After everything he’s achieved throughout his 11-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs, earning four Pro Bowl nominations, two All-Pro Honors (including this past season) and becoming the franchise’s all-time leading tackler,
With all that said, Johnson still managed to show us all what makes him so special last season.
He returned to an All-Pro level after a torn Achilles caused him to miss the entire 2014 season.
At 32 years old with an injury that significant, it was realistic to believe that Johnson couldn't return to be the same player as he was before the injury.
After all, it was the first major injury of his career.
Before 2014, Johnson had missed only seven regular season games in the previous nine years of his career.
He was a rock for the defense and franchise, and now he was going to be challenged in a way he hadn’t been before in his career.
All of the rehab, the time and energy spent on getting his veteran body back into the kind of shape he was used to playing at would be difficult.
So how did he respond?
Johnson put up his fifth season with at least 100 tackles, finishing with a team-high 116, while also picking up 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions and leading the team to its best season in more than two decades.
He was also named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
“Most guys – in particular at his age – they don’t make it back, at least not at that level,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Johnson last season. “He’s playing as well as he’s played since I’ve been here.”
When people think of Johnson, they think of his athleticism and ability to come downhill and stop running backs in their tracks at or near the line of scrimmage.
They’re often referred to as “DJ specials.”
Just a few weeks ago at the Senior Bowl, NFL Network Analyst Charles Davis, unprompted, spoke of the affinity he has for Johnson and what he’s accomplished throughout his career.
Davis is a fan of the former Texas Longhorn, who was selected by the Chiefs with the No. 15-overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Johnson during his time aa a Longhorn
Johnson was known as a speedy outside player that had the ability to slash and knife through a defense during college, but his development and ability to move inside and take more on in terms of blockers and being able to “sort through the trash” in traffic impresses Davis more than anything.
After sitting out all of 2014, a year in which the Chiefs defense ranked No. 28 in the NFL against the run after allowing more than 127 yards per game, Johnson led the group to a No. 8 ranking last season by allowing just 98.2 yards per game on the ground.
While football is the ultimate team sport and Johnson isn’t uniquely deserving of the credit for that turnaround, there’s no doubt that his presence, particularly in run defense, was a major reason it was much stronger last season.
Johnson is scheduled to be a free agent when the new league year begins on March 9, but he’s stated all along that he’s a member of the Chiefs.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson is the No. 21-ranked free agent currently scheduled to hit the market when the new league year begins in a few weeks.
Here’s what the website had to say:
21. Derrick Johnson, LB
2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs
The 33-year-old has long been one of the best inside linebackers over the last several years. Outside of an injury in 2014, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Johnson ranked in the top eight among all off-ball linebackers in coverage and run defense last season.
With the steps the organization has made over the past three years—winning 31 regular season games and picking up their first playoff victory in 22 years—the opportunity for Johnson and company to get to a Super Bowl is within their grasp.
When asked about the importance of keeping intact a group that was just two wins away from the Super Bowl compared to planning for the future, general manager John Dorsey said it’s about making the right decisions after all of the cards have been laid out.
“We try to properly plan for every possible scenario,” Dorsey explained. “Collectively, we'll sit down as a personnel staff and I'll sit down with the coaching staff and we’ll make the best decisions for the long-term future of this organization.”While Johnson is one of several key members of the Chiefs defense who is currently scheduled to become a free agent in a few weeks, the determination and toughness he showed throughout the past year to not only get on the field, but also play at the level he did, only further cemented a legacy as one of the best to step on the field in a Chiefs uniform.