Chargers Won the NFL Draft and Are Now Contenders Again in the AFC

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 30, 2018

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26:  Derwin James of FSU poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #17 overall by the Los Angeles Chargers during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium on April 26, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers are followed by misery. Often, it comes in soul-crushing fashion, too. 

The sort of misery that led to four losses by a field goal or less in 2016, and then three more during a four-game losing streak to begin 2017. And worse, the sort of misery that kept them from the playoffs even when they went 9-3 through the rest of 2017.

The Chargers' early-season hole was a little too deep. But the bright lights of the postseason are well within reach for a team led offensively by wide receiver Keenan Allen and his 102 catches for 1,393 yards. And defensively by the tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram after the pass-rushing pair combined for 23 sacks in 2017.

They're teetering on that playoff hump and just need a gentle nudge to roll down the other side. The Chargers' 2018 draft did so much more than that by building on an existing defensive strength and turning it into an intimidating unit capable of challenging the typical AFC powerhouses.

The most important draft ingredient in that process was first-round pick Derwin James, the dynamic safety who was quickly given the customary Snoop Dogg greeting upon arrival in Los Angeles. His game film from Florida State is filled with instinctive play during which he's always hovering around the ball.

Days later, it's still baffling that James, one of the best overall defenders in the draft, was available for the Chargers to steal all the way down at No. 17. Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller had him coming off the board four picks earlier, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers way up at No. 7 were the unanimous pick among the analysts at NFL.com, including Mike Mayock.

That James was still unclaimed in the back half of the first round was a gift. The Chargers happily pounced and added a bulked-up, swarming safety to a secondary that's already rising.

James is 6'2" and 215 pounds, and at the scouting combine he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. That's a turf-burning time at his size, and it was only the start of James' combine dominance. He also showed off his quick-twitch athleticism with a 40-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 132 inches.

He blends size and speed with quality vision, which results in a complete package that enables him to make plays deep and near the line of scrimmage. The 21-year-old recorded 84 tackles (5.5 for a loss), two interceptions and 11 passes defensed during his final season with the Seminoles.

But that only scratches the surface with James. We have to dive deeper to fully appreciate his shutdown presence.

James does everything at a high level. As Eric Eager and George Chahrouri of Pro Football Focus observed, he allowed a passer rating in coverage of just 58.1 during his collegiate career. And just as impressively, he generated 38 pressures when asked to blitz.

He can wreak havoc and be a disruptive force from anywhere, meaning James will slide in seamlessly to a league that's placed an increased importance on versatility among defensive backs.

He has the agility to be relied on as a nickelback while shadowing shifty slot receivers or hulking tight ends. He has the ball skills to be the last line of defense as a deep safety. And he has the tackling instincts to essentially function as another linebacker.

Derwin James recorded 186 tackles (15 for loss) and 5.5 sacks for Florida State.
Derwin James recorded 186 tackles (15 for loss) and 5.5 sacks for Florida State.Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

He's the ideal multitool for Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who has a creative mind and maximized the talents of similar players during his time in the same position with the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, Bradley has the pieces in place to orchestrate a weekly defensive onslaught and make his unit one of the league's most feared. James joins a defense that stumbled early in 2017 but then allowed just 14.9 points per game from Week 5 onward. Led by cornerback Casey Hayward and his 11 interceptions over the past two seasons, the Chargers secondary ranked third in 2017 while allowing only 197.3 yards per game.

In 2018, the Bolts will be suffocating passing offenses even more after plugging in James and getting cornerback Jason Verrett back from injury. It's a group that can swallow up most of the clean looks opposing quarterbacks get.

Those could be exceedingly rare after the Chargers' successful draft continued in the second round when they grabbed outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, the USC product who exploded during his senior year for 9.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

Nwosu demonstrated one of the most important qualities in a pass-rusher: the ability to generate pressure and contribute consistently, even when he's not getting all the way home for a sack. As PFF also noted, he led the draft class in two important categories:

Nwosu also notched 61 pressures in 2017, which ranked second among draft-eligible Power Five edge-defenders. He'll bolster an already lethal pass rush that finished tied for fifth in 2017 with 43 sacks.

The Chargers used the first four of their seven picks on the defensive side of the ball. That also included defensive tackle Justin Jones in the third round. He's a run-stuffer up the middle who recorded 108 tackles over three seasons for North Carolina State. With 8.5 sacks, Jones contributed as a pass-rusher, too, and penetrated the backfield to tally 22.5 tackles for loss.

He could quickly develop into a rotational defender and help with the Chargers' only glaring defensive weakness: a run defense that was gashed for 131.1 yards per game in 2017 (31st).

The Chargers made a strength stronger through the depth provided by Jones and the injection of athleticism both up front and in the defensive backfield with the additions of James and Nwosu. Now, a defense that was already growing to become the centerpiece of the team is well-positioned for another bounding leap forward.

It's a defense that can push the Chargers to the top of their division and conference, and maybe even further.

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