COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Derwin James wasn’t supposed to be there.
The Los Angeles Chargers' personnel department went through several mock drafts in preparation for the real thing last week, and the Florida State safety was never available at No. 17.
However, on draft day Chargers general manager Tom Telesco kept a watchful eye on the board as James slipped closer and closer to the Bolts’ first-round pick.
With a little bit of patience, the Chargers landed one of the best safeties in this year’s draft, a position of need for the team this offseason.
“We had a great group of players that we really liked, that we felt we could sit and wait, and we were going to get a good player no matter what,” Telesco said. “We got lucky with Derwin.”
Now, the Chargers have to figure out how best to use the playmaking defensive back. That task falls to Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who will begin finding the right position for James starting at the team’s rookie minicamp next week.
“It's a good fit for our defense,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “This guy, he has the skill set where he can do multiple things. There’s a lot of versatility.
“We can use him as a linebacker. We can use him as a strong safety, a free safety. We can rush him off the edge. He’s a good tackler in space and an outstanding coverage guy. He’s got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to get him here, teach him our system, get him caught up. But we are very pleased with this pick.”
In anticipation of James taking the field next week, we talked with Bradley about his new impact player. Bradley breaks down the versatility James brings to his defense here.
A rangy athlete in the back end
Because of his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, many draft analysts compared James to hard-hitting Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. However, James actually has similar physical traits to another safety Bradley worked with in Seattle, speedy Earl Thomas.
Coincidentally, James worked out with Thomas during the lead-up to the draft. The two share the same agent.
“Earl just (taught me) playing more with your eyes before feet,” James said. “I worked out with him and it was great. He showed me a lot on and off the field, to know what to expect coming into the league as a rookie. It was good working with guys like him.”
With Tre Boston not returning to the Chargers in free agency, James probably will get first-team reps at free safety as the Chargers look to fill the void. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boston played 854 defensive snaps at free safety last season.
James probably will not play that many snaps at that spot in 2018. However, James said he feels more than comfortable working as the center fielder in Bradley’s Cover 3 scheme.
The position is an important one in Bradley’s defense because the free safety has to have enough speed to get sideline to sideline to erase mistakes in the passing game, and also be a sure tackler in the open field to limit explosive plays near the line of scrimmage in the running game.
James ran a 4.47-second, 40-yard time at the NFL combine in February, tied for seventh-fastest among defensive backs. His 40-inch vertical jump was fifth among DBs and his 11-foot long jump was third.
James benched 225 pounds 21 times, tying for third most in his group. He maxed out at 450 pounds on the bench press at Florida State.
“Any time that you have length and it doesn’t take away from your short-area quickness, your speed and it doesn’t create stiffness, that’s a good thing,” Bradley said. “That’s what he has. He’s a taller player, but also you see that short-area quickness and speed.”
A run stopper at the line of scrimmage
The Chargers already have Jahleel Addae at strong safety. Even though he’s 5-10 and 200 pounds, Addae is comfortable and more effective playing in the box near the line of scrimmage. Addae played 746 defensive snaps near the line of scrimmage last season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
However, the Chargers played 479 defensive snaps last year with at least five defensive backs, giving up 5.7 rushing yards per carry (third-worst in the NFL). The addition of James should help improve the team’s run defense in obvious passing situations when they have smaller bodies on the field.
Bradley said the Chargers would like to use James as a nickel linebacker near the line of scrimmage when teams line up in three-receiver sets.
“The versatility gives us flexibility,” Bradley said. “So it might be a little bit when we go out there for rookie minicamp: ‘Go back here and play for a little bit. Go over here and play for a little bit.’ Let’s just see, and then we kind of take the big picture into it and go from there.”
Ability to get home as a blitzer
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers used five or more rushers just 108 times last season, second-least in the league to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
James proved effective as a blitzer and pass-rusher, with 5.5 career sacks at Florida State. So it’s another area the Charges can use his diverse skill set.
Along with that pass-rush ability, Another desirable characteristic that James brings is leadership.
James was a captain at Florida State and brings that “alpha dog” mentality to a defense that already has similar personalities in Bosa, Ingram, Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett, Denzel Perryman and Brandon Mebane.
Bradley said he briefly met with James at the combine and then had a more lengthy conversation with his new first-round draft pick at the team’s facility last week.
"He’s very impressive, very focused and seems to pick up things very fast," Bradley said. "And you feel that from him.”