ALAMEDA, Calif. – Derrick Johnson has been the enemy in Oakland for 13 years, tormenting the Raiders while wearing red for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Johnson has traded sides in the fierce AFC West rivalry, joining the Raiders as the veteran anchor at middle linebacker in a defense that is being rebuilt this offseason.
“It was different, I don’t want to say weird, but it’s different to put on the silver and black – even shirt – because we haven’t put on jerseys and helmets and all of that stuff yet,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Even to put on the shirt, it was different for me. But you know what, when we got in the middle of the field, when you talk ball and you start running around, tossing the football around and calling plays and going over backs, I’m very familiar to that. So, that went out of my mind really fast.”
Johnson has been one of the better linebackers in the league during his career but was allowed to leave Kansas City earlier this offseason as the team tried to get younger. The 35-year-old Johnson is a four-time Pro Bowler and the career tackles leader for the Chiefs.
He had options about where to play this year but ultimately opted to join the Raiders, where he will take over the spot at middle linebacker that NaVorro Bowman held after joining Oakland midway through last season.
Johnson said the enthusiasm of coach Jon Gruden and the linebacker-friendly scheme of coordinator Paul Guenther were what made his decision to sign with the Raiders.
“The main reason I’m still playing ball and chasing a championship ring just because I believe I have a lot left in the tank,” he said. “That’s the only reason I’m back. When I get to a point where I’m like, man, I’m hanging on, I’ll get out, I’ll get out of the NFL. But right now, and I expressed this to Coach Gruden, I wasn’t interested in some type of rebuilding atmosphere. As soon as I said that, he had that look in his eye like, you’re talking about the sense of urgency to win. That’s exactly right.”
Johnson has appeared in 182 games with 169 starts since being drafted in the first round in 2005. He piled up 1,262 tackles to easily shatter the Chiefs franchise record, had 27 1/2 sacks and picked off 14 passes, returning four of them for touchdowns.
He had a career-best 179 tackles in 2011, when he was voted the Chiefs’ team MVP.
Johnson accumulated his impressive stats despite missing part of two seasons with ruptured Achilles tendons. He returned from the first one as good as ever, earning his most recent Pro Bowl trip in 2015, but the second seemed to finally take a step out of his legs last season.
Johnson said he feels much healthier now than he did at this time a year ago.
“This offseason I was working out and I was like, man, it’s a lot different from last year coming off an injury,” he said. “My burst is back, it’s better than ever and it’s a good feeling because it’s going to help me make plays, it’s going to help me be explosive, and the longer you’re out from your season-ending injury, it usually gets better and it helps you out mentally. This will be my second season out from my last Achilles injury. I was healthy last year. I’m even better this year because I got a really good offseason training that I really didn’t get to do last year because I was coming off of the injury.”
The Raiders need an anchor in the middle of their defense. Bowman fared well in that role after being signed last October following his release by San Francisco. There was interest in bringing him back for a second season but the two sides couldn’t agree on a price.
Oakland didn’t address that need at linebacker in this year’s draft until the sixth round with the pick of Washington linebacker Azeem Victor.
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