Anyone else still trying to figure out how Derwin James fell to pick No. 17? In terms of size, athletic ability, film and production, James checked every box. In today’s NFL where defenses are challenged with defending every blade of grass on the field and offenses strive to create mismatches, James is the ultimate counter piece. Yet for some reason, he slid out of the top 10 and nearly the top 20.
The oversight was much to the delight of the Los Angeles Chargers who wisely snatched him up when James remained on the board when it was their turn to draft.
It’s only been two games but James has illustrated a versatile playmaking skill set and is primed to become one of the league’s best defenders as he evolves. In two games, James has 11 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 pass breakups and tackle for loss.
Let’s examine how James is being used and how he is producing.
James gets to do a bit of everything. As we work through these clips, notice the variety in the roles he asked to function in and how he remains impactful regardless with what he is tasked with executing. Because of James’ interchangeable skill set, the Chargers are able to be creative in how he is used and looks what the defense can run.
This first rep is a prime example of James’ nose for the football and instincts. Shooting inside Bills’ TE Logan Thomas, James arrives at the mesh point and makes a tackle for loss. James decision to attack inside leaves the defense vulnerable outside but his reactionary skills, preparation and athletic ability mitigates that risk and it results in a play being made behind the line of scrimmage. This play never had a chance for Buffalo and it’s because James has a playmakers mentality and sold out to a make a big play.
Using James in an attacking role is a good idea. With two sacks in two games, James is a skilled blitzer that executes with precise timing. Attacking on the defensive left side, James syncs up the snap, enables the defensive end to engage and force the offensive tackle to block the inside threat that has the shortest distance to the quarterback and leaves himself a clean rush angle to close in for the sack. James turns a tight angle and finishes. His football IQ, burst and flexibility makes this play possible. This play was not unlike his sack of Patrick Mahomes in Week 1. There will be plenty of sacks in his future.
From his days at Florida State, James has always been an effective short zone defender. His ability to read, react and finish are part of what makes him a blue chip talent.
Dropping into his zone, James quickly diagnoses the play designed and throw while showing off his impressive click and close ability. James is 10 yards away from Bills TE Jason Croom when the quarterback makes the decision to throw it his way and James greets him precisely as the ball arrives. The tackle was a terrific example of his controlled aggression, tackling form and contact power.
By now we’ve established how successful James can be playing forward in an attacking role. But make no mistake about it, the man can play as a deep safety and do it well.
The Chargers are in a dual coverage and when Bills’ TE Charles Clay continues his route vertically, it becomes a man coverage rep for James. This play speaks to James’ coverage awareness, spacing, eye discipline and ability to trust his technique by leveraging the route and undercutting the throw. Notice how natural he looks executing a somewhat complex coverage concept. He is under control and perfectly positioned to break on the football.
Although he is physical and aggressive defender, James is also capable of playing as a single high safety.
Perfectly diagnosing the route concepts in front of him, James is tasked with covering Chiefs’ WR De’Anthony Thomas who is pushing the defense vertically. James picks him up without hesitation, again proving his understanding for coverage spacing. While it appears Thomas is creating separation vertically, James is playing the ball which he quickly locates in the air. James tracks it precisely and swats it away with perfect timing for the PBU.
Whether it’s split zones, single high, man coverage or in the box, James can fill any role and make impact plays. A blossoming star, James is playing fundamentally sound with an aggressive mentality.
When Chargers’ defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was in Settle running the Seahawks defense, he enjoyed the services of Kam Chancellor who had a standout career. James has every bit of physical and mental upside to produce at an even higher level than Chancellor given his versatility.
With Eric Weddle and Rodney Harrison, the Chargers are accustomed to having premiere safety play. James is the next one in that legacy.