The 2017 NFL season was a weird one for the newly minted Los Angeles Chargers. It began with the unpopular move to the city that had just acquired the Rams a year ago. Then, the Chargers opened the season losing four straight games, three of which were by a score of three or less, before winning nine of their last 12 matches.
Despite having one of the best passing offenses in the league last year, led by Philip Rivers’ second-best 4,515 total passing yards, along with a top-tier passing defense, Los Angeles finished the season with a 9-7 record and barely missed the playoffs. As a result, they were rewarded the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Such a spot can potentially be a problem, as the player available may not be one that can have an immediate impact, thus leaving the team in a relatively similar position to before they made the pick. However, the Chargers found some draft night magic, and were able to snag Florida State safety Derwin James, a defender slotted to be unavailable by the time Los Angeles made their pick.
The fact that James was still on the board at number 17 took everyone by surprise. His ultra-athletic abilities and strength not often seen in his position made him a coveted prospect. At the combine, he was tagged as a top performer in bench press, knocking out 21 reps, in the vertical jump, showing off his 40 inch vertical, and in the broad jump, leaping 132 inches. His showing at the combine was so strong that NFL.com gave him a prospect grade of 6.44, deeming him an instant starter.
Anyone watching Florida State football could have told you James had all the makings of an excellent NFL defender. He came in second on the team in total tackles, with 84, and his 5.5 tackles for a loss were the most of any defensive back. He also led all players in passes defended, with 11, and was tied for most interceptions, with two, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
What makes James so dangerous is his field vision. This is how he is able to snuff out if a play is pass or run, follow the action as it unfolds, and make a play on the ball, whether that be break up or intercept a pass, or take down the ball carrier. With James’ strength, it isn’t very often that an offensive player breaks free from one of his tackles.
On almost any other NFL team, James would be an unquestioned starter, and the de facto enforcer of the defense. However, as previously mentioned, the Chargers have an excellent pass defense, which is by no accident. Casey Hayward has been a revelation at cornerback since coming from Green Bay, and Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston are a fearsome duo at the safety position.
In fact, Addae and Boston were the team’s leaders in total tackles, Addae leading the way, with 96, and Boston right behind, with 79. Boston also led Los Angeles in interceptions, with five. These numbers aren’t just fluff either; the Chargers were third in the NFL in total passing yards allowed and passing yards per game, with 3,156 and 197, respectively. The 63 percent completion percentage they gave the opposing quarterback was middle of the pack, but the team’s 6.5 yards-per-reception was tied for third least overall.
This gives the Chargers an interesting, but overall, good dilemma. Depending on offseason performance, it is possible James takes one of the two starting safety spots, but it would come as no surprise if Addae and Boston were back on the field for the first defensive series. That’s no reason to assume James won’t see extended playing time, as he has incredible versatility, and can line up at multiple positions.
In specific situations, James will be slotted as either a cornerback or linebacker. As a corner, James’ 6-foot, 2-inch frame allows him to match up well with almost any receiver. Although speed isn’t one of James’ strongest attributes, he has the strength to disrupt a receiver’s route at the start of the play, and the athleticism to make a play on the ball in tight coverage.
The role of linebacker will put James closer to the initial offensive action. If a blitz is called, he will be a nightmare to block, and could easily find himself in the backfield to disrupt a play at its inception. If asked to drop into coverage, James has more than enough experience to do that as well. Although tight ends will most likely have a few inches on him, James’ athleticism and ball tracking capabilities should even out his height disadvantage.
After the turmoil that marred the beginning of last season, the tide seems to be turning in the Chargers’ favor. If the team remains healthy, they will have a host of weapons. On offense, Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon, and wide receiver Keenan Allen are an unstoppable trio. On defense, the sack machines of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, along with the aforementioned strong secondary, give Los Angeles an almost unmovable wall.
That doesn’t even factor in the impact that James will have for the team. If he isn’t a week one starter, he will eventually find his way into the starting lineup, and has the potential to be the leader of the defense. It is rare that a player like James tumbles to the middle of the first round of the NFL draft, and Los Angeles was wise to ensure he fell no further.
Now the Chargers have all of the makings of a championship team, one that will not be underestimated in 2018. Not only are they set for the short term, but young defenders like Bosa and James also ensure the team will have a potent defense for years to come.