Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Houston seems to be one of the most valuable players on the team, providing experience and talent in a secondary that desperately needs both.
"I hear that, but I don't feel pressure," Houston said Tuesday. "I still feel like I still have to prove myself. Nobody cares about what I did last year right now."
He did a lot.
Houston made a career-high five interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, last season and helped Detroit end an 11-year postseason drought.
Detroit (No. 11 in the AP Pro32) relies on the Ndamukong Suh-led defensive line and Stephen Tulloch-anchored linebacking corps, but Houston has perhaps the most important role on defense.
Rookie cornerback Bill Bentley is projected to start opposite Houston, which likely will lead to schemes being set up to help Bentley, and veteran safety Louis Delmas struggles to stay healthy.
"The biggest thing he can do with the guys around him is to lead by example," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "And the good news is, he's got that handled because he comes to work every day trying to get better. You never hear the coaches get on him about making mistakes because he's so consistent."
The Atlanta Falcons didn't regard Houston in the same way.
Atlanta drafted him out of Arkansas early in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. They dealt him to Detroit two years ago for a pair of late-round picks after he made a total of three interceptions in 37 starts over his first three seasons in the NFL.
"The Falcons didn't think I could make enough interceptions so they traded me," Houston recalled. "I've been making plays ever since I got here, so that makes me feel good.
"But I've always felt like the underdog and nobody really gives me credit, but I like that. You get respect when teams aren't throwing many balls your way."
That might happen a lot this season.
Teams probably will pick on Bentley and nickel back Jacob Lacey until they prove they can play well on a regular basis before they throw toward receivers blanketed by Houston.
"I want to establish my dominance early so that teams know if they throw my way, I'm going to get a pick or I'm going to bat it down," Houston said. "I am confident in my ability, but once you get too high on yourself, you're in trouble. I want to work like I haven't done anything, like I'm trying to make the team and make a statement."
The 27-year-old Houston has made nine career interceptions and defended 60 passes in his career that includes 65 starts and 73 games.
"He's a young veteran," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He's played a lot of football in the NFL, but he's still young and you know he's very steady from week to week. Chris is a guy that you can count on to get the job done, makes very few mistakes in a game."
Atlanta might think it made a mistake by dealing Houston, and the Lions may regret not re-signing him if he has another good season in the last year of his contract.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has said he doesn't expect to extend contracts of the many players, including Houston, who are entering the last year of their contracts until after the season starts.
Houston said he has to keep that topic in the back of his mind, keeping faith that everything will work out for him financially.
"I believe I'll get what I deserve when the deal is over," he said.
Notes: WR Calvin Johnson (left index finger), WR Ryan Broyles (left knee) and S Don Carey (left hamstring) returned to practice. ... DT Nick Fairley appeared to twist his left knee, leaving him limping, but he stayed in practice and did extra conditioning after it was finished. ... LT Jeff Backus (back), LB Stephen Tulloch (left knee), DT Sammie Hill (back) and RB Mikel Leshoure (right hamstring) were among the players who didn't practice. Leshoure can't play in the regular season until Week 3, but said that isn't leading to the team being more cautious with his comeback. "I don't think the fact that I'm out for the first two weeks has anything to do with it," Leshoure said.