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Justin Houston's NFL Success a Lesson to Teams That Run Scared on Draft Day

Justin Houston's NFL Success a Lesson to Teams That Run Scared on Draft Day
Kyle Rivas/Getty Images 

It was four years ago, early in 2011, and a general manager was on the phone, ranting. He interrupted himself to pose a question: How could Justin Houston be so damn stupid?
Then, the rant continued. Houston would never make it as a pro. He doesn't have the head for it. Or the work ethic. He is destined to be a failure. Why? The reason, this general manager explained, was because Houston had failed a combine drug test, for marijuana.
The combine drug test is called an "intelligence test" by teams, because players invited to the combine know months in advance when the test is coming. No one should ever fail it. But a select few seem to every year, and that year Houston did.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Houston at the 2011 combine.
Thus the general manager's rant. To some (perhaps many) team executives in the sport, a failed combine drug test is one of the most egregious mistakes a prospect can make. (It shouldn't be seen that way, but it is.) The executive criticizing Houston wasn't alone. More than a few were hammering him to me and other journalists.
And the criticism of Houston didn't stop with just words. Before the failed test, Houston was a certain first-round pick. In fact, there were some in the league who felt he was a top-10 player. But the failed test caused Houston to fall to the third round, 70th overall.
Some players drafted ahead of Houston were Christian Ponder, Nick Fairley and Blaine Gabbert: maybe a bust, probably a bust and definitely a bust.
Houston was supposed to be a cautionary tale, and maybe in some ways he still is one. But something else happened entirely.
There is an obvious lesson here. Should Houston have failed that drug test? No, of course not. But passing on him until the third round was a stupendously dumb overreaction by teams.
We see just how dumb four years later. Houston just signed a massive six-year, $101 million contract with the Chiefs, representing just how flawed teams' draft preparation and strategy can be.
What the combine's athletic and football tests show is the potential for physical growth; how fast a player can be and how high he can jump and how far he can throw. What the combine lacks, what it has always lacked, is projecting maturity. How does a player rebound from mistakes like, say, getting busted for a pot test at the combine?
To some teams, a failed test means a player shouldn't be drafted as early as planned. There is almost a form of collusion, with clubs collectively declining to draft the player, until one team breaks away from the pack and does.
There is also the fact that drafting players later for what is a relatively minor offense saves the team money. 
Houston did something that a lot of teams apparently didn't think to expect:
He grew up. He grew quickly.
"He's one of the top players in the National Football League and a premier pass-rusher," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said in a statement sent to reporters. "As we've said from the beginning, Justin the football player, and the person, is someone we wanted to be a part of our organization. We are very happy that he will remain a member of the Chiefs."
In a conference call with reporters, Houston said, "Once you get paid, it's not like you won the lottery. You still got work to do. You still have to prove yourself. You can still get better each and every day, so that's my goal."
If you're the Chiefs, that's exactly what you want to hear.
I'm told by a source on the Chiefs that Houston has become so trusted in the organization "he's basically a de facto assistant coach."
It's obviously not a shock the Chiefs totally trust Houston. They just handed him $52.5 million in guarantees. They had better trust him.
Please, don't misunderstand; this is to not to say Houston will never get in trouble. He might. Despite his superhuman abilities, he's still a person with flaws, like all of us.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press
Tyrann Mathieu
In the past year or so, when the NFL's headlines have been bleaker than the Plutonianlandscape, here is a guy who seemingly has figured it out and was rewarded for it. As he should have been.
He's not alone. One of the more remarkable transformations has been Arizona safety TyrannMathieu. Mathieu had a well-documented drug problem at LSU, but players on the Cardinals tell me he has been nothing but the consummate professional. If Mathieu can stay healthy, he might go down as one of the enduring success stories in recent league history.
No, no player should fail a combine drug test for pot, yet it also shouldn't be a near-career death sentence, either.
No matter how much a general manager yells about it.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.