How the Chargers' Derwin James Is Forever Redefining the Safety Position

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistDecember 5, 2018

Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) gestures after intercepting a pass from Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo )

A mural of Derwin James is painted on a wall outside Baby Blues BBQ on busy Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach, California. Across the street is another mural, of Ronda Rousey. Around the corner is Gold's Gym, the place Arnold Schwarzenegger made famous. About a mile-and-a-half away is Muscle Beach.

There's no mistaking this is L.A.

Painted a month or so ago, the mural is about 15 feet high, maybe 20 feet wide, and shows James in his Chargers jersey, arms folded, coming out of a ROKiT phone.

The artist responsible for the mural, Jonas Never, is a Los Angeles native who also has done murals of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kirk Gibson, Fernando Valenzuela and Todd Gurley.

James, the 22-year-old rookie safety, is keeping good company.

"When the Chargers and ROKiT approached me to do this, we wanted to identify an L.A. Charger through and through, not a guy from the old San Diego team," Never says. "Derwin is having a breakout rookie campaign and he was our first thought."

Already, James belongs here.

It also was clear he belonged when he stepped in front of Rams tight end Gerald Everett in the end zone and stretched to pick off Jared Goff. It was obvious he belonged when he put a move on Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher to get by him and sack Patrick Mahomes from behind. And it was evident he belonged Sunday night against the Steelers when he intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass inside the Chargers' 10.

All of this, it seems, was meant to be.

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

James could have been drafted by a team that wanted him to play weak-side linebacker, free safety or strong safety. Instead, he went to a team that is playing him at all of those positions and others—the perfect fit for him.

Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen called him "a linebacker and a corner in one player." But that is a partial description.

According to James, he has played every position in the Chargers defense except middle linebacker and nose tackle. He has been at strong safety about 50 percent of the time and free safety about 40 percent of the time. The other 10 percent of the time he has split between nickel corner, outside corner, edge-rusher, defensive end, strong-side linebacker and weak-side linebacker.

The offense never knows where to find him. "If he becomes a guy where offenses are very aware of where he is on the field, then you want to keep deploying him in different spots," Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley says. "At times, you'd like him as a rusher. At times, you like him in the middle third. At times, you like him in the box. So I think it's just making sure you want to have him around the ball as much as possible."

He has made plays moving forward, moving backward and moving sideways, leaping high and going low, in the backfield and downfield. He has mixed it up with 320-pound offensive tackles, slammed into thick-thighed running backs and dropped into coverage against wide receivers who move like house flies.

Being around the ball is what James enjoys most. "In the box, I feel they have to account for me in the run game, or I can blitz off the edge," says James, a leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. "When I'm at free, they don't have to deal with me as much as when I'm at strong, so at strong I feel like I'm able to impose my will more."

If there is a pile of players when the Chargers defense is on the field, chances are James is on the bottom of it. He leads the team in tackles with 81 and passes defended with 12. According to Pro Football Focus, he has 48 pass-rush snaps, four sacks, 15 pressures, two hits and nine hurries, and his pass-rush productivity grade of 21.1 is second best in the NFL among players with at least 25 rushes.

James recently started working on his pass-rush moves with Chargers defensive line coach Giff Smith, but Bradley says he came to the Chargers as a fairly well developed pass-rusher.

He also has instincts that are rare for a rookie. Bradley recalls a play against the Bills in which James flew past tight end Logan Thomas into the backfield, where Josh Allen was faking a handoff to LeSean McCoy. Instead of tackling McCoy, James bypassed the running back and went straight for Allen, tackling him for a loss of six yards.

"Nine out of 10 people would have tackled Shady in that situation," Bradley says. "But somehow, he saw it, felt it and knew it. At that moment, I went, 'Wow.'"

Prior to this year, whenever James played Madden, he created a player to be as much like him as possible. He doesn't have to do that anymore. "I'm nice on Madden," he says. "My ratings go up every week, and they got me up there pretty good. That's kind of priceless right there."

At 6'2", 215 pounds, with 33-inch arms, a 40-inch vertical and a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, James is what Chargers safety Jahleel Addae calls a "freak of nature." Says Addae, "He can play both safeties, run, hit, play the deep ball. The way he rushes the passer, it's like he's a premier rush end."

Many have compared him to his former Florida State teammate Jalen Ramsey. Bradley, who coached Ramsey with the Jaguars, notices similarities. Both are tall, explosive, athletic and passionate about the game.

In an offseason interview, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said the way James moves reminds him of the late Sean Taylor. Chargers backup quarterback Geno Smith says he's a cross between Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. James reminds Chargers tight end Virgil Green of Ed Reed.

And there is another comparison that is even more apropos to Green—The Flash. "I've seen him go from one side of the field to the other and get a pick," Green says. "It's like watching The Flash. He zooms."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Most NFL teams won't tolerate rookies who act like veterans, so early on, James mostly suppressed his urge to lead.

Throughout training camp, he kept making plays. Then, shortly before the season opener, head coach Anthony Lynn broke tradition and called a rookie to the middle of the team huddle at the conclusion of a practice.

"Derwin, break us down," he said.

"Guys, let's look at the opportunity we have, the type of team we have, and let's continue to work hard and grind every day," James said to the faces all around him.

Looking back now, James says, "That was a good day."

Ever since, James has been an accepted leader. Smith says James has become more and more vocal as he's made more and more plays.

James earned respect by practicing hard and preparing well. "A lot of times, you see a guy drafted where he was drafted, and they come in like they are God's gift to earth," Green says. "That's not him. He works his tail off every day, tries to learn the game, asks a lot of questions."

James says quarterback Philip Rivers has helped him by pointing out some of his tendencies. James, according to Addae, has tried to pay it forward by helping others, pointing out things he picks up on tape when he meets with other defensive backs.

He also isn't shy about standing up to teammates. "It's hard for a player, I don't care who you are, to call somebody else out, or to challenge somebody," Bradley says. "Not many guys can do it. He's doing it now as a rookie. That's who he is. It's not like, 'Man you're a rookie.' The respect is there. No one blinks. He has a way of saying it where people don't feel like he's attacking them. He's doing it because it's so important to him."

One member of the team says he thinks if teammates held a vote today, James would be elected a captain.

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 16: Derwin James #33 of the Los Angeles Chargers warms up before the start of NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 16, 2018 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

James spoke his first word when he was four months old.

"Ball," he said.

"We were just laying in bed and he say, 'Ball,'" his mother, Shanita Russell, says. "It came out of nowhere. But he loved balls."

He had a collection of balls and was obsessed with them. His mom had to stop taking him on grocery runs to Publix or Winn-Dixie because he would see a display of balls and throw a tantrum to get one.

When he was learning to walk, he pulled himself up on end tables in the family's living room. And then he pushed the end tables, as if they were blocking sleds. "I was like, how could he move them?" Russell says. "He was so strong."

At the age of two, he learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels. When he was four, he became mesmerized watching his father coach older kids in flag football. "I've never seen a four-year-old so tuned into a game," his mother says.

Tony Parnell met James when they were six years old. They were on the same Pop Warner team, and they didn't lose a game for five straight years. "When I first saw him in pads, I knew," Parnell says. "He was ahead of his time, doing things you really can't teach to someone who is that young."

While his friends were playing video games, James was outside throwing around a football. "All day, every day, eat, sleep football," he says. "That's what separated me. When I wasn't playing it, I was watching football You Tube videos."

Contact came naturally. Even collisions with automobiles didn't faze him. When James was eight, he raced home on his bike to try to make his curfew after a football game went long, only to collide with a car at an intersection. He needed four staples in his head.

It was the first of two times he would be hit by that same car—the second time he cut up his knees. Another time, he drove his bike into a parked car while fleeing a friend who was trying to shoot him with a BB gun. He paid the price with a swollen knee.

James says he knew he wanted to play for Florida State when he was in first grade. When he was in eighth grade, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher called his mother to invite James to visit campus with a group of high school juniors who were being recruited. She thought it was a prank. James went, and Fisher offered him a full scholarship before he ever played a down of high school football.

When he started playing in high school, James figured he would be a quarterback and running back—the positions he primarily played in Pop Warner. If he wanted to play on offense, however, he was going to have to play on the junior varsity team.

He agreed to play safety because there was a spot for him at the position on varsity. In his first game, he had two interceptions. From then on, he would be a safety—albeit a safety who also played some quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback and defensive end.

By the time he was a senior, Rivals.com rated him the best safety in the country. When James was a freshman at Florida State, he was voted Co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year by the Florida State coaches. He went on to become a two-time All-ACC player.

Football was in his blood. He's cousins with former NFL players Edgerrin James, Mike James and Karlos Williams, and current NFL player Vince Williams. Everyone knew he would follow them. The only question is who would draft him.

James grew up about an hour from Tampa. When the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2003, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp were his guys. The Bucs had the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft and needed a safety.

James to the Bucs seemed like a natural fit. Before the draft, the Bucs requested a private workout. No, he said. James had already run the 40-yard dash and completed the vertical jump, the broad jump, the bench press and positional drills at the NFL combine. He did the short shuttle and the three-cone drill at Florida State's pro day. And he didn't plan on doing anything else.

The Bucs were not pleased with this and let him know it. But he wasn't concerned. He was living in Southern California, working out at Proactive Sports Performance on the advice of his agency, Athlete's First.

On draft night, the Bucs traded down from the seventh pick. They ended up with the 12th pick and passed James again. When he dropped out of the top 12, James was discouraged. Then the Chargers called when they were on the clock with the 17th pick.

Those were the same Chargers whose facilities were a five-minute drive from where James had been living and training. "I loved Cali," he says. "I was hoping to come to Cali. But my agent was like, no way, you'll be gone way before then."

James is an interesting mix, part Florida country, part Tinseltown glitter. He can take you around to the best lakes in Central Florida to catch bass, catfish and mullet. And he can show you where to shop for Gucci or Louis Vuitton in downtown L.A.

He can get dirty, and he can clean up.

Smith, a veteran quarterback who has experienced almost all the NFL has to offer from coast to coast, has a name for James—"The Golden Child." He makes a point of calling him that before every game. "You're special," Smith tells him. "This is why you are here. This is why you were a first-round pick. Because you are chosen."

James does not argue. "God has blessed me with size, speed, power," he says. "He pretty much blessed me with everything I could want."

Before the draft, Russell prayed the Bucs would not draft her son. Even though she was a Bucs fan, she thought he would not do well there. "I'm very pleased with where he went," she says. "Everybody has somewhere they fit. He fits there. The market is good in California. Derwin is the type of guy who loves to style. It's perfect for him."

Now, it's difficult to imagine him in anything but Chargers blue and gold.

"Why did he say ball as his first word?" Russell asks.

We know the answer.

"Every step he made," she says, "it was all toward this. Everybody has their destiny in life. This was his."


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