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Derwin James Is the Best Defensive Player in the NFL Draft

NCAA Football: Delaware State at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Seeing a player universally mocked in the 20’s after two dominant years of football makes you wonder. Then, on air at the combine, the analysts say you can’t justify his tape based on performance in 2017 to take him high, and you realize a couple things. They either didn’t watch or are ignoring obvious traits that translate to the next level. Yesterday, Florida State safety Derwin James wowed at the combine. Here’s what he did at 6’1 215:

Images via Mockdraftable.Com

From an athleticism standpoint, he’s a guy that shouldn’t get out of the top 10. You can’t just rely on athleticism. Not in the first round. You need a player you can rely on that can come in and help you right away. Derwin James is that guy. In every facet, he’s exceptional. James can cover, tackle, and blitz. In coverage, you can see he has the route recognition and awareness to take away routes. In the open field, you see him square up and bring down the most elusive players. Off the edge, or up the middle, his athleticism shines in getting after and bringing down the quarterback. James can line up as the deep traditional safety. He can drop down to the slot and match up against the shifty slot receivers or bigger tight ends. He has the size and physicality where he can play that dime linebacker in sub-packages. Having the ability to put a player anywhere and know he’ll excel is one of the best problems to have. Especially in a match-up league. Let’s go through some examples of where James might find himself in the NFL.

Tenacious Tackler

I watched a lot of safeties in the NFL and the number of tackles missed was astronomical. Good players, like Landon Collins, allowing broken tackles over 20% of the time. That’s just counting when they were able to get a hand on the ball-carrier. Tackling has trended in the wrong direction. That’s how explosive plays happen. Defenses want to blitz, leaving a player 1-on-1. That player misses in space and there isn’t another defender for 10-15 yards. Something that jumped out at me with James was his tackling. He missed 4 in the 7 or so games I saw from him. He’s not just diving at ankles. He’s squaring up and coming to lay the boom.

Then going the other way.

James has rare closing speed. The kind that can save the big play. The kind that can turn a potential 5 yard gain into a tackle for loss.

Even in less extreme examples, his tackling is superb. At Florida State, it had to be. I’ve seen him wrap up Louisville’s quarterback. Here he is wrapping up Alabama’s. Watch #3.

Tackling is a big deal. James is great in space. You cannot undersell that. Pair that with his range and he’s going to clean up the stat sheet at the next level.

Sticky Safety

When you hear people say “he’s better in the box” it’s easy to think that they mean the guy they’re referring to is a liability in coverage. In this case, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In man coverage, James is arguably the best in the draft. That’s not limited to just safeties, either. He covers like a corner. He beats receivers to the spot. This is where you see a star. When you play the slot, you’re going to see jerk routes, pivots, shake routes, a plethora of double moves. It’s tough. Seeing James in the slot this year not only hold his own but win the majority of his reps was nothing short of amazing. I put together a reel of clips of James in coverage. I’ll let that speak for itself.

I have to nitpick to find flaws when he is in man coverage. He can win in multiple ways. That’s a big deal. He loves to sit a few yards off and get his hands on you to reroute you. He can also play off and essentially run your route for you. Seeing him beat multiple receivers to the spot of the ball was impressive.

It’s popular to compare James to Kam Chancellor. That’s selling him short in man to man. In my opinion, Kam didn’t become a good cover guy until a couple years ago. James will walk into the league and could start in the slot. Speaking of Chancellor, that role for James patrolling the middle of the field is an ideal one. They’ve changed a lot of the rules defensively but you can still intimidate. If receivers know that you have an enforcer sitting there you better believe they are thinking twice about going inside. James has a knack for sniffing plays out and making you pay for crossing the middle.

Here he is jumping a post route and jarring the ball loose after a big hit.

The plays where James truly shows he’s a playmaker is, ironically enough, the ones that don’t show up in the stat sheet. There are so many occurrences during a game where he will jump a crossing route and cover it to the point where it’s not even an option to throw that receiver the ball. That’s the mark of a good cover safety. Watch him sniff this route out below. It’s 3rd down. Look where he comes from.

With how important winning on third down is in the NFL, a guy that can impact your defense this much is a no-brainer. He’s going to make a lot of coordinators regret passing on him. He’s not a chess piece. He’s a weapon. Here is the final clip I’ll show in coverage. It’s James showing off his range as a single-high safety.

Hiccups in his game

James isn’t perfect. He’s great, but he has flaws. One obvious one is the in-game loafs. If I was interviewing him the first thing I’d ask is why there were so many. Was it the team success was down? Why do you feel like you can turn it on and off when you want? I’d be fascinated by that answer. You didn’t see it against Alabama. You didn’t see it on money downs. You saw it against NC State or some of the lesser games. That’s not something we’re used to seeing a “top player” do. That’s the one area he truly “lacks.” Again, this didn’t happen in 2015. Only during a down year this year.

In zone coverage, as a traditional single high free safety, his eyes can get stuck in the backfield and he can lose sight of receivers around him. He also can be a tick late to react and that eliminates the athleticism advantage he has. I’ve seen him get outside of the numbers from the middle of the field. There’s no doubt he can get there. It’s a matter of being consistent in his reads. From this position, there were exposures of James being too conservative of a tackler as well.

These are the areas I had issues with his game. That’s it.

Big-boy blitzer

I mentioned James being a weapon. In 2017 he rushed the passer 43 times and 13 pressures and 2 sacks, per PFF. That’s getting after it. He can out-athlete offensive lineman and outmuscle running backs. I’ll show 2 blitzes and we can get out of here. I’ve seen against Alabama and Syracuse James get in throwing lanes and nearly intercept a pass as he’s going full speed after the quarterback. This first one is the ultimate “wow” play.

It happened in a two-minute drill. A long arm that a true pass rusher would die for. James didn’t get the sack but he did force the quarterback to flee from the pocket and throw the ball away.

This next rush James is coming from the linebacker spot. You see his closing burst. As he gets through the line of scrimmage he “dips” like an edge rusher would.

I didn’t want to inundate this piece with GIFs but that’s really the only way to get the point across for how impactful James can be. He’s going to be the true test for best player available versus a need. To me, what team can’t use him? He should be in play for all teams. He’s made plays at every position. James has the floor of a very good starter. At worst he’s a Pro Bowl alternate a couple times during his career. His ceiling? Man. He’s the perfect mold for a defender in today’s NFL. Why would you pass on that? I know I wouldn’t.