He made the Pro Bowl en route to leading the team in passes defended and tackles, becoming the first rookie in franchise history to reach 100 stops in a season.
He drew comparisons to all-pros and all-timers, doing so at age 22 and with two years of collegiate eligibility still unused.
Derwin James lit up the opposition in his first NFL season. And he lit up the Chargers as well.
“He brings a lot of energy,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “Not just on the football field. It’s also just walking down the hallways. … He loves football. He’s very passionate about what he does.”
James wears that passion as obviously as he does the tattoos that decorate his torso.
A safety by definition, he is the one player on the Chargers whose presence is most glaring, James at times also employed as the equivalent of a linebacker, cornerback and even edge rusher.
And, fittingly, his spirit is just as everywhere.
“Every day, he brings that,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I mean, this guy genuinely loves the game and has a passion for it. I think that filters to our other players.”
The Chargers will need James — physically, spiritually, completely — in their wild-card playoff game Sunday at Baltimore, an opponent they just lost to 22-10 in Week 16.
In order to flip the outcome, the Chargers will need to make more plays than do the Ravens, and few Chargers are capable of making the plays that James can.
“This game’s no different,” he said, when asked about his professional postseason debut. “It’s not like, ‘It’s the playoffs. I have to try harder now.’ I’ve been playing like this all year. It’s just a greater opportunity.”
He has broken up passes 40 yards downfield and dropped quarterbacks deep in the backfield. James finished the regular season with 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, which tied for the team lead.
He might be the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. James did things routinely and weekly that surprised. Surprised, at least, others.
“I knew what type of player I was,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do. I feel like I’ve done those things here.”
Against the Ravens on Dec. 22, James had six tackles and broke up one pass as the Chargers kept quarterback Lamar Jackson in check and limited Baltimore to one offensive touchdown.
Entering Sunday, however, James said the defense will have to do even more, particularly since the Chargers’ offense continues to search for production that has faded.
Over the final two weeks of the regular season, the Chargers put together only three series that resulted in touchdowns. One covered 75 yards. The other two — both set up by turnovers — went 16 and 17 yards.
In a game in which points will be yielded begrudgingly, the Chargers can’t afford to keep sputtering and allow Baltimore to dominate possession.
“Get takeaways, get the ball out,” James said of the key to beating the Ravens. “We gotta get the offense the ball. Change the game somehow, change the momentum.”
Lynn called this matchup “an execution game,” meaning it will be decided more by the precision on the field than by any wide-ranging adjustments from the previous meeting.
James called it “Round 2” and noted that the expectation of the run-heavy Ravens trying to bully the Chargers again will be motivation enough.
“That should put a chip on your shoulder there alone,” he said. “They’re going to run it right at us. We know that. We gotta stop ’em.”
They’re going to need their muscle and their spirit Sunday. In James, the Chargers have impressive doses of both.
“Well, you hear things about it,” Bradley said of the rookie’s presence. “I think they talked about his energy, his love for the game. But I'd be lying if I said I thought it was to this level.”
Gordon good to go
Running back Melvin Gordon was a full participant in practice Wednesday and declared that he will play. He rolled his ankle late in the Chargers’ 23-9 victory Sunday at Denver.
“Feel good,” Gordon said. “Ready to roll.”
But defensive tackle Brandon Mebane did not practice because of a non-injury situation. The veteran has been away from the team repeatedly in recent weeks as his infant daughter, Makenna, deals with a medical issue.
Running back Austin Ekeler was limited during the workout because of a groin injury. Ekeler missed two games near the end of the regular season because of a bruised nerve in his neck.
The Chargers’ official injury report also included safety Jahleel Addae (shoulder), guard Dan Feeney (knee) and tackle Sam Tevi (groin) as full participants.
Each of the past three games for the Chargers’ offense has begun with a Philip Rivers first-possession interception.
He was picked off by Baltimore’s Brandon Carr on the first play from scrimmage in Week 16.
The Chargers also have trailed at halftime in three of their past five games and have scored first just twice since Nov. 18.
In the first game against Baltimore, they led for one minute in the third quarter before Jackson hit tight end Mark Andrews for a 68-yard touchdown that put the Ravens up for good.
Falling behind again Sunday won’t make winning any easier. Baltimore led the NFL in the regular season allowing an average of only 6.9 points after halftime.