Derwin James, the Chargers’ first-team All-Pro safety, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot and is out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. James has seen renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, and ESPN’s Eric Williams reported that James was in a walking boot on Friday.
James is one of the most versatile players in the NFL and the prototype of the modern defender. He roams the middle of the field like a shark, and can just as easily cover lightning-quick receivers in single coverage as he can match up one-on-one in the slot against tight ends like Travis Kelce. He’s also filled in at linebacker to play against the run. He led the team last season with 75 solo tackles and was tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Yet his pass rushing may have had an even greater impact, where his speed, size, and smarts make him a nightmare blitzer. His 18 quarterback pressures and four sacks both tied for the lead among all defensive backs in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus. In a league increasingly eschewing traditional position labels, James is as close as it gets to positionless.
“He never has to come off the field,” Chargers Pro Bowl safety Casey Hayward said at practice on Friday. “You’ve got a guy that can do every position. If a guy goes down at linebacker, he can just move into the linebacker [position]. If somebody goes down here, he can just move into here. Shit, he can even play corner and nickel, so his versatility helps us as a defense. He’s probably one of the most special guys in the NFL.”
The Chargers knew James was a versatile player when they drafted him out of Florida State with the 17th pick last year. He was the respectful alpha on a Seminoles team loaded with talent, including future Jacksonville star Jalen Ramsey and future Viking Dalvin Cook. The front office was gobsmacked that such a dynamic player fell so far. Players and coaches raved about his athleticism and work ethic during training camp last season.
Hayward doesn’t hesitate when asked about the moment he realized James could do anything on the football field. It was Week 3 against the Rams. James had mostly been playing near the line of scrimmage the first two weeks, and he’d logged a sack in each of his first two games. But he moved to free safety against the Rams, and made a stunning interception on quarterback Jared Goff on what otherwise would have been an easy touchdown. Goff finished with 354 yards and three touchdowns with a devastating 9.8 yards per attempt, but James’s interception was his only blemish of the day.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit,’” Hayward said. “It was a hell of a play. It was a special play. He’s a special player. Hopefully he can get healthy and come back and help us.”
The Chargers had bad luck with injuries last year. Defensive end Joey Bosa, the no. 3 overall pick in 2016, missed four games with a foot injury that lingered all season. Guard Forrest Lamp, a second-round pick in 2017, has played just two games in his first two seasons while recovering from a 2017 ACL tear. Cornerback Jason Verrett (torn Achilles), safety Jaylen Watkins (torn ACL), and promising tight end Hunter Henry (torn ACL) each missed the entire 2018 season. The Chargers hoped for a healthier 2019, but they announced this week that star receiver Keenan Allen suffered an ankle injury and is unlikely to play the rest of the preseason. And then there’s running back Melvin Gordon, whose holdout continues as he demands either a new contract or a trade. Now James is out with no timetable to return.
“It’s happened a lot to us over the years, so it’s a next-man-up mentality,” Henry said. “You’ve got to take that on. But we’re praying for him, hoping for the best for him to bounce back as fast as he can.”
The challenge for whoever the Chargers tap to be the next man up is that even if they can fill James’s primary responsibilities—no easy task—no replacement will be capable of handling James’s secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and quinary responsibilities. The Chargers will adjust by limiting the scope of what James’s replacement does on the field, whether that is Watkins, Adrian Phillips, Adarius Pickett, or rookie safety Nasir Adderley.
“The person who comes in for Derwin might not have to [play] linebacker, might not have to [play] free safety, might not have to do the blitzes,” Hayward said. “He’s probably going to be more specific. Whatever he’s good at, we’ve gotta figure out for him.”
The rest of the defense will also have to pick up some slack.
“I might have to make a few more tackles,” Hayward said.