this list:

***

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