Derwin James Jr. insists the Chargers will finally feature a better defense

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. gestures during a training camp session.
Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. believes the defense has grown through consistency.
(Kyusung Gong / For the Times)
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All eyes over the next four-plus months will be on the Chargers’ offense, where the NFL’s highest-paid player will give life to the new coordinator’s celebrated scheming.

Just don’t lose sight of the defense, which almost certainly will have a greater impact on the team’s success.

Derwin James Jr., the league’s highest-paid safety, has the situation squarely in focus, the three-time Pro Bowler insisting that this fall the Chargersfinally — will be a better defense.

And what will be the cause of such a revival?

“A bunch of grown men coming together,” James said. “We’re not kids. We’re not little boys. When a bunch of grown men make up their minds and they’re tired of something, that’s when things change.”


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With Justin Herbert at quarterback, the Chargers are going to be one of the NFL’s best passing teams, regardless of who’s calling the plays or executing them.

A year ago, an injured Herbert — operating behind an injured offensive line and throwing to an injured receiving group — finished second to eventual MVP Patrick Mahomes with nearly 4,800 yards through the air.

But what secured the Chargers their AFC wild-card playoff berth was a late four-game winning streak during which the defense permitted only four touchdowns.

In the first three of those victories, the offense produced but 20, 23 and 17 points, as Herbert threw for one touchdown and had three passes intercepted.

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Still, the strong regular-season finish capped a year that saw the Chargers finish 20th in yards allowed and tied for 21st in points surrendered, improvements over the previous season but hardly a leap forward.

From the outside at least, this was not the expectation when the Chargers hired Brandon Staley to be their coach in January 2021 after he coordinated the NFL’s best defense with the Rams.


But switching to a significantly different, more complex system than the one employed by predecessor Gus Bradley has required time to adjust. Staley and general manager Tom Telesco also had to rework the roster to better fit the head coach’s vision.

Staley explained that the Chargers had to “kind of engineer” their personnel to reach this point, noting particularly the need to add force up front and find cornerbacks better equipped to play man coverage.

Now, two years into the transition, the Chargers believe they have a defense capable of keeping up with their offense.

“We definitely want to be that dominating group that we all know we can be,” James said. “We’ve got the pieces to do it. We’ve got the guys to change that narrative.”

They are counting on continuity. The Chargers allowed linebacker Drue Tranquill to depart in free agency and didn’t re-sign linebacker Kyle Van Noy or slot corner Bryce Callahan.

They also weren’t going to bring back safety Nasir Adderley, who announced his retirement. in March.

Chargers linebacker Eric Kendricks (6) warms up with teammates during training camp.
Chargers linebacker Eric Kendricks (6) will be the quarterback of the defense, calling the signals in the huddle.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Otherwise, all the main pieces return, supplemented mostly by two veterans, linebacker Eric Kendricks and tackle Nick Williams, and two draft picks, edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu and lineman Scott Matlock.

In total, the Chargers league-wise have the fourth least amount of roster turnover from last season, according to Over The Cap. And they’re only nine-tenths of a percentage point behind Cincinnati and Buffalo for having the least amount.

“I really feel we’re way more connected this year, the whole defensive unit,” lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said. “That’s what we needed. We needed time to jell with one another.”

They also are hoping for better health. Edge rusher Joey Bosa, cornerback J.C. Jackson and linemen Austin Johnson and Otito Ogbonnia all missed extended stretches last season.

And the 2023 Chargers are prepared to rely heavily on Kendricks, their biggest addition in free agency and someone with an extensive background running similar defenses.


“To have that experience in the middle is going to work wonders for us, especially in the run game.”

— Khalil Mack, on new Chargers linebacker Eric Kendricks

Kendricks, 31 and entering his ninth season, will relay the signals in the huddle and be in charge of ensuring that he and his teammates are properly aligned at the snap.

“Having a guy like Eric running the defense is special,” Bosa said. “I think he’s going to facilitate the defense in a way that we haven’t had. With Derwin, it’s like having two quarterbacks on defense out there.”

Kendricks has been an All-Pro once, but that was in 2019. Still, he has topped 100 tackles in each of the last seven seasons and played at least 14 games in all but one season.

Just two years ago, Kendricks had 143 tackles and five sacks, both career bests, and intercepted two passes, one of which was thrown by Herbert.

The Chargers spent all training camp praising Kendricks as a communicator, leader and stabilizer. Those characteristics are expected to particularly help in defending the run.


That’s where the Chargers struggled most in 2022, allowing a league-worst 5.4 yards per rush. Only Detroit and Chicago gave up more yards per play overall.

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“You can tell he’s been holding down defenses for a long time,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said of Kendricks. “To have that experience in the middle is going to work wonders for us, especially in the run game.”

So the Chargers defenders are convinced they’re ready to do their part this season, ready to show that new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore isn’t the only reason to anticipate more explosiveness.

Moore spent the last four years in the same role with Dallas. The Cowboys averaged 29.3 points per game over the last two seasons, tops in the NFL. During that same time, they also reached a league-best 50 points three times.

The Chargers have scored 50 or more just once since 2008. That came in Week 11 of 2017 and required the opposing quarterback — Buffalo’s Nathan Peterman — to throw five interceptions.

But also understand this much: During Moore’s time in Dallas, the Cowboys won just one playoff game. Yeah, it takes more than a good offense to succeed in this league.


“We’re chasing completeness,” Joseph-Day said. “That’s what this is all about now. We don’t want to be just a one-way team.”