clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Detroit Lions player preview: James Houston working toward being a complete player

James Houston proved to be an elite pass rusher as a rookie, but is there more to his game that can be developed?

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Jets Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Our Detroit Lions second-year player profile series continues to roll on, with one of last season's breakout players next on the docket.

After being selected in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, hybrid linebacker/edge rusher James Houston took some time to acclimate to the NFL, but when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.

Let’s take a closer look at Houston and what he needs to do in order to take the next step in his development toward being a complete player.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, and Malcolm Rodriguez.

James Houston

Expectations heading into 2022

At 6-foot-1, 244 pounds, Houston had played off-the-ball linebacker his entire life but was buried on the University of Florida’s depth chart. After graduating, he transferred to Jackson State to play under then-coach and NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders. Sanders recognized Houston’s athleticism was too good to keep off the field, but JSU also had a stacked roster at linebacker, so he asked Houston to make a position switch to edge rusher.

The move proved career-altering. Houston was an instant starter and he dominated his level of competition. In that final year, he went on to register 16.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss, 75 pressures, and earned a 95.4 pass rush grade from PFF—the highest mark in the draft class, and one spot ahead of No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson.

Despite the high level of production, Houston dropped to the sixth round in the draft because he didn’t fit into a traditional NFL role. He was considered undersized (6-foot-1, 244 pounds) for an edge player and lacked lateral quickness as an off-the-ball linebacker, along with his level of competition and experience also being limited.

Once in Allen Park, the Lions wanted to test his limits and threw Houston into the mix as a situational edge rusher and off-the-ball linebacker. The workload proved to be overwhelming for the rookie, and by the end of the spring, coaches scaled back his responsibilities and had him focus on what he does best: get after the quarterback.

In training camp, Houston flashed athleticism but was still considerably behind in his learning curve. The talent was there but the consistency wasn’t. Houston would end up being released at cutdowns and signed to the Lions' practice squad with the hopes of developing him behind the scenes for a unique role in the future.

Three months later, Houston would get his shot.

Actual role in 2022

7 games (2 starts): 140 defensive snaps (12.3%), 71 special teams (15.7%)
Stats: 12 tackles, 8 sacks, 11 QB hits, 17 pressures, forced fumble, fumble recovery
PFF overall grade: 80.2 (25th amongst 203 EDGE rushers)
PFF Pass rush grade: 88.2 (7th amongst 203 EDGE rushers)

Over the first 11 weeks of the regular season, Houston worked his tail off on the practice squad and impressed coaches during practices. His consistency was increasing and the Lions were looking for ways to get him on the game-day roster to see if his skill set would translate. Then in Week 12, the Lions were facing key injuries amongst their edge rushers. Romeo Okwara, Charles Harris, and Josh Paschal were unable to play, while John Cominsky playing with a broken hand. Houston was elevated to the roster for their Thanksgiving game against the Bills.

“James Houston, he was showing all the flashes in practice,” general manager Brad Holmes said. “He was showing, and you’re just like, ‘Man, man, can we get him up? Can we get him up?’ And we were reaching where we couldn’t really get him up when we wanted to get him up because we had a lot of injuries, and the roster just didn’t work to get him up. And (then) he gets up, and then that first time he went in, and I’m like laser-focused on this dude, trotting out, running out on the field. And he gets that sack, and I probably just erupted in emotion. It’s really cool to see.”

Houston got a sack on his first NFL defensive snap, and despite only playing on four more defensive snaps the rest of the game, he managed to add a second sack for good measure. Additionally, Houston played 10 special teams snaps and recovered a key fumble—adding to the impressive NFL debut.

The next day, Houston was signed from the practice squad to the Lions' 53-man roster.

“We found a spot in a hurry for (Houston),” coach Dan Campbell said. “We knew there was something there. There is something about him as a rusher, and every week just gotten better and better. He’s put in the work, which is a credit to him... Now, that’s just, ‘Hey, go eat.’ You put him out there and just say, ‘Go.’ So, there’s things he’s got to be able to do more for us than just that and it’s got to be more than just five reps. But certainly, we’re going to get him more involved.”

Houston’s role did indeed increase over the final six games. His defensive snaps jumped to 21% the following week, then into the 30-40% range after that, and he finished the season by starting the final two games and playing 63% of defensive snaps against the Bears and 50% against the Packers.

As his opportunities increased, Houston continued to produce on the field. Houston ended the season registering eight sacks through his first six NFL games, setting a new league record and being recognized with Rookie of the Week honors. He also produced on special teams, with his best play arguably being a key pressure and block on Kalif Raymond’s punt return for a touchdown against the Jets.

As a rookie, the Lions identified Houston’s superpower and allowed the rookie to grow into a role. But if Houston wants to be more than just an situational edge rusher, he’ll need to take more steps this offseason in order to become a complete player.

Outlook for 2023

Houston is an absolute menace as a pass rusher and the Lions will surely tap into these skills in 2023. His ability to create speed to power, bend the edge and string together pass rush moves is beyond what one would expect from a player with just seven games of NFL experience. While his size may prevent him from being an every-down edge rusher in base formations, he is a dynamic situational pass rusher with the potential to evolve if he can develop his edge setting and off-the-ball linebacker skills.

Houston took some edge reps in OTAs and minicamp this spring, but a lot of the work he did was with the off-the-ball linebackers. This effort to expand his skills is a definite step towards him expanding his game but off-the-ball linebacker also a position that has eluded him for several years. He knows the concepts of the position—he has more experience there than on the edge—but he has yet to take the necessary steps. But if anyone can help Houston elevate his game in this role, it’s likely Lions’ linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard.

“Everybody knows what James is capable of doing athletically, but when you get out there with those other 10 men, it’s a lot more than just athletic ability,” Sheppard said during OTAs. “It’s buying in, doing things within the framework of the scheme, and that’s kinda the things we’ve been working on with him over the course of the offseason. You’re not just going after the quarterback. This is an actual play where you have actual responsibilities. So, just making sure he hones in on the little things because James is a very heady player actually. It’s just him honing in on the details, the little nuances within the scheme.”

Those nuances will be the difference between being a situational pass rusher only and a heavy contributor when the game plan calls for it. The Lions used several five-man fronts against run-first teams down the stretch last season and Houston was an intregal part of that production. But the Lions won’t dip into that formation against every team, so if Houston wants to get more playing time, his work with Sheppard will be critical.

“For me, I’ve got to get on the field,” Houston said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I got to figure something out. Just like last year, it was just like they didn’t really know where to put me... Hopefully, I can be a chess piece and not too much of a liability... Where you can move me in different ways and put me on the field. So that’s really my goal, to get the team to be able to trust me enough to get to that point.”

Trust takes time and while it’s possible he convinces coaches enough during training camp to earn more reps, it’s also possible that this trust-building process extends into the season. Time and hard work will determine how far he will go in his career.

“Yeah, I mean I think it’s not out of the realm to say that he has starter-level traits and abilities, rather he’ll become that, but I think he’s got the ability to be as good as he wants to be,” Holmes said. “And I’ve got a lot of faith in that because I know how he wants to work. We’ve had a lot of conversations, going back to training camp on things he needs to work on, and I mean he is always just like, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Really smart kid, and all of that production you saw, I couldn’t tell you how many times he was after practice in that indoor (facility) or outside just working on his craft... So, if he just keeps working, he can be as good as he wants to be.”

NEW: Join Pride of Detroit Direct

Jeremy Reisman will drop into your inbox twice a week to provide exclusive, in-depth reporting and insights from Ford Field. Subscribe to go deeper into Lions fandom, and join us on our path to win the Super Bowl.