Derwin James has the speed and explosiveness of a cornerback, the brute strength of a middle linebacker and the wingspan of an edge rusher, physical gifts encased in a chiseled 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame that can make even an established NFL veteran envious.
“I might be Superman,” fellow Chargers defensive back Jahleel Addae said when asked how good he’d be with James’ size and athleticism. “He’s a monster.”
Addae, entering his sixth season, and James, a 22-year-old rookie, are expected to share time at free safety and strong safety on a stout Chargers defense. They arrived in the same secondary from vastly different backgrounds.
The 5-10, 195-pound Addae was undersized, unheralded and undrafted out of Central Michigan in 2013. He carved out a starting job with the Chargers and now has a reputation as one of the league’s hardest-hitting defensive backs.
James accepted a scholarship offer from Florida State in the eighth grade. He was rated the nation’s top safety coming out of Haines City (Fla.) High and started as a college freshman. He was the 17th pick in April’s draft.
But James’ ego is not as inflated as his resume, which came as a pleasant surprise to Addae, who has been tutoring James on the practice field and in the film room on the finer points of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s cover-three scheme.
“It’s rare to see a young guy with so much talent, so much hype coming in, with such a desire to learn,” Addae said. “He’s been all ears in meetings and when I explain stuff to him here and there. I see a lot of myself in him. I came in as a young player and had older guys help me and show me the ropes.”
James stepped into a similar dynamic at Florida State, where then-Seminoles cornerback Jalen Ramsey — the fifth pick of the 2016 draft and a current Jacksonville Jaguars star — took James under his wing in 2015.
“I was a sponge, I soaked everything up from guys who were already there,” James said. “For Jalen to have all those accolades and be an All-American … you’d be a fool not to listen to him, to learn how to take care of your body, how to watch film.
“It really helped.”
The Chargers feel fortunate to have snagged James with the 17th pick; many considered him a top-10 talent. The fact that James did not have to be fit with an oversized helmet is a bonus.
James’ humility was on display two days after he was drafted, when he stood in the team’s media room while second- and third-round picks Uchenna Nwosu and Justin Jones conducted their introductory news conferences.
“It’s never about me — I never feel like I’m bigger than the team,” James said. “My mom and dad always taught me to be a humble guy. I’m blessed with a lot of abilities that most people don’t have, but I always try to work as if I’m the least talented player on the field.”
Addison Lynch, the Chargers’ new quality control coach for defense, held the same position at Florida State for the last six years. He watched the versatile James — who played some defensive end, linebacker and cornerback in college — grow from high school star to first-round pick.
But James’ biggest maturity jump might have come off the field, after a knee injury sidelined him for most of his sophomore season at Florida State.
James was named a freshman All-American by USA Today after racking up 91 tackles (91/2 for loss), 41/2 sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2015.
After making eight tackles and intercepting his first college pass in a comeback win over 11th-ranked Mississippi in the 2016 season opener, James suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee in the second game against Charleston Southern. He underwent season-ending surgery, but his season was hardly lost.
“He used that time to develop in his knowledge of the game, and that was big,” Lynch said. “That whole time he was hurt, he was always around the team. He traveled to all the games. He put a lot of time in the film room.
“Sometimes when you step back and look in from the outside, you see everything that’s going on and you start to notice little things, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what the coaches are talking about.’ That’s when the light bulb really clicked on for him, when he was injured.”
James was like an extra coach on the sideline, giving pointers and encouragement to teammates and scolding them when necessary. He was a natural leader.
“That’s when he showed everybody on the outside what type of person he is,” Lynch said. “It’s easy when you know you’re going to be a top pick and you get hurt to just take of yourself. He was still team-first, rooting guys on from the sideline, getting on guys. It was amazing. You really saw his growth as a person.”
The Seminoles had a disappointing 2017 season, going 7-6. James was superb, notching 84 tackles (51/2 for loss), two interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
His combination of size, speed and length and ability to tackle and cover should be a good fit for Bradley’s scheme, which is predicated on speed, instincts and precision.
“It’s fewer plays, but it’s simpler and more efficient,” James said. “He doesn’t ask you to do too much. That allows us to play fast. You have to be in your gap, you have to be covering your man.If you don’t, it’s going to be a big play.”
James’ athleticism and experience at so many positions will allow him to play some free safety — essentially a center fielder in Bradley’s scheme — some strong safety, where he’ll be closer to the box, and some weak-side linebacker in nickel and dime packages.
“He may occasionally drop the wrong way or play the wrong coverage, but he has never not played fast,” Bradley said. “That’s the big thing that jumps out, the speed he plays with.
“In his league, you do the wrong assignment, it could lead to a touchdown, so that consistency is important. But every day he’s been out here, I see him getting more and more consistent. He’s pretty sharp.”
The Chargers, led by edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams, gave up the third-fewest points and yards passing in the NFL last season. If James has the kind of impact the team envisions, the defense could be even better in 2018.