Derwin James: The Best Young Defensive Player in Football

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Los Angeles Chargers safety Jahleel Addae was astounded when he first saw his rookie teammate Derwin James in person. Addae’s description of James is spot-on: “He can rush the passer, he can cover man-to-man, he can play in the box, he can play free safety … he’s a jack-of-all-trades, man. He’s everything you’d want in a ballplayer.”

Derwin James was gifted with otherworldly athleticism. His unique blend of explosiveness, strength, and intelligence make him capable of serving any role that the Chargers need him to. He can line-up as a cornerback and cover receivers man-to-man, he can roam the field and play like a ball-hawk, he can match up against tight ends, he can rush the passer, he can stop the run. The list goes on. The Chargers knew what they were getting when they picked James with the 17th overall pick in the NFL Draft. They were getting a player who represents the new breed of NFL defenders.

With that being said, James’ ability to do everything on the field is not what makes him special. His ability to do everything on the field at an elite level is what makes him the best young defensive player in the NFL.

Coverage

Per Pro Football Focus, Derwin James’ coverage grade is the second best in the league among safeties. He also has the second most passes defended among safeties in the NFL. His ranking at the top of the league in coverage statistics as a 22-year-old is incredible.

 

On this play against the high-flying Chiefs offense, Derwin James guards De’Anthony Thomas who runs a fly route. Patrick Mahomes gets out of the pocket and delivers a beautiful pass on the run to Thomas, who is one of the fastest players in the NFL. James shows off his incredible athleticism by stretching out to bat down the pass.

 

In a tough red zone situation, Goff throws the pass to an open Gerald Everett. Well, he was open initially. James cuts off the pass beautifully and too quickly for Goff to anticipate. This was an interception for James — he has three on the year.

The value that James has for the Chargers’ defense is the greatest testament to his abilities. James isn’t just a skilled football player — he makes everybody around him better. That’s not teachable.

YearChargers' DVOA versus TEsLeague Rank
2018-60.9%1
20170.9%18

Derwin James often guards the tight end and the Chargers are significantly better in defending tight ends this season now that James is on the team.  James has allowed a passer rating of 16.7 when in coverage against tight ends. His presence substantially improves the defense.

 Chargers' DVOA versus Short PassesLeague Rank
2018-25.2%1
2017-9.8%12

James lines up at linebacker more than any other position. At linebacker, he would be defending short passes more often than not. Once again, the acquisition of Derwin James proved to be a huge boost to the defense even in his rookie season.

Pass Rush

It’s not common for an elite safety to be as efficient at getting after the quarterback as he is in coverage. Cardinals’ quarterback Josh Rosen said it best: “He’s a linebacker and a corner in one player.” According to Pro Football Focus, James’ pass-rush productivity grade is the second-highest in the NFL among players with at least 25 rushes. Not only is he leading all safeties this season in pressures, but he’s on pace to break the single-season record (in the PFF era) for pressures by a safety.

 

On the play after the diving swat previously mentioned, James notches a 3rd down sack to force a punt. James rushed from the right side and made a move on the left tackle, who was confused and let him go because Jatavis Brown was also rushing with James. Mahomes’ ability to get out of the pocket and evade pressure is stellar, but there’s no evading the pursuit of Derwin James.

 

James sneakily rushes from the edge, so San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens throws the quick pass to the running back. James makes the play by showing off his freakish athleticism. He’s able to climb the ladder with his 40-inch vertical, which was among the highest at the 2018 NFL Combine among defensive backs.

Tackling

Derwin James is more than capable of finishing on open field tackles. He can also make plays between the hashes on inside runs. James has the fifth most tackles for a safety this year and he has the most sacks of any player in the top ten.

 

On a dump off to running back James Conner, James quickly gets the tackle before Conner can cross the line of scrimmage. This is a textbook wrap-up: wrapping your arms around the legs. Doing it against a Pro Bowl running back makes it all the more impressive.

 

Once again, the opposing team completes a pass and James quickly reaches them to prevent any yards after the catch. It’s why the Chargers are the best short passing defense in the league. This is a play that Mahomes and Kelce are routinely able to convert — a short pass on 3rd down and the big-bodied Kelce is able to push beyond the first down marker. Not against Derwin James.

Attitude

Many players with the gifts of Derwin James are not able to reach their potential because of a shoddy work ethic or excessive arrogance. There’s no need to worry about that for the Chargers, though.

Jahleel Addae has been a mentor to James, a normal concept for first-year players in professional sports. Addae was pleasantly surprised to see that James’ ego was not inflated in any way. “It’s rare to see a young guy with so much talent, so much hype coming in, with such a desire to learn. He’s been all ears in meetings and when I explain stuff to him here and there.”

Back when he played at Florida State University, James’ eagerness to be taught by veterans was in display when he interacted with his teammate Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey was an All-American cornerback as a Seminole, and now he’s a First-Team All-Pro player in the NFL. When discussing his mentorship under Ramsey, James said, “I was a sponge, I soaked everything up from guys who were already there. For Jalen to have all those accolades and be an All-American … you’d be a fool not to listen to him, to learn how to take care of your body, how to watch film.”

“It really helped.”

Yeah, it certainly seems like James picked up a thing or two from Ramsey.

Addison Lynch, an assistant coach for the Chargers, was also an assistant coach for Florida State while James played there. Lynch credits a knee injury that sidelined James for most of his sophomore season as the cause for a huge maturity jump. “That’s when he showed everybody on the outside what type of person he is,” Lynch said. “It’s easy when you know you’re going to be a top pick and you get hurt to just take of yourself. He was still team-first, rooting guys on from the sideline, getting on guys. It was amazing. You really saw his growth as a person.”

James is a team-first guy who is not arrogant in his abilities — he is more than willing to learn from his mistakes. What isn’t there to love about him?

Conclusion

At the age of 22, James is putting up incredible numbers. Let’s see how it stacks up with the “rookie” (first season as a starter in some cases) seasons of the greatest safeties in recent memory.

 AgeTacklesTackles For LossSacksInterceptionsPasses Defended
Derwin James (Pace)2210653.5314
Ed Reed248551.0512
Troy Polamalu239641.0514
Sean Taylor217631.0415
Earl Thomas III217610.057
Eric Berry228752.049

Derwin James stands above the rest in nearly every statistical category.

There’s no reason to believe that he’s not going to improve upon his rookie season. James has been improving throughout his entire life in and out of football. That will continue. For now, he will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Be prepared for more.