ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Derrick Johnson has hardly followed the typical path for an NFL linebacker.
He was a first-round draft pick out of Texas, then got benched when he fell out of favor with the Kansas City Chiefs coaching staff. A new regime and renewed motivation got him back on the field. Rock steady, he has become the franchise's career tackles leader.
All of that while enduring two season-ending injuries to his Achilles tendons.
The first occurred one game into the 2014 season, sidelining the four-time Pro Bowler for the rest of the year. The second happened last December against Oakland, so late in the year that some questioned whether Johnson would be back this season. That was never a question in his mind, though.
"I don't want to think about it too much," said Johnson, who was on the field during part of the offseason program and going full speed at the start of training camp.
Johnson did miss a couple of days this week, but it had nothing to do with his knee. Turned out it was a tooth abscess.
"I've had some good luck and I want to keep it going," Johnson said. "It's a little different process from my Achilles' recovery now than a couple of years ago because it was almost a year removed (back then), so physically I was all the way well. Mentally, I wasn't there because I didn't play the whole season. This year I played most of the season, 75 percent or so, but it's 7 1/2 months removed from surgery, so it's a little bit different."
Mentally, Johnson said, he's ready to go. The physical part should be there by the season opener.
That's good news for the Chiefs, who struggled to stop the run last season. Johnson's role is to make tackles while the big boys up front occupy the offensive line. His uncanny ability to dart through and make stops was sorely missing in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Steelers star LeVeon Bell ran 30 times for 170 yards in the season-ending defeat.
"It feels good to see him out there," said fellow linebacker Justin Houston, who is coming off a knee injury of his own. "I can't tell a difference. He looks great. He looks fast."
Johnson surpassed 1,000 career tackles while becoming the Chiefs' career leader early last season, but his consistency is what's most remarkable. He's easily topped 100 tackles the past five years in which he's played at least 15 games, and he had his fourth career touchdown last season.
That's why the Chiefs didn't balk at giving the 34-year-old Johnson a $21 million, three-year contract before last season. They don't believe age will catch up to him anytime soon – even with multiple injuries to his Achilles' tendons.
"I think when guys go through an injury twice, they kind of know how to handle it better the second time. They're not afraid to push themselves a little bit further," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "You kind of know that you're not going to break it. You push it to the limit. That's where he's at."
Johnson's value extends far beyond the field, too.
He is tied with punter Dustin Colquitt as the longest-tenured member of the Chiefs, and that gives him a certain amount of respect. Young linebackers such as second-year pro Dadi Nicolas and rookie Ukeme Eligwe are able to bounce ideas off him, making Johnson tantamount to an assistant to longtime linebackers coach Gary Gibbs.
"Young guys will ask me questions. They're picking my brain, seeing if I know my stuff, so I'm always on point with that," he said with a smile. "Later in life I'd like to become some kind of a coach and this is a perfect opportunity out here with the young guys asking me all kinds of questions."
Right now, however, Johnson is happy to be back on the field.
NOTES: TE Travis Kelce missed practice Friday with swelling his knee. "He'll be fine," Reid said. ... CB Terrance Mitchell (hamstring), CB Steven Nelson (groin strain), LB Josh Mauga (hip flexor) and CB Keith Baxter (wrist surgery) also missed practice Friday. ... The Chiefs released DT Montori Hughes, two days after signing DT Roy Miller to a $1.4 million, one-year contract.