James Houston turned out to be one of the feel-good stories for the Detroit Lions in 2022.
The rookie sixth-round draft pick out of Jackson State was cut after training camp, spent the first 11 weeks of the season on the practice squad, and when finally given an opportunity to play the last seven games of the season produced 8.0 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
But there were admittedly some dark days for Houston early on in his Lions tenure not really having a set position or a role. He was lost in the shuffle during training camp and even contemplated quitting football altogether at one point.
"That was very rewarding for me because honestly starting from the beginning when I got cut and the weeks on the practice squad, I was very depressed," Houston told detroitlions.com after the season. "I was just like, 'Man, I don't know if I really want to do this anymore.' I didn't really know if I wanted to play football anymore just because the practice squad role isn't what I wanted for myself, and it was tough for me."
Houston stuck with it, and slowly but surely he started to get noticed. He gave left tackle Taylor Decker everything he could handle at practice, to the point where a month before Houston was promoted to the active roster for the team's Thanksgiving Day game vs. Buffalo, Decker was asking offensive line coach Hank Fraley why the heck Houston wasn't on the roster yet.
"Coach Campbell talking to me every week trying to get me up telling me to 'be ready, be ready' and it not happening during those weeks was frustrating," Houston said.
But then injuries to Charles Harris and Julian Okwara opened the door for Houston to get his opportunity, and the 24-year-old stepped in and never looked back.
"Finally getting my opportunity I knew I had to show out and shine and doing that was so gratifying to me and I'm just so grateful they gave me the opportunity," Houston said.
Houston's production in the final seven games of the season has raised the bar and the expectations for him in 2023. He's already thinking about how he can improve his game this offseason.
"Just improving overall, my body, strength, speed, everything," he said of his offseason plans. "Getting with the coaches and understanding the scheme and understanding how I fit into the defense and the role I'll be playing. Then just executing as much as a I can in that role they give me."
Houston is in a really good place heading into the offseason where there isn't a question about whether he's a stacked linebacker or edge rusher, questions the Lions were debating after taking him in the draft last year and questions that lingered well into training camp.
There's no question Houston has a unique bend and burst with the ability to affect the quarterback, and the Lions view his ceiling as being pretty high.
"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, and I've got a lot of faith in that because I know how he wants to work," Lions general manager Brad Holmes said of Houston after the season.
"I mean I was with the Rams when we drafted (Eagles DE) Robert Quinn, and I thought Robert Quinn probably had the most rare ability to bend around the edge. Didn't know when I was going to see that, but I would say that James, he's got a little bit of that ability to bend like that, and he's got a mean crossover and counter, and his arms are so long, I think that just really helps him out. So, if he just keeps working, he can be as good as he wants to be."