Few players in the NFL were greater forces last season than Derwin James, the Chargers’ versatile safety who was a starter in the Pro Bowl and a finisher everywhere else.
With 109 total tackles, he became the first rookie in franchise history to eclipse the 100 mark.
James often finished plays with hits that were part textbook part comic book, his flare and ferocity befitting a cartoonish super hero.
Entering his second season, James said he wants to do the same thing again — only this time with more emphasis.
“I feel like every defense needs an enforcer out there,” he said. “You know, when that person steps on the field, everyone knows he’s about his business and you know what time it is.”
Crunch time would be one way to describe James’ game. At this point last year, he was a newcomer trying to find his way into the starting lineup. It didn’t take long for James to simply force his way onto the field.
Within the first few weeks of the regular season, he was lining up all over the place in a Gus Bradley defense that succeeded in putting the natural strong safety in a variety of positions to flourish.
As satisfying as 2018 was for James — he was named All-Pro at safety and defensive back by the Associated Press, and selected to the all-pro, all-AFC and all-rookie team at safety by the Professional Football Writers of America — he arrived at his second training camp wholly unsatisfied.
“I want to just continue to get better,” James said. “I know there were a lot of accolades last year. But I just want to keep coming out and getting better. I don’t want to get comfortable. You know, just keep growing as a player, as a person and as a teammate.”
With 14 years in the league, Thomas Davis has seen just about all the NFL can offer. He was part of a Carolina team that reached the Super Bowl and another that won two games.
But in James, the veteran linebacker and newest Chargers defender said he’s seeing something new: an already accomplished relative kid — James turns 23 Saturday — who has shown zero interest in gliding into his next opportunity.
“I think, for him, to be as young as he is,” Davis said, “being able to see how hard he works, how much he dedicates himself to becoming a better player … I think that’s the one thing that really surprised me for him being so young.”
The Chargers signed Davis, 36, in the offseason to provide both production and leadership. In 2014, he was the league’s Walter Payton Man of the Year (honoring a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as excellence on the field).
When James first joined the team, he assumed the sort of quieter role generally reserved for rookies. He was fitting into a defense that included veterans such as Brandon Mebane and Pro Bowlers such as Joey Bosa.
Before long, James could no longer remain quiet, his game-disrupting play elevating him to well above the status of someone in his first NFL season. Several of the Chargers now speak glowingly of his emergence as a leader on defense and in the locker room.
James has accepted all the responsibly and today is focused on a more ambitious standard.
“When I step on the field,” he said, “[I want] the opponents to fear me.”
Among the Chargers’ draft picks in April were two players from Notre Dame, two from the American Athletic Conference and one who was a four-time national champion at North Dakota State.
Then there was Trey Pipkins, who said he understands why so many of his new teammates aren’t terribly familiar with him.
“I’m from Sioux Falls, a place you’ve never heard of,” Pipkins joked about his standard greeting. “Let’s just be honest here.”
Taken in the third round, Pipkins is considered to be a longer-term project on the offensive line. Most of his reps in practice have come as the second team’s left tackle.
“I feel really comfortable,” he said. “It was a little bit of an adjustment getting used to the speed and used to the plays. Once we got through OTAs and minicamp, I’ve felt really good.”
During the Chargers’ joint practice Thursday with the Rams, Pipkins had the opportunity to experience Aaron Donald standing on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
The site represented quite a step up in competition for a player whose most recent game, in November, came against the Wayne State Wildcats.
“It was awesome to be on the same field as him,” Pipkins said. “But you have to think of him as being just another player. You have to work and do your best. It was really cool, though, honestly.”
The Chargers did not practice Friday and will have another joint workout with the Rams at 2 p.m. Saturday at UC Irvine.
The Chargers signed two offensive linemen Friday: Larry Allen Jr. and Jamar McGloster. Allen is the son of Hall of Famer Larry Allen Sr. McGloster spent part of 2018 on the Chargers’ practice squad. The team waived injured linebacker Tre’Von Johnson and offensive lineman Cole Toner.