In the midst of a splintered season, the Chargers on Monday became as whole as they’ve been all fall.
All-Pro safety Derwin James returned to practice for the first time in more than three months and appears on course to make his season debut Sunday at Denver.
“Hell, yeah,” he said when asked whether he would be ready to play this week. Then, asked about the potential of rust, James added: “I’m not worried about it. Let’s go.”
Coming off a rookie season in which he established himself as one of the NFL’s most dynamic and versatile defenders, James suffered a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in mid-August.
He was hurt during a joint practice with the New Orleans Saints at the Chargers’ training camp facility in Costa Mesa. James had surgery a week later and was placed on injured reserve.
Per NFL rules, the Chargers have 21 days to active him from IR, though James has no intention of waiting that long. He said he physically has “no limitations at all” and mentally has remained locked in on what the Chargers are doing.
“If I start something, I always want to finish it,” James said. “We’ve got five games left. I feel like we can finish the season up 9-7.”
The Chargers were expected to contend for the AFC title until they were decimated by injuries and burdened by an inability to make key plays late in close games. They are 4-7, with each loss coming by one score.
In James, they are getting back a player who can move all over on defense and produce the exact type of game-deciding moments that have been missing.
In 2018, he became the first Chargers rookie to be named a Pro Bowl starter since linebacker Shawne Merriman in 2005. James finished with a franchise rookie-record 109 tackles. He also had 3½ sacks, three interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
“He looks good,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “He looks good in uniform. It’s just good to see him back on the field, just his spirit and the leadership that he brings.”
Adrian Phillips, an All-Pro on special teams in 2018, replaced James in the starting defensive lineup for the first two weeks before suffering a broken right arm in a loss at Detroit.
Phillips also was placed on IR. He resumed practicing in advance of the Chargers’ game last week against Kansas City. He too looks to be on pace to return Sunday in Denver as Lynn’s defense moves closer to being as healthy as it has been all season.
Phillips said the final step in his comeback was getting his arm back to full strength.
“I finally got it back now,” he said. “So I can go out there and not think about it at all and just play the way I’m capable of playing.”
On similar rehabilitation schedules, James and Phillips often were able to work out together.
James said they particularly pushed one another during an on-field session before the game against the Chiefs.
“Under the circumstances, it was probably the best thing,” Phillips said. “Going through the process sucks. But being able to go through it with somebody like Derwin, competing like that, it puts you back in that football mode.”
After Phillips was injured, undrafted rookie Roderic Teamer moved into the starting lineup at strong safety for six games. He then went down with a groin problem. Jaylen Watkins started the past three games at the position as the Chargers’ secondary was stretched more and more thin.
Still, the defense played well enough and is coming off a game in which Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes passed for only 182 yards, his second-lowest total in 26 career starts.
The Chargers lost to the Chiefs 24-17 when Philip Rivers threw four interceptions, the last of which came in the end zone. Their seven losses come by a combined 36 points.
“It’s been hard,” James said of having to sit out and watch. “I’ve been wanting to be out there to help my team win. We’ve been losing a lot of close games, within one point, one yard. Just to be back out there feels good.”
James is returning at a time when free safety Rayshawn Jenkins has continued to emerge in his first full season as a starter. Jenkins leads the secondary with 43 total tackles and has a team-high three interceptions.
“To have Derwin back, I think it’s going to be special,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “I think we’re going to have the best safety combination these last five games. Hopefully, we’ll be clicking right away. We got no time to wait. We need to win these five games.”
Right tackle Sam Tevi “will have a chance to play this week,” Lynn said. He has missed the past two games because of a knee injury. ... Left tackle Russell Okung did individual work on the side during practice Monday as he works his way back from a groin problem. ... Rookie linebacker Drue Tranquill, who missed the game against Kansas City because of a sore calf, returned to practice. “He looked fine,” Lynn said. “I think the bye week did him some good.”