James Houston didn't make the Detroit Lions 53-man roster heading into last season, as is common for many sixth-round rookies. Coming out of a small school (Jackson State, albeit by way of Florida), the learning curve to the NFL was steep and he needed that extra development time. It never seemed to be a question of the coaching staff believing in him.
Charles Harris going on IR created an opportunity for Houston to be elevated to the Lions' active roster, before the Thanksgiving Day game against the Buffalo Bills. He wasted no time becoming a force, sacking Bills quarterback Josh Allen twice over just five defensive snaps in his debut. That started a four-game sack streak, before another stand out performance (three sacks) in Week 17 against the Chicago Bears.
All told, Houston had eight sacks in just 140 defensive snaps as a rookie. But it almost didn't happen. In a Lions' uniform anyway.
James Houston was ready to quit on the Lions before his debut
In wide-ranging new piece on Houston from Tyler Dunne of GoLongTD, which is well worth your time, the Lions' second-year edge rusher talked about his frustration with not making the active roster out of camp as a rookie.
"Did I deserve to be cut? I didn’t think so. It was a tough situation.” I’m feeling left out. This is the same thing -- nobody wants me. I’m underappreciated. It’s the same old b******t," said Houston. "At first, I was really upset. I wanted to leave. I wanted to go somewhere else. Because I just felt like they didn’t know how to use me and they didn’t know what type of player I was.”"
It goes deeper, to before his eventual NFL debut.
"Shortly after his 24th birthday, in mid-November, he told his girlfriend enough was enough. He planned a “slow exit” from the sport. He decided to ask Dad about his real estate exploits back in South Florida and to find a second job in Detroit to stay sane the final seven weeks and ever so slowly off-ramp this whole football thing.- Tyler Dunne, GoLongTD
Quit. For good."
Houston did acknowledge the importance of his time on the practice squad. A particular note passed along by Dunne reflected what he took away from working against left tackle Taylor Decker.
"If a specific rush didn’t work, Houston would ask Decker what he’d absolutely not want a pass rusher to do in that situation. Where he was exposed. Decker, an open book, would say he’s susceptible to an inside move.- Tyler Dunne, GoLongTD.com
To which, Houston perfected an inside rush.
So went this song and dance. Each practice."
Houston is looking to become a complete player in his second season, with more responsibilities as an outside "SAM" linebacker (i.e. coverage) beyond pinning his ears back and trying to make life tough for opposing quarterbacks. Any thoughts of quitting are clearly gone now, but his early rookie season frustration is easy to understand and it has now been illuminated.