ST. JOSEPH, Mo. —It's still early in the NFL career of Justin Houston, the beleaguered but talented linebacker who was the Chiefs' third-round pick. And though the team is optimistic that questionable days are behind the rookie and spectacular ones are ahead, that optimism is laced with caution.
"I think he can be an outside linebacker for us. Beyond that, who knows?" defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "It's hard to say."
Houston started as a draft pick with some baggage. Privately and publicly, the Chiefs have said they accept that drafting the former Georgia standout with the No. 70 overall pick was a risk. He allegedly failed a drug test before the NFL combine, which for prospects is something like the most important job interview of their lives. A little more than three months later, Houston appeared at training camp — after a brief holdout — in poor cardiovascular condition.
Two weeks have passed since then, and the Chiefs' hopes have begun to rise, and the odds of their gamble paying off have begun to shift in Kansas City's favor.
"Physically, he's done a pretty good job, and it's getting better pretty quickly," coach Todd Haley said. "That means he hasn't let himself go."
Through a team spokesman, Houston declined four interview requests over three days.
Houston played in last Friday's preseason loss to Tampa Bay, finishing with three combined tackles and an assist on special teams. He was drafted with rushing the passer in mind, and Crennel said the team believes he can pressure opposing quarterbacks — in time.
"He hasn't played many games and doesn't know what the NFL is about yet," Crennel said, "so lets him get his feet wet and then we can talk about what he may or may not be."
Haley said the fact that, about a week after a practice in which Houston continually removed his helmet and took a knee after a shuttle run drill, the rookie held up during the preseason game was a source of encouragement.
"That was a good sign," Haley said, "and to me, that's what I feel best about right now: That despite being a young guy on his own for the last two or three months, or more really, he's done a good job having himself physically in a position to have a chance to compete."
Before camp began, Houston was a candidate to perhaps start opposite Tamba Hali at outside linebacker. Mike Vrabel retired and became an assistant coach at Ohio State, leaving a vacancy in the lineup that the versatile and dogged Andy Studebaker or the hyped Houston — who had 18 1/2 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his final year with Georgia — was expected to fill. Houston's late arrival and climb back toward proper conditioning hindered his chances to begin the season in the starting lineup, but that hasn't halted talk about what the Chiefs would like to see from the youngster this preseason.
"I'd like to see about 20 tackles a game and 13 sacks," Crennel said, joking. "... If I could see that, that would be great."
But what do the Chiefs expect to see from him?
"About two sacks, maybe, if he's lucky," the coordinator said. "A couple mental errors, but generally, he'll give good effort."
Crennel said Houston's coverage ability is better than expected, and his upper-body strength and pass-rushing ability has made an impression.
"He's a young man," Crennel said, "that I think has a lot of potential."
The Chiefs seem to be geared toward bringing Houston along slowly. He's listed as the third-string outside linebacker, behind Studebaker and second-year defender Cameron Sheffield. Haley said the listing is by design, at least in part.
"We've got to resist the urge to give these guys too much too early," he said, "because we will miss an evaluation or two, I'm sure, just strictly off somebody being a little behind, trying to sort things out and then not playing to their ability. Just trying to keep it fairly simple for all these guys and get a good, accurate reading on where they are."
Crennel and Haley said they are hopeful that Houston might eventually emerge as the player who the team envisioned on the draft's second day, when the young defender's mistakes in a sense benefited the Chiefs; he was considered perhaps a first-round talent who dropped into the third round.
Now, the team will wait for the final result of its risk.
"For where he started," Haley said, "he's progressed nicely. But that doesn't mean that he's caught up, by any means."