James Houston was one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the NFL this season despite playing only a smattering of snaps after starting the year on the Detroit Lions practice squad.
As Houston heads into his first offseason as a pro, his personal pass rush coach said he should be even more dangerous in 2023, when his versatility could make him a Micah Parsons-like weapon on the Lions defense.
“He can play off the ball, he can play inside, he can play outside, and I think the next step, I believe, for where Detroit is, find ways to get him off the ball, use him as a weapon, as a Swiss Army knife,” said Chuck Smith, a private coach who trains some of the NFL’s best defensive ends. “Line him up as the mike (linebacker), send him. All kind of different fire zone blitzes. Put him at the will. Put him at defensive end on third downs.”
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Houston played 140 defensive snaps in seven games this season, about 12% of the Lions’ total defensive plays, and finished with eight sacks — second among all rookies, behind teammate Aidan Hutchinson’s 9½ — and 13 quarterback pressures.
He played primarily as a designated pass rusher after debuting off the practice squad on Thanksgiving, but took over late in the season as the Lions’ starting strong-side linebacker. He played there on base downs before shifting to defensive end in the Lions’ nickel package.
While Houston’s shortcomings as a run and pass defender could hinder his ability to play as a traditional linebacker — the role Parsons, the Dallas Cowboys’ do-everything defender who is one of three finalists for Defensive Player of the Year, sometimes fills on defense — he did play as an off-ball linebacker early in his college career at Florida.
Smith, who played nine NFL seasons as a defensive end with the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, said Houston has unique pass rush ability similiar to Parsons’; he had 13½ sacks this season while rushing from all over the Cowboys’ front seven.
“I just think that’s where his value will continue to grow because he can pressure off the ball,” Smith said. “Most guys can’t, so he can be off the ball. And I think with a guy who can play off the ball and he has moves and he’s developing techniques, I think that’s going to really carry him a long ways as he finds his way to one day being a starter.”
Houston, a 2022 sixth-round pick out of Jackson State, spent seven weeks training with Smith last winter as he prepared for the combine, his pro day and to play in college all-star games.
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He said he plans to split the early part of his offseason between his home in Florida and Smith’s gym in Atlanta, where his focus will be refining his pass rush moves and adding more ways to win at the line of scrimmage.
“I’m not going to put a limit on what he can do, cause how I believe, when one move’s not working, OK, let’s bring out the next one,” Smith said. “It’s just like anything, like being a pitcher. He’s got maybe three or four different pitches and when one’s not working and if he needs another one for a different tackle that works, you bring that out. So for James, the dead man might not work this game, but guess what, now we got a side scissors, now we got long arm. Those aren’t hard moves to learn, it’s just a matter of teaching, then at that point it’s up to him to make decisions on which ones he uses when he needs them versus different tackles.”
Houston recorded sacks this season with a dead man hesitation, a spin move that remains in its infancy, a traditional bull rush, by dipping low and slipping underneath blockers, in pursuit from behind and with closing speed from off the ball.
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He fell just short of his goal of 10 sacks, which he set after his two-sack debut (in five defensive snaps) against the Buffalo Bills, and said his objective this offseason is to improve his run defense and understanding of the Lions’ scheme so he can open next season as an every-down defender.
“There’s coaches and there’s players. Sometimes there is a gap difference in that, so my goal is to close that gap as much as I can and just go play free,” Houston said. “Obviously, improve my body, improve everything, work as hard as I can in the offseason so I can come back and I’m going to have some guys to compete against as well.”
If he earns a bigger role next fall, Smith said, there’s no limit on where Houston’s production can go in Year 2.
“Numbers don’t lie, and especially with the percentage of plays he did play,” Smith said. “I mean, they got a good tandem now with him and Aidan, and a good coaching staff, so I just think his ceiling is really high.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.