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How Derwin James Became the Perfect Defender for the Modern NFL

The Chargers rookie has made his mark all over the field this season: defending passes, rushing the QB, and corralling playmakers over the middle. He’s the rare defender built to thrive in an offensive-minded league, but his unique skill set wasn’t assembled overnight.

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Gus Bradley couldn’t believe what was happening. The Chargers defensive coordinator and his staff were huddled in Bradley’s office during this year’s NFL draft, waiting for the team to make its selection with the 17th overall pick. They watched as several touted defensive back prospects flew off the board—Denzel Ward at no. 4 to the Browns, Minkah Fitzpatrick at no. 11 to the Dolphins—while Derwin James, one of the team’s top targets, remained. Heading into the draft, few in the Chargers’ organization thought they would ever be in range to land a player they viewed as a future star. “To be honest, it was never in my mind,” Bradley says. “I didn’t think he would be there. Just like everybody else.”

Like he does with the entire pool of draft-eligible secondary players, Chargers defensive backs coach Ron Milus did his due diligence on James last spring. Milus saw a physical marvel of a safety who was as comfortable near the line of scrimmage as he was playing a deep center field. But as he dug through the tape, Milus figured that landing James in the middle of the first round was a pipe dream. “I guess there was a possibility,” Milus says. “But as you continue to watch tape through February, March, and into April, you say, ‘I don’t think there’s a lot of guys like this.’” On the night of the first round, though, James continued to fall. And when Green Bay—thought to be another potential James destination—traded the 14th pick to New Orleans and moved back to no. 18, the dream started to become a reality. “Once it got to be two or three picks from us, it was, ‘He’s gonna be there, he’s gonna be there,’” Milus says.

As the excitement around the Chargers’ facility built, James sat in the greenroom at AT&T Stadium, deflated. He’d been a two-time All-ACC defender with Florida State. His leadership within the program was lauded by every coach on the Seminoles staff. He’d dominated the scouting combine in Indianapolis, and was universally expected to go in the top 10. Yet there he sat, watching player after player get drafted ahead of him. “After [pick] 12, I was like, ‘Oh, man, what did I do wrong?’” James says. “‘I know I’m better than the guys they’ve been picking before me. I haven’t been in trouble. I haven’t done anything. I did good at the combine. I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense.’”

Finally, when pick no. 17 rolled around, elation ran through Bradley’s office. One of the draft’s most gifted players had fallen into the Chargers’ lap. “When he was there, it was an easy choice,” Milus says. James arrived in Los Angeles about two weeks later, and almost immediately both he and the team’s defensive staff realized that James was a perfect fit within the Chargers defense. By Week 1 he’d broken into the starting lineup, and he’s spent the season building his case as the most impactful rookie in this entire class.

Through 12 weeks, James has 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, and six quarterback hits—the only player in the league to hit all of those marks. He’s been just as versatile for the Chargers as he was for Florida State, with his role seeming to shift by the minute depending on what the unit has needed. He’s proved capable of covering speedy receivers, rushing the passer, or laying a huge hit in the open field. In many ways, James is the perfect defender for the modern NFL: a 215-pound chameleon who can blend in at any position, allowing the Chargers to combat any approach an opposing offense might take.

In an era when even the best defenders struggle to stay relevant, James has helped propel one of the best units in the NFL, and become the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite in the process. “In the first round, you hope that you get a player on your team that can come in and be impactful, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Bradley says. “We all felt like this guy’s got a chance to be that person. … You could just tell his passion for the game. You thought, ‘This guy has a chance to be special.’”

To this day, James isn’t sure how his name made it to the coaches at Florida State. In late February 2012, he was invited to attend the Seminoles’ junior day recruiting event in Tallahassee—as a freshman. At the time, the Haines City, Florida, native was far from fully developed, but that didn’t stop the program from giving him the VIP treatment. “They were showing me more attention than the guys who were [rising] juniors and seniors,” James says. “I was kind of confused.”

Near the end of the daylong visit, James and his father, Derwin James Sr., were talking with Florida State assistant Odell Haggins when head coach Jimbo Fisher invited the trio into his office. There, Fisher proceeded to lay out his pitch and expressed his desire to have James join the team after graduation. The 14-year-old froze. “I was just shocked to be in the room with Jimbo Fisher,” James says. “I was just sitting there smiling. I didn’t know what ‘an offer’ meant.” After walking out of Fisher’s office, Derwin Sr. tried to explain what had just happened. “I said, ‘Pooh Bear, you know what he just asked you?’” James Sr. says. “‘He’s offering you a scholarship to go play ball here.’”

The word “scholarship” set off a bell in James’s mind. “I said, I wanna come here,” James says. “And [James Sr.] said, ‘Well, go down and tell him that.’” Later that day, while father and son were making the more than four-hour drive home, a story announcing James’s decision showed up on ESPN.com. That’s when James knew it was real. Later that year, he got the Seminoles logo tattooed on his left shoulder. He never took another official visit.

When James got to FSU as a freshman in 2015, he made a quick impression on virtually everyone in the program. On the first day of team workouts, then-sophomore running back Dalvin Cook noticed that James wasn’t the typical first-year player. “I knew how freshmen were when they came in,” Cook says, “and he was always a little different.” That night, Cook invited James to his apartment, and the pair played Madden until dawn. “I get a vibe from people, and he just gave me a vibe,” Cook says. “And it just built from there.”

At Haines City High School, James had played just about every position on the field. He spent time at quarterback, running back, receiver, safety, cornerback, and defensive end—every spot except the offensive line. While playing in the secondary during a game in his junior season, James noticed how slowly the center lifted his head after snapping the ball. He asked his coaches if, for at least one play, he could move to defensive tackle, just to see what he could do. They agreed, and on his first snap at the line, he shot into the backfield and made the tackle. “I’ve told people, and it’s crazy, but he’s the only player I’ve ever coached in my entire career that I think could have started at all 11 positions on defense,” says former Florida State and current Tennessee defensive coordinator Charles Kelly. “That’s the truth.”

During his first season in Tallahassee, the FSU staff tried to replicate the multidimensional role that James filled in high school. They created new packages to take advantage of his pass-rushing ability. In other scenarios, he’d roam the deep part of the field. Kelly’s goal was to give his young wrecking ball a chance to affect every play, no matter what the offense called. “When you put him in the deep part of the field the whole time, people can throw away from him and take him out of the game,” Kelly says. “When we moved him closer to the ball, they had to account for him.”

James finished his freshman season at Florida State with 91 tackles and an astonishing 9.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks. He also tallied four passes defensed. It was the sort of production that few college players, let alone freshmen, could ever hope to achieve. James seemed destined to emerge as the school’s next great defensive player, one who would lead the unit for seasons to come. Then came the agonizing moment that would define his future in ways he never could have imagined.

Alabama v Florida State
Derwin James
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The recovery process for injured athletes can be lonely. Isolation replaces the constant camaraderie that players are used to. As James sat in a cold hospital room in September 2016, waiting to have surgery on his injured left meniscus, he wondered what he’d done to end up in such a desolate place. “When you’re going through that process, it’s hard,” James says. “When you’re away from the game, you’re not as important.”

James had entered his sophomore season with soaring expectations. Almost every outlet in the country listed him as a preseason All-American, and many said that he was on his way to becoming college football’s next legendary defender. Yet during the second half of FSU’s second game of the season, he shredded the cartilage in his left knee. James tried to stay on his feet as he dropped the hammer on a receiver making a catch down the left sideline, causing his left cleat to catch awkwardly in the turf. The Seminoles beat Charleston Southern in a blowout, but an MRI later that week revealed that his meniscus was torn. James was ruled out for the year. The following week, without James there to spy Heisman Trophy hopeful Lamar Jackson, Florida State was stomped by Louisville, 63-20.

In need of a companion for the quiet moments during his rehab, James bought a pitbull puppy. He nicknamed him Third, a nod to both his jersey number and the dog’s full name: Derwin James III. On James’s worst days, when he could do little else but watch NBA games from the couch, Third would plop his head down in Derwin’s lap and provide some much-needed comfort. “He knew when I was down,” James says. “He knew when I was hurt. He could sense it.” They became partners in James’s rehab. The first time James was able to jog, Third was at his side. “He was on the road to recovery with me,” James says.

As soon as the knee had healed enough for him to get around, James began an unlikely routine. Like other players on the team who were battling injuries, he’d arrive at the FSU training room for 7 a.m. treatment before heading to his classes. But James went a step further: He would go to the facility early and attend each day’s script meeting. There, he’d watch as Fisher, Kelly, and the rest of the coaching staff built the list of offensive plays that Florida State would use in that day’s practice to test the defense’s weak spots. Over time, sitting in on those sessions helped him grasp the broader details of the defense that he’d never needed to learn before. He began to understand various pass-protection techniques and different blocking schemes, and which keys tipped the offense’s hand before the ball was snapped.

Away from the daily rigors of his specific roles, he finally saw the defense as a complete unit rather than a collection of individual positions. And slowly, the player who possessed the physical ability to start at all 11 defensive positions built the mental acuity to play them. “He saw [the game] from a coach’s perspective,” Fisher says. “The things we used to make a big deal about, that you might not understand if you’re in the fray, when you stand back, you see how critical that might be to the big picture of things. That’s where he grew.”

James spent the rest of the season attached to Kelly’s hip. During practices, he would be at Kelly’s side, offering bits of advice to teammates whenever possible. On game day, he’d be in Kelly’s ear, asking why he ran a certain blitz on third down, or what he saw going up against a particular offensive formation.

The experience was formative for James’s football education, and it had more wide-ranging effects on how he was viewed among his teammates. They noticed that despite his injury, he stood with them every step of the way. “He knew he was a leader and that [people] looked up to him, still, so he knew he had to be around,” Cook says. When James recovered and came back for his junior season, that dedication gave his voice authority. James has often been described as the dominant presence in a program full of strong-willed players. “He was an alpha dog,” Kelly says, “but he was never demeaning. He’d treat a walk-on safety the same way he treated Jalen Ramsey.”

In James’s mind, he could lead the program only if his teammates understood who he truly was, in every respect. “I’m a guy that if we share the same color jersey and we’re in the same locker room, you’re like my brother,” James says. “I’ve got to be able to trust you. I’ve got to know you. And for you to even listen to how I am as a leader, you need to at least know how I am off the field.”

James declared for the NFL draft after a stellar bounceback season in which he racked up 84 tackles, including 5.5 for a loss. When professional teams inquired about him, Kelly gave a uniform response. He told each of them that if James didn’t play football, he could be a CEO—that people gravitate toward him in a way that was difficult to explain. “I told them, ‘He can be the face of your franchise,’” Kelly says. “And you’ll be happy about it.”

Tennessee Titans v Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James
Naomi Baker/Getty Images

From the time he was old enough to walk, James caused mischief. When he was 6, he and some friends were playing with fire in the backyard of his mother’s house and, long story short, they burned up the entire yard. Shanita Russell still doesn’t know how the blaze began, but based on the size of the flames, she assumes it involved some spilled gasoline from the lawn mower. Two years before that, James had snuck his way into the laundry room, grabbed some spray paint, and painted a green racing stripe and gold wheels on Russell’s white 1989 Ford Escort. With his custom paint job finished, he ran inside to show his mother his work. He thought she would love it. “He painted the tires, the hubcaps, everything,” Russell says. “I was so upset with him, but I couldn’t punish him. Because he didn’t think he did anything wrong!”

To make matters worse, Derwin was also a quick learner. He’d watch as Russell used the childproof locks on the kitchen cabinet, studying how they operated so he could plan his next caper. “If you turned your back one second, he [would be] into something,” Russell says.

That curiosity got James into plenty of trouble as a kid, but on the field it’s been crucial in developing his singular style of play. While NFL assistants are often quick to badmouth the quality of coaching that players receive in college, Bradley and Milus both laud the role Florida State’s staff had in building James’s varied skill set. In particular, they both point to the work of former FSU defensive ends coach Brad Lawing, whom James credits as his pass-rushing mentor.

Their work together started one afternoon during James’s freshman season. James was waiting for FSU’s special teams session to end when Lawing approached him. “I said, instead of sitting there wasting your dang time standing around, you wanna come over here and learn how to rush the quarterback?” Lawing says. James had the natural speed and strength to hold his own at the line, but took time to learn the more advanced elements of pass rushing, especially how to bend back toward the quarterback as he worked around the edge.

Soon, the novel idea of a safety rushing the passer transformed into a feature of Florida State’s defense. James started to split his time between the meeting rooms for defensive backs and for defensive ends, joining the latter when the team installed its pressure packages. James and Lawing worked together every day, to the point where Lawing began to use him in the same way he did Jadeveon Clowney when Lawing was an assistant at South Carolina. During a 27-2 victory over Florida in November 2015, James demolished a Gators tackle with a hump move more fit for Reggie White than a 215-pound safety. “[He succeeded] not only with his speed and his change-of-direction skills, but his power,” Lawing says. “A lot like [Chargers pass rusher] Melvin Ingram, Derwin’s one of those guys [that], for his size, his power index is really high. That’s why he can rush guys that are 60, 70, 80 pounds heavier than he is.”

That inventiveness and Lawing’s willingness to let James be more than a safety moonlighting as a pass rusher is what James appreciates most about their time together. “The mind-set that, ‘If you’re gonna rush the quarterback, you’re gonna rush the quarterback,’” James says. “‘You’re not just a DB.’ I feel like that’s what got me better and what got me good at it.”

When James reported for OTAs in early May, Bradley decided to keep every defensive option open for him. The staff’s plan was to try James at several positions across the defense and decide which roles suited him best. Slowly, they learned that James could thrive no matter where they dropped him. “Sometimes, he’s like a defensive end, and he’s rushing,” Milus says. “Sometimes he’s playing dime and he’s doing different things. We’re just using the skills that he has, and he’s been able to handle it.” During the Chargers’ season opener, a 38-28 loss to the Chiefs, James notched his first career sack and knocked down a pass about 40 yards downfield that had been intended for De’Anthony Thomas—the same De’Anthony Thomas who clocked a 4.34-second 40-yard dash time at his pro day in 2014.

Plenty of teams use big-bodied safeties like James all over the field. What sets James apart, though, is that he isn’t just playing multiple roles to keep offenses off balance. He truly excels in each one. In the same way that his pass-rush snaps were more than just a gimmick at Florida State, James’s role as a blitzer has been a defining trait of the Chargers defense. On 43 rushes, he’s logged four sacks, two additional quarterback hits, and nine hurries. That’s good for a pass rush productivity number of 22.1, according to Pro Football Focus. No other player has a PRP higher than 16.7 this season.

In L.A.’s Week 2 game against the Bills, Bradley says one play in particular showed him just how effective James could be when deployed in this regard. On a hard play fake in the second quarter, James ignored the Bills running back and made a beeline for quarterback Josh Allen, eventually dragging him down in the backfield. “That play really jumped out to me—all of us as a coaching staff—that this guy has some unique skill sets,” Bradley says. “He’s got the speed and the power but the instincts too.”

Bradley and Milus change James’s role each game, and every Monday, Derwin drives to the facility having no idea what he’ll be asked to do that week. He typically ventures a guess based on the other team’s offense and what he already knows about the personnel, but every so often, he’s dead wrong. When the Chargers were preparing to face off with the Rams in Week 3, James figured he’d spend most of the game close to the line of scrimmage to combat running back Todd Gurley. Instead, the Chargers’ scheme called for him to play the deep part of the field for most of the game.

There are other weeks, though, when his prediction is spot-on. James assumed that he’d be asked to play on the end of the line of scrimmage against the Seahawks in Week 9 to help contain Russell Wilson. He was right, and the Chargers held Seattle to just 17 points on the day. The Seahawks have scored at least 27 in their three games since. “Every week, I come in with the mind-set of, ‘Whatever you need me to do,’” James says. “‘Whatever role I need to play. Do I need to play deep? Do I need to play short? Do I need to play end?’ I tell coach, ‘It don’t matter what you call. It doesn’t matter the play. Just call it.’”

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James (33)
Harry How/Getty Images

For as smooth as James’s transition into the NFL has been, his adjustment to life in L.A. has taken some getting used to. At 22 years old, this is the first time James has really had to fend for himself. Before this fall, he’d never paid his own rent, or set up an account with the gas company. “I was on my own in college, but this is much different,” James says. “The bills in college came in Florida State’s name. It’s real now. It’s like I’m really living life.”

The veteran members of the Chargers secondary have helped ease the process. Cornerback Casey Hayward even connected James with his personal chef to help him figure out his diet. The way James tells it, the defensive backs group is the most tight-knit collection of teammates he’s ever been around. “Even more than what it was in college, we’ve got each other’s back,” James says. “It’s a perfect situation.”

When James dropped that phrase—“perfect situation”—it was the fourth time he’d used it within a half hour. It applies to his role on this team, and could just as easily apply to how he fits within the NFL at large. In a league defined by offense, James has been able to change games from every level of Bradley’s scheme. While high-powered, diverse offensive systems force most defenses to be reactionary, James has allowed the Chargers to dictate the action.

As Derwin talks about life in Southern California and playing with Hayward and the rest of this secondary, his anxious wait on draft day feels like it happened forever ago. When asked whether he’s bitter about his fall to no. 17, James shakes his head. “Hell no. I’m happy. I’m a Charger, man. We’re [8-3]. I wouldn’t want to be no other place.”

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