COSTA MESA, Calif. — Let’s get something straight first: While Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James has been impressive through the first five weeks of the regular season, he’s not ready to have his likeness sculpted, dipped in bronze and displayed in Canton.
Like any other rookie, James has had his share of hiccups and the Chargers sit with a 3-2 record.
He has lined up in the wrong place pre-snap, been slow to diagnose at times and had some missed tackles in space on the perimeter.
“He’s a rookie,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “He still has a lot to learn, but when he knows it, he’s very decisive.”
But James also has made plenty of big plays while being used all over the field by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley — and that has his teammates and the coaching staff excited about the future.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, James has played 134 snaps defensively as a deep safety and 156 snaps near the line of scrimmage — including alignments as a slot cornerback and a linebacker.
And James has filled up the stat sheet. He’s tied for the team lead in combined tackles (31) and leads the Chargers with three sacks. According to team statistics, James also has three tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.
James already has more sacks at this point of the season than all but one NFL safety (Vonn Bell) had all of last year.
“I think it’s my coaches preparing me, they have a lot do with it,” James said about his production. “Also, for God blessing me with my ability. Like I said, when I mix that together, you see what happens.”
The Florida State product’s fast start has coaches around the league taking notice. Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said James is a throwback to old-school players of yesteryear when Ronnie Lott roamed the gridiron.
“Having been in the AFC West before, he just has that Rodney Harrison playing style that I love,” Gruden said. “He’s an intimidating player. He is a physical presence. I think he’s got range to play deep, and he’s got coverage ability.
“He can run through you, he can run around you and he can run right over you. He is a dynamite young player, and he will be one of the building blocks in L.A. for a long time for the Chargers.”
Length and range at the safety position
One of the things that distinguished James coming out of college was his size and length. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds with a 79-inch wingspan, NFL scouts and coaches compared him to former Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chanceller.
Some of that comparison has proved to be correct. Like Chancellor, James is an effective player in the box while defending the run and plays sticky defense as a second-level defender in the passing game.
James has not consistently played the role of enforcer, though. He doesn’t regularly put big hits on receivers tracking the ball over the middle. James has used his length to get his hands on the football, however, with six pass breakups this season.
“His ability to knock balls down, the ability to reach and cause strip fumbles, those things are where it really shows up,” Lynn said. “They’re going to have to account for him. We can use him as a decoy some. We have a lot on his plate. We need to, at some point, put him in position where he can learn that position and just play — but he’s doing a heck of a job moving around for us right now.”
Along with showing unique ability as a rangy pass defender in zone coverage, perhaps James’ most noticeable contribution has been his slithery ability to evade blockers as a blitzer and a pass-rusher.
With Joey Bosa out because of a bruised left foot, the Chargers have frequently used James to rush the passer, and he has been effective.
Along with leading the team in sacks, James created a forced fumble against the San Francisco 49ers by knocking the ball loose from quarterback C.J. Beathard, which Isaac Rochell caught in midair for an interception.
James also batted down a Beathard pass and nearly caught it for what would have been a sure pick-six, once again showing his amazing athleticism.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, James has blitzed on 22 of his 290 defensive snaps this year, resulting in three sacks, one batted pass and a forced fumble.
A disruptive playmaker
Asked to assess what has made James so effective this early in his career, Mayfield couldn’t single out one trait.
“I wouldn’t do him justice to point to one particular thing,” Mayfield said. “I think he’s a do-it-all safety. That’s what the buzz was for him before the draft, and he’s just making all of that come true now.
“He’s doing everything on the field. He can blitz, he can get back there in coverage. It’s impressive to see a rookie be able to do that for a defense.”
However, Bradley points to one distinctive characteristic — speed. And that blazing speed at which James plays the game that makes him a disruptive force on the field.
“He’s very explosive,” Bradley said. “And I think his instincts, he’s a very instinctive player. So when you watch tape or on the field, boy, you really feel the speed. He’s fast in the first place, but I think that playing speed feels fast.”
Along with the speed and instincts, James also has an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time, creating game-changing plays.
“If you go back and watch him from Florida State, those are all the things he did — blitz, cover, sacks, interceptions,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said. “That’s what we drafted him for, to come in and do those things. … For a rookie to come in and be able to start day one, that says a lot because we didn’t just give him that spot. He earned it. For a guy to be able to do that right away, that’s been a blessing for us.”
Because of his ability to create game-changing plays, quarterback Philip Rivers says he believes James can be an elite player in the league for a long time. But James still has work to do to get there.
“He’s been great,” Rivers said about James. “He has the demeanor, and he’s made the plays obviously, but he has the demeanor of one of those double-digit year safeties.
“That’s what he is. He will ascend in a hurry to that kind of role. That’s just his demeanor and the way he plays, the passion he has and the aggression he plays with. He was a heck of a pick. I’m glad he’s on our side.”