He wasn’t supposed to be here.
There wasn’t a chance he was falling down draft boards. All of his measurements placed him in the top 10. Any mock draft you opened, his name was one of the first ones mentioned. Consistently mocked to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at pick number 7, the former Florida State star who is known as “Pooh Bear” was destined to remain in Florida for his NFL career.
Then came draft night, where anything can happen. Any trade can be tempting, a player’s stock could be too pricey, teams could look to build for the future rather than the now. It’s amazing how much could go through an NFL general managers mind in just 10 minutes.
But he wasn’t supposed to be on the board. When the Buccaneers traded away the seventh overall pick to the Buffalo Bills, everyone believed that safety Derwin James would be a lock five picks later. A safety with the speed of a cornerback and size of a weak-side linebacker, the Seminoles standout defender was waiting and watching. Waiting to hear his name called and enter the NFL.
The Bucs jumped on the clock following the Miami Dolphins selection of Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Their choice was made for them. It was James that would rebuild their secondary. James would become the face of the defense. In the NFC South, the Buccaneers would rely on him to cause turnovers, fly to the football and destroy receivers across the middle of the field.
The boy who grew up just 61 miles away from Raymond James Stadium would return home. He would become the hometown hero, the star of the secondary, the new face of the defense.
The Buccaneers got off the phone and announced their selection. It was Washington’s defensive tackle Tevita Tuliʻakiʻono Tuipulotu Mosese Vaʻhae Fehoko Faletau Vea. Most people better know his as Vita for short.
James wasn’t supposed to be here.
In a way, it might be a blessing that James fell down the draft boards. Vea has been sidelined after suffering a calf injury earlier this preseason. That could have been James. He still could waiting to make his NFL debut instead of earning a starting role. Who’s to say could have been.
Instead, James waited patiently inside AT&T Stadium, waiting for his phone to ring. “It has to be soon, right?” So many teams need a safety that are up to pick. Washington went defense, but on the line in the form of Daron Payne. The New Orleans Saints traded up to add to their pass rush with Marcus Davenport. The Oakland Raiders added protection for Derek Carr in the form of left tackle Kolton Miller. The Bills traded up again to find their leader of the defense in middle linebacker Trumaine Edmunds.
Then the Los Angeles Chargers were on the clock. It was a no-brainer for GM Tom Telesco when seeing who was available. He had met with James back in 2015 when he was a freshman. He was on his radar back then and now has a chance to grab him. Former Chargers star safety Eric Weddle was out in Baltimore, all the top quarterbacks were off the board, and he passed on Malik Hooker a year before.
“You always wait to see if a team is going to call,” Telesco said via Chargers.com. You never close doors. We had decided as it was getting closer that if Derwin is there, we’re going to take him. We’re not even going to look to trade down. But if someone does call, let’s see what happens. Once we were on the clock and Derwin was available, we knew he was the guy we were going to take,”
James shouldn’t have been available when the Chargers made their selection at pick 17. He knew, the fans knew it and even the Chargers staff knew it. Never once did anyone believe that James would wind up wearing the powder blue jersey.
But boy, should the city known as “La La Land” should be so thankful he did.
AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs might have bested the Chargers on Sunday in their season opener, but there was still plenty to be excited for. James’ opening day performance was certainly one of them. Following his excellent outing, this preseason, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley named him the team’s starting safety.
“I’d put (James’ I.Q.) pretty high now,” Bradley said via Chargers.com “We’re asking him to do quite a few things. He’s playing down (in the box), he’s playing back. We’re putting a lot on his plate because, really, that safety position, we’re trying to find out what combination we want to go with. That means they all have to play both positions.
“As a rookie, that’s pretty challenging, and he’s picking it up. Like I said, in the classroom, he’s pretty sharp. He just needs to go out on the field and do it consistently.”
He didn’t disappoint his coaches praise Sunday afternoon.
James would finish the game with three tackles, two solo stops, a sack, and two pass deflections. It’s safe to say he had a good game. In coverage, James looked locked in and strong turning his hips open.
One play stood out more than the rest of his afternoon. Deep in man coverage, James showed great recovery speed to regain some ground of Chiefs wide receiver DeAnthony Thomas. Opening his hips, James does an excellent job reading quarterback Patrick Mahomes short pass in the end zone.
Using his six-foot-two-inches frame, James extends his body to get a hand on the football, saving the Bolts from allowing another touchdown.
It’s textbook beautiful.
On James sack, the safety does a great job on timing the snap to get a head start into the backfield. In a dime formation, he makes Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher look inside, giving him a slight advantage to attack the outside and work back in. From there, James shows off his explosive 4.47 speed chasing down Mahomes from behind. As he tries to extend the drive, it’s too late, James has him pinned. Attacking at the hip, he drags down the quarterback back at the line of scrimmage.
It’s safe to say his teammates have noticed it too.
“It’s rare to see a young guy with so much talent, so much hype coming in, with such a desire to learn,” Chargers safety Jahleel Addae said. “He’s been all ears in meetings and when I explain stuff to him here and there. I see a lot of myself in him. I came in as a young player and had older guys help me and show me the ropes.”
So James had a solid game. Sure, the Bolts are starting out the year 0-1 by losing to the Chiefs for the ninth consecutive time. It’s frustrating, but it’s not on James. Los Angeles would have lost by 17 if not for James’s cover skills deep down the field.
There’s still plenty of holes the Chargers defense will need to fix in the coming weeks if this season is to be successful. They’ll need to get defensive end Joey Bosa back on the field and find an upgrade for outside linebacker Kyle Emmanuel. Hopefully second-round pick Uchenna Nwosu can progress faster and get some more playing time. James, however, has found his role in for the Chargers defense: leader.
Showing coverage skills, blitzing ability, great tackling along with solid growth in the open field, James is the real deal. While he might not be perfect in one specific area, he’s a well-rounded athlete who can find success in multiple areas. Taking snaps from all areas of the field, James is not your prototypical NFL safety. He isn’t just a safety; he’s a mix of that with a little bit of outside linebacker skills sprinkled on top.
There may be a few hiccups here and there but looking at his first outing, James could become the Chargers most important player down the road. With teams looking to pass more and run less, having his quality speed along with solid footwork covering running backs and tight ends could be a difference maker between ending a drive on a punt or a touchdown.
Before Sunday’s matchup, ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted out a thought on James’s potential. Comparing him to one of the best safeties of all-time, the long-time insider believes that the 22-year-old rookie could one day be just as great as the late Sean Taylor.
It’s a compliment, but perhaps too strong. Even with James’s stellar performance Sunday afternoon, Taylor is considered one of the greatest safeties that never was due to his unique blend of cover skills and hard-hitting playing style. Perhaps he would have been the greatest of all-time if not for his untimely death over a decade ago.
But James is here to stay. He will make plays and shine out in the sunny state of California. Will he become one of the all-time greats in Chargers history? Who knows, it’s far too soon. For now, let him enjoy the performance, look back at the tape and better prepare for his matchup against the Bills next Sunday in Orchard Park.
As the sun begins to fade over StubHub Stadium, Charger nation will have to accept defeat. But in the loss, a star was born. He’s humble, quiet and is ready to make plays for his defense. James will continue to grow as the season goes on, hopefully racking up tackles along the way to what many believe could be a Rookie of the Year like season.
So the Chargers didn’t get the win Sunday. They should be thankful still. Thankful that 16 teams passed on their franchise safety. Thankful that number 33 is growing into a star. Thankful they have another corner piece to bring their Bolts out of the AFC West cellar and into legitimate playoff conversation for years to come.
But mostly thankful that the Buccaneers selected Vita Vea.