Derrick Johnson is 35 years old, with another birthday coming in November. Most NFL players are retired by then, especially linebackers anchoring a defense.
The four-time Pro Bowler is still working despite the Chiefs letting him walk after 14 years in Kansas City. He could’ve walked away, with a possible coaching position available on Andy Reid’s staff.
Johnson didn’t want that. He wanted to keep playing, which is why he signed a one-year contract reportedly worth up to $3 million.
The middle linebacker is not chasing a paycheck. He’s chasing something far more valuable.
“The main reason why I’m still playing ball, why I’m still chasing a championship, is because I feel I have a lot left in the tank,” Johnson said Wednesday in a conference call with local media. “That’s the only reason I’m back. When I get to a point where I feel like I’m just hanging on, I’ll get out of the league.”
Johnson remains an active player following a productive meeting with Raiders brass. He instantly bonded with head coach Jon Gruden over a shared desire to win now. The Raiders defensive system suits Johnson well, and he looks forward to what should be a prominent role as the middle man.
“This scheme is linebacker friendly,” Johnson said. “It’s built for linebackers to make plays. We have a lot of responsibility to make plays in this defense. With my wisdom after playing 13 years, they ask linebackers to do a lot mentally just so we can make plays. That’s right up my alley.”
There’s little doubt Johnson can dissect an offense as well as anyone. His football IQ is sky high, and relishes the rank of field general. There are some questions about a physical drop off at an advanced football age, following two Achilles’ tendon tears since 2014. His last came in 2016, and he followed that year looking a step or two slower.
It’s often the case player regain explosiveness the second season back from an Achilles’ injury, and Johnson’s experiencing that rebound.
“My burst is back,” Johnson said. “It’s better than ever, and that’s a good feeling. It’s going to help me make plays and be more explosive. The longer you’re out from a season-ending injury, it’s usually better. It helps you out mentally. This will be my second season out from my Achilles’ injury.
“I was healthy last year and I’m better this year because I got a really good offseason training that I didn’t get last year coming off the injury. I’m excited. My body’s healthy. At this age, being healthy is big. If I can be healthy, I can help this team win and be an impact player.”
Johnson wants to make an impact outside the Raiders as well. His Defend the Dream foundation did great work in Kansas City, and he plans to extend that outreach to the East Bay while he’s here.
“Playing in the NFL, we’re role models. We have to conduct ourselves in a certain way off the field, too,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to dive into this community. There are always places that need help, especially in lower-income areas. My passion is working with kids. I’ve always been that way, even in Kansas City. Even though I’m in Oakland, my mindset hasn’t changed. The NFL gives you a platform, and kids look up to you. I’m going to use that platform to the best of my ability and set a great example. I can’t wait to start working in the community.”