During a normal league year, rookie orientation would have already come and gone.
Due to the league’s labor situation, rookie mini-camps have been pushed back in each NFL city. Four practices over a three-day period may not seem like much, but the league’s newest players can take a lot away from these annual welcome weekends.
In mini-camp, rookies are versed with weight room expectations, training room policies, locker room protocol and, of course, classroom and on-field work with coaches.
Mini-Camp is about defining expectations and not slowing down the pace of play when veterans return for organized team activities (OTAs). It’s the first weekend that college players truly become professional athletes.
Not this year; at least, not yet.
The Chiefs hosted 33 players during last year’s Rookie Mini-Camp. Each of the draft picks participated alongside a cast of undrafted free agents, tryout players and other first-year players already under contract.
Without that camp, each rookie begins his NFL career at a disadvantage. Right now, all rookies are playing from behind.
The longer this labor climate continues, the more important football aptitude becomes. When on-field work does eventually resume, cram sessions will immediately ensue. Nobody will have a bigger uphill climb than the rookies.
Half the battle that rookies face is developing trust. They must exude a sense of understanding with teammates and coaches before stepping on the field. Rookies must show that they’re comfortable with assignments and confident in making checks.
Understanding the playbook begins in the classroom and is proven on the practice field. Fortunately, the Chiefs have one rookie who has already begun to cross that bridge.
Third-round draft pick
One of the assets that Houston brings to the Chiefs is the defensive coordinator he played for last season. Houston’s already undergone the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker – a switch that most players don’t make until they reach the NFL level – and played a year in a pro-style defensive system.
In many ways, Houston has already played in the Chiefs defensive system.
Todd Grantham took over the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator job in 2010 and quickly switched to a pro-style 3-4 base. He’d spent the previous 11 seasons coaching defense in the NFL – much of it inside the 3-4 scheme.
Three of Grantham’s 11 professional seasons (2005-07) came in Cleveland as Romeo Crennel’s defensive coordinator. He was one of Crennel’s initial hires as the two shared a common vision about the 3-4 defense.
Grantham implemented many of those same ideas at Georgia last season.
Houston represented one of Grantham’s first projects. Any worthwhile 3-4 defense has a threat to the quarterback at outside linebacker. Grantham pegged Houston as that threat.
Operating under a 3-4 system that mirrors the basics of Kansas City’s approach, and even uses much of the same terminology, Houston delivered a career year. After producing 58 tackles with 10.0 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss during his first two seasons as a Bulldog, Houston registered 67 tackles, 10.0 sacks, and 18.5 tackles for loss in his lone season playing for Grantham.
When off-field issues forced Houston’s slide down draft boards, the background with Grantham helped his risk/reward ratio become more tolerable to the Chiefs. Grantham has relationships with a handful of Chiefs staff members outside of Crennel, including General Manager Scot Pioli.
Had Houston remained at defensive end last season, and not played for Grantham, it’s fair to say that he probably wouldn’t have ended up in Kansas City.
From an X’s and O’s perspective, Houston owns an initial leg-up on many of the other rookies around the league.
“I didn’t have a preference (in playing for a 3-4 or 4-3 NFL team),” Houston said over draft weekend. “I just wanted to get a chance to play in the NFL and I have my opportunity and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Houston will probably get to play in both systems with the Chiefs – as an outside linebacker in base sets and as a rush end in sub-packages.
The Chiefs are a game-plan team and Crennel used a number of different fronts last season tailoring defensive schemes to specific opponents. Houston looks like a prime candidate to shift to defensive end when the Chiefs go with four defensive linemen.
Houston’s background gives him a legitimate opportunity to be an early contributor in both base and sub-packages next season.
It’s up to him to capitalize on that advantage.