Ranking 2018 Safety Class: Derwin James

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Have you forgotten about Derwin James? I don’t think anyone has, really. But I’m here to remind you: Derwin James. The dude’s an absolute stud.

James came in as a rookie and was dominant. He played 99% of the snaps on defense, more than any other defender, and did it in a variety of roles. Per PFF’s charting, Derwin took 200-plus snaps aligned on the defensive line, in the slot, as a deep safety, and in the box. The mental load of an NFL playbook can be prohibitive to early rookie impacts—such wasn’t the case with James. He lined up everywhere and made plays everywhere, becoming just the third rookie defender in NFL history to accumulate three-plus sacks, three-plus INTs, and 100 total tackles (Brian Cushing and Lofa Tatupu).

Everyone thought James would be good coming out, and he was. Everyone thought his NFL career might be special, and for that rookie season, it was. But the difficult thing about evaluating James’ career is that we can’t really find an arc. James missed all but the final five games of his 2019 season with a fractured metatarsal, and then tore his meniscus in training camp before the 2020 season, losing the entire season. What James was as a rookie represents 80% of the film we have on him. And what he was, was great! But there’s been some time between now and then.

If James comes back at full health after his multiple lower-body injuries, thinking about what he offers the Los Angeles Chargers defense is an exciting proposition. As Robert Mays of The Athletic wrote during the season, an important characteristic of the Brandon Staley defense in Los Angeles was the focus on the “star” role—a slot coverage player with the size necessary to participate in the run fit, cover tight ends, or blitz effectively. Staley often played Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey in this alignment, despite the fact that he’s largely considered an outside cornerback, because of the great demand for physical versatility in this role. As one of the best athletes in the back seven across the league, Ramsey was able to fill those shoes comfortably.

Now, another ‘Nole will be asked to step into those shoes: Derwin James. 

Ramsey and James both had pre-draft conversations around potential position switches, given their elite athletic ability. Though both ended up sticking at their traditional positions, this star alignment utilizes the fact that both have the tools of legit slot corners as well as legit safeties. As NFL Network’s Mike Silver noted here, Ramsey would only play star occasionally, and otherwise stick as an outside corner; James, when he isn’t playing star, will instead line up as a traditional safety, taking on the job that got John Johnson a three-year, $33.75M contract with the Cleveland Browns this past offseason.

Staley is heralded as a defensive savant, and rightfully so—he’s doing a lot of awesome things. Before Staley and this sudden explosion in two-high pre-snap looks with dynamic post-snap changes, there was the Seattle Cover 3 defense. Way more static in the back seven, the Seattle Cover 3 still had room for a versatile player like James, as James’ rookie season defensive coordinator was Gus Bradley, the ex-Seahawks DC and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. And yet, all that versatility in alignments and roles remained.

The Chargers could line James up as a deep middle safety and have him take away shot plays other safeties couldn’t dream of addressing…

...or as a deep half safety to offer cloud support against an elite wide receiver, like 2018 Antonio Brown…

...if they lined up in the box, he still had the play recognition and range to sink underneath deep crossers and affect the pass…

...close on underneath patterns with bad intentions…

...stay in man coverage and make explosive plays on the ball…

...or win quickly on edge blitzes to immediately collapse the pocket.

It is important to note the variety of coverage techniques that James had to play here. With each alignment and responsibility comes different angles from which to see the game, and different requirements in terms of body positioning, footwork, and timing. For James to be so comfortable playing in press, in zone drops, in bail, in deep zones… it’s just not regular for a rookie.

This is the coverage ability that Staley wants to maximize with James playing star. Sure, he’s gonna look great closing from deep like Johnson, but that’s something a fair number of quality safeties in the league can do well. Nobody in the safety rooms across the NFL—and I really mean nobody—can line up and play coverage like James can. Not Jamal Adams with all of his versatile alignments; not Tyrann Mathieu with his otherworldly instincts. They don’t have these God-given gifts.

After James’ rookie season, plenty of people would have told you he was the best young safety in the league and well on his way to being the best safety outright. Somehow, despite the fact that he’s missed 27 of the next 32 games, that arc remains uninterrupted. James’ rookie film remains more impressive than anything I’ve seen from Minkah Fitzpatrick in Pittsburgh or Jessie Bates in Cincinnati or Darnell Savage in Green Bay, and another healthy season for James should launch him right back into the top of the safety conversation league-wide.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Senior CFB Writer

Benjamin Solak is a Senior College Football Writer for The Draft Network and co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft podcast.

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