Chargers need safety Derwin James Jr., but it’s unclear when he’ll be back

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. celebrates a turnover.
Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. celebrates a turnover against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 5 in Cincinnati.
(Zach Bolinger / Associated Press)

They lacked big, game-deciding plays Sunday at Houston.

The Chargers also lacked edge and energy, coach Brandon Staley said.

All of which points to something else that was missing in their 41-29 loss: safety Derwin James Jr.


A leader by his play, his example and his words, James might be as irreplaceable for this team as fellow Pro Bowler Justin Herbert.

“He just happens to be a defensive player,” Staley said. “You’re mostly used to it with quarterbacks. ... But he is a quarterback for us.”

James was in Houston and warmed up before the game. But he was available to play only in an emergency because of a hamstring injury.

James’ availability for this weekend, when the Chargers play Denver at SoFi Stadium, remains uncertain. He has been listed as a limited participant in practice the past two days.

The Chargers were missing 14 other players Sunday because of COVID-19, including running back Austin Ekeler, who also can provide the sort of spark the team could have used against Houston.

Ekeler said that he talked to a few of his teammates after the ugly defeat and the reports on the atmosphere in Texas were not great.

“It felt like it was dead almost,” Ekeler said he was told. “I mean, rightfully so since we lost a lot of our leaders, a lot of people that bring a lot of energy. It’s really hard to step up as far as being an actual leader in one week or in a few days and fill that role and fill that energy certain guys bring to the team. So that was understandable. But it’s not an excuse to go out there and not play well.”


The Times’ Sam Farmer analyzes each matchup and predicts the winners of Week 17 of the 2021 NFL season.

Dec. 30, 2021

The Chargers led 3-0 minutes into the game and were still up 12-10 late in the second quarter. But the Texans scored just before halftime and controlled the rest of the afternoon.

Asked about James’ value, Staley first mentioned the team’s record with (20-14) and without (12-17) him since he was drafted in 2018. James entered this year having missed significant time because of foot and knee injuries.

His ailing hamstring has cost him two full games so far this season. But James has managed to avoid the COVID list, with the Chargers losing 25 active-roster players for various stretches since mid-December.

Staley described his team’s defense as “different in every way” when James isn’t on the field.

“There’s a couple players in sports that have that type of impact,” Staley said. “What Derwin does is he makes everything better because he can be in a lot of different places.

“He can really cover up for some holes, for some weaknesses. He can also be an equalizer with a matchup. Maybe this is a tough matchup, but he can make it a better matchup because of where you can put him.”

Chargers free safety Derwin James Jr. warms up before a game.
Chargers free safety Derwin James Jr. warms up before a game against the Houston Texans on Sunday in Houston.
(Justin Rex / Associated Press)

James was selected to his second Pro Bowl last week. He has 103 tackles, three forced fumbles and two interceptions, the production making him a candidate for the league’s comeback player of the year.

Staley also appointed James as the defensive signaler this season, the added responsibilities melding well with his leadership skills.

“He’s the guy that’s in front of your defense every single day,” Staley said. “He’s the one talking to them. He’s the one talking to me. So he has that same impact that a quarterback has.”

Defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said signal-calling is a strength for James because he is so familiar with the scheme given the Chargers’ preference to move him all over the field.

That intimate knowledge allows James to convey nuances and reminders to his teammates in the huddle or just before the ball is snapped.


“He is so in tune with the game plan because he plays at all three levels,” Hill said. “That’s something that you definitely miss when he’s not in the ballgame.”

That and so many other things the Chargers would love to have back this weekend.

Chargers prepare for home game vs. Denver Broncos

Dec. 29, 2021

Williams and Davis activated from COVID-19 reserve list

The Chargers activated two more starters — wide receiver Mike Williams and cornerback Michael Davis — off the COVID-19 reserve list.

They are still without nine active-roster players, including three starters in cornerback Chris Harris Jr., safety Nasir Adderley and right tackle Storm Norton. Kicker Dustin Hopkins and long snapper Matt Overton also remain out.

The team activated practice-squad edge rusher Emeke Egbule off the list as well.