Derwin James to set tone for retooled Chargers defense


By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer

Since his arrival as the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James always has served as an emotional leader defensively.

The do-everything defensive back plays with an unbridled enthusiasm and energy that’s contagious, which spills over to his teammates. 

Back then, James gave way to veteran leaders such as Casey Hayward Jr, Melvin Ingram III and Brandon Mebane to provide vocal leadership, while the young safety grew into his role with the team.

Now in his fifth NFL season, the 25-year-old Florida State product will serve as the defensive play-caller and Bolts’ vocal leader for a second straight year in head coach Brandon Staley’s 3-4 scheme.

“I’m more comfortable this year doing it,” James said. “Just hearing coach [Staley] in my ear this year versus the first time last year, it’s more comfortable. It sounds familiar to me. I kind of can finish some of the calls before he even says it to me now, so that’s cool.”

The Chargers loaded up on new players to help improve a disappointing performance by the defense in Staley’s first season in 2021, including the addition of a shutdown cornerback in former New England Patriot J.C. Jackson, along with edge rushers Khalil Mack and Kyle Van Noy in free agency.

But the straw that stirs the drink for the Chargers remains James.

“We want Derwin to be the signal-caller of our defense because we feel like he is the leader of our defense,” Staley said. “We feel like the way he plays, where he plays — whether he’s playing safety, Star or Money — he’s in the middle of the defense. He never leaves the field. We think that that’s important. We think that can be an advantage.”

Due to injuries last season, James aligned as the deep safety on 53 percent of his team’s defensive snaps last season, according to Next Gen Stats. The two previous seasons, James was used as a deep safety on just 25 percent of the snaps.

With the addition of Jackson (who can travel with the opposing offense’s No. 1 receiver) and slot defender Bryce Callahan in free agency, and speedy, third-round selection JT Woods through the draft, the Chargers should have more options in the defensive backfield, allowing James to be more of a playmaker at the line of scrimmage.

“I feel like it’s going to help our defense a lot,” James said. “Being able to blitz more and being able to do a lot more things in the [tackle] box. I’m comfortable in the box. I don’t mind it.”

Added Staley: “Derwin was fantastic for us last season. What we’ve done is we’ve surrounded them with a lot more depth and talent, so that all his talents will shine even brighter than they did last season because of who he has joined up with. 

“Derwin, all he needs to do is continue to do what he always does because he’s one of the special players in the league.”

James has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL since entering the league four years ago. He earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors during an impressive rookie season in 2018, finishing with 105 tackles, 13 pass break-ups, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. Last season, he led the Chargers in tackles with 118, earning a second Pro Bowl selection.

In between, James had trouble staying healthy. In 2019, a fractured foot forced him to miss all but five games that season. The following year, James missed the entire 2020 season due to a torn meniscus that required surgery.

James said he feels strong and healthy heading into this season, adding a couple pounds to better endure the rigors of a marathon NFL season. James also switched from No. 3 to No. 33, his college number at Florida State.

Along with leading his team in tackles last season, James totaled two interceptions, two sacks, seven tackles for loss, five pass break-ups and three forced fumbles.

In the final year of his rookie contract, James said nothing is imminent as far as contract discussions between his agent David Mulugheta and the Chargers. Traditionally, the Chargers broker new agreements with rookies at the end of their deals in the summer just before the start of training camp at the end of July.

“Whenever that takes care of itself, it takes care of itself,” James said. “My job right now is just to help guys like Khalil Mack and JT Woods get up to speed.”

After leading the No. 1-ranked defense in 2020 as defensive coordinator for the Rams, Staley’s defensive group underperformed in his first season with the Bolts. L.A. finished No. 29 in total defense, allowing 27 points per game.

The Chargers were even worse against the run, allowing 139 rushing yards a contest — third-worst in the league. L.A. allowed offenses to convert a league-worst 49.54 percent on third down and forced just 21 takeaways, tied for No. 17 in the NFL.

The Bolts finished tied for 21st in sacks (35) and gave up 12 passing plays of 40-plus yard last season, which placed them amongst the bottom third in the NFL.

However, with an infusion of talent this season up front including defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day, Morgan Fox and Austin Johnson, along with Mack and inside linebacker Troy Reeder, the Chargers should be better at stopping the run, leading to more success getting off the field on third down.

At the head of the snake for L.A.’s potent defense is James.

“We have to become a team defense, which is all three levels playing the game the right way from a technique standpoint, an assignment standpoint and then them understanding how it all fits together,” Staley said. “And this group does. … I’m excited because it’s a deep group, it’s an experienced group. We have a good mix of veterans and youth, but they’re all guys that fit how we want to play.”

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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