The Los Angeles Chargers saw their stadium-mates win a Super Bowl and wanted in on the action. They’re all-in on achieving that goal within Justin Herbert’s “rookie contract window,” and the Derwin James mega-deal is just another slice of that pie the Chargers are buying. James reportedly agreed to a 4-year extension worth $76.4 million, making James the highest-paid safety in NFL history. The deal also includes $42 million in guarantees.
When Brandon Staley said he was building a defense around James, he’s not kidding. The pieces that the front office brought in during the draft and through free agency are part of the puzzle that fit into that process. But James’ usage is an even more significant indicator of Staley’s plans for one of the league’s top safeties.
James played over 300 snaps from a deep safety alignment and in the box. He also played over 200 snaps from the slot. But what can James do and not do from each spot that makes his record-setting contract worthwhile?
Derwin James: The Cavalry Scout of NFL secondary members
The Cavalry Scout in the U.S. Army is considered a “jack of all trades, master of none.” While the infantry will often tell you they’re superior, Scouts are trained in the ways of the infantryman and more. In a traditional setting, the Scout is placed ahead of infantry and armor and scout enemy positions from an observation post, where they can also call for fire if necessary.
But in an operation like Enduring Freedom, they were tasked more often than not with more traditional infantry tasks because that’s what the mission dictated.
And that’s where we swing this back to James. He can do a little bit of everything, allowing for scheme and personnel versatility. He played most of his snaps against Dallas in the slot against their tight ends and CeeDee Lamb. He was in the box against the Eagles and Vikings, and he played in the deep half for most of his snaps against Cincinnati.
Abilities from a deep-safety alignment
There isn’t a more perfect fit for a boundary safety in a quarters-based defense than James. Because two-high safety looks lack an extra man in the box, someone from outside of the box is responsible for a “run fit.”
More often than not, the boundary safety is tasked with fitting the run in the alley to his side. While it is formation and coverage dependent, that responsibility usually differentiates what safety plays on the boundary and which plays to the field.
James’s alignment is more condensed here, given the field position, but it was an excellent example of the burst and physicality he brings into contact. Javonte Williams is no slouch for bringing his own brand of physicality to the field, and James sits him down here like he’s standing still.
But the more impressive part of the clip is James’ downhill trigger once he finds a crease to attack. There are far more examples of him coming forward and banging into offensive linemen as if he’s a MIKE linebacker.
And he absolutely smacks runners.
James has all the physical abilities necessary to cover a ton of ground on the back end, but Staley’s coverages don’t often ask him to cover much ground. Good, consistent safety play is often boring to watch for most people, and unless there’s a big flash play, it’s usually not worth showing.
Quality safety play in a quarters-based scheme often involves quickly processing information given by the offense’s No. 2 or 3 receiver on the snap and then getting to where he needs to be based on that rather than natural range.
A few of the elite safeties can make wrong decisions right for their teammates. For instance, if the offense motions from a typical two-receiver set with one outside the numbers and the other in the slot to a stack formation, the outside receiver becomes the No. 2 in the formation. James is keying off the new No. 2, but the cornerback does the same thing.
James isn’t the type to pick up that mistake by the corner and take over his responsibility. What he will do is be in the right place at the right time no matter what the offense throws at him, including four-strong looks.
There is no discernable weakness to James’ game from a deep alignment. But that doesn’t mean he should remain static on the back end.
James aligned in the slot
Admittedly, this is a bit of a mixed bag. But don’t tell the Kyle Hamilton deniers who roasted his performance in the slot against Cincinnati while trying to play man coverage against a shifty 5-foot-8 receiver. Let them believe a long-limbed 230-pound human should magically mirror any receiver they face.
The Cincinnati Bengals tried to take advantage of James on two consecutive plays matched up against Tyler Boyd. Boyd was aligned on the boundary in the first play, and James was playing at depth. Boyd stuck his foot and planted to the outside, and James bit, allowing Boyd to cross the field uninhibited. But Joe Burrow was shockingly pressured and couldn’t complete the pass. They got James on the next play and also matched up against Boyd.
James isn’t an off-man slot cornerback. He’s uber-athletic, but he’s also 220+vpounds and doesn’t have Jaire Alexander’s feet or his innate mirroring ability.
Against Dallas, James played most of his snaps in the slot and held up quite well against a stable of talented receiving options. Here, he’s playing with outside leverage on the hash against Cedrick Wilson Jr.
James is best playing man coverage as a trail. Trail technique is good against intermediate route concepts, and for James personally, it allows him to react while his momentum is going in the same direction as the receiver.
However, against less shifty tight ends, James has no issues matching them from depth, and his impressive burst and length allow him to break on the ball.
Given his skill set, the slot is where James is least valuable. But in particular, matchups such as Kansas City, Las Vegas, or other teams with top-tier TE play, his athleticism is quite valuable against them.
Near the line of scrimmage
Staley needs to find a way to blitz James more often. While his talents in coverage are valuable, the Chargers threw assets into the secondary to give James this specific freedom. As a proactive athlete, James’ ability to move laterally is silly, as the sack above shows.
James is inefficient as a blitzer from the interior. He doesn’t have the experience to use his hands to win as a rusher, particularly when he’s outweighed by 70 pounds. But he’s a menace on the edge where he can just be an athlete.
Kenneth Murray has been disappointing so far in his pro career. Meanwhile, Drue Tranquill is a decent coverage player, but he’s an average-at-best run defender. Linebacker play in Los Angeles is lacking, and we could see James play a more prominent role as a WILL or SAM in 2022 as a result.
Instead of bringing a third LB on the field as base, Staley could opt to use a big nickel personnel as his base. Alohi Gilman has already proven to be a respectable safety, and adding Baylor’s JT Woods brings even more schematic possibilities for James. J.C Jackson, Asante Samuel Jr., Bryce Callahan, and their affinity for Michael Davis means there are four options they should enjoy at cornerback.
So while his role wouldn’t be the same as Jamal Adams’ was in the middle-of-field-closed Seattle days before 2021, James would be able to play up and down the defensive front while also serving in his traditional back-end safety role.
Being a defense’s Deebo Samuel
We’ve already seen Dallas do this a bit with Micah Parsons, but Parsons’ role is limited to the front seven (even though he’s athletic enough to play safety). The sheer volume of assignments James could endure defensively could be daunting for him. However, he wore multiple hats in 2021 and played at an incredibly high level.
What cannot happen is James gets spread too thin, creating mental lapses on the back end that result in massive chunk plays for the offense. However, until he proves there is too big a meal for his plate, James has earned the benefit of the doubt in his versatility.
That is why Los Angeles made him the wealthiest safety ever.