COSTA MESA, Calif. -- For the majority of the 2019 season, the Los Angeles Chargers have played without two of their most important defenders: Derwin James and Adrian Phillips. Both could make their returns Sunday when the team travels to Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos.
James, a first-team All-Pro safety as a rookie in 2018, fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during training camp. The injury required surgery and multiple months in a walking boot. The Chargers placed James on injured reserve on Sept. 1, stripping the secondary of its most dynamic player.
The unit absorbed another blow just a few weeks later. During a Week 2 matchup with the Detroit Lions, Phillips fractured his forearm while making a routine tackle. As with James, Phillips' injury landed him on IR.
The backend of the Chargers defense struggled without James and Phillips. Their absences forced undrafted rookie Roderic Teamer into duty earlier than expected while third-year safety Rayshawn Jenkins had to take on a more significant role. Meanwhile, James and Phillips rehabbed in the background, unable to help their teammates on the field.
Another member of the Chargers' secondary can sympathize with their plight.
"I know how it feels to miss some games, especially early in your career," Pro Bowl cornerback Hayward says.
Hayward's comment refers to a recurring hamstring issue that derailed his 2013 season. Then a member of the Green Bay Packers, he tweaked his hamstring while working out on his own prior to training camp that year. The injury cost him multiple weeks of practice before he returned to the field in August. Hayward then aggravated the injury during the third week of the preseason, putting him on the shelf again for roughly two months. By the time he returned in Week 8 of the regular season, Hayward had fallen behind Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and others on the depth chart.
"I messed up my hamstring," Hayward says. "I kept messing it up."
Unfortunately for Hayward, his injury woes that season didn't end there. His hamstring flared up again a few weeks later, forcing him to the sidelines once more. The Packers officially placed Hayward on injured reserve on Nov. 23, ending his season after just three games.
Still, while Hayward's hamstring limited him to just a handful of games in 2013, he sees some key differences between that injury and the ones affecting James and Phillips.
"Derwin, the injury he had, he's done that injury before," Hayward says. "So, he kind of knows what to expect. Then A.P., he had an upper-body injury, so it didn't affect his running or his legs or anything."
Indeed, James' teammates have raved about how well the second-year safety has looked during practice since the Chargers designated him to return. James has echoed that optimism. "I'm getting really, really close to where I know I need to be in order to have a great game Sunday," he said Wednesday. Meanwhile, Phillips returned to practice two weeks ago and hasn't dealt with any setbacks.
"Getting those two guys back will just help us as a defense," Hayward says. "Those guys played a lot of ball for us last year."
The Chargers haven't said publicly whether James or Phillips will play this week, but the two have practiced all week as though they will take the field Sunday. Head coach Anthony Lynn called James "a healthy person right now" and didn't think the second-year safety would have any significant limitations. Likewise, Phillips has progressed well and could start immediately.
But before James and Phillips can play, the Chargers need to move them back to the active roster. The team will can wait until the end of business Saturday before making the declarations official, keeping the Broncos somewhat in the dark about James and Phillips' availability.
In the meantime, Hayward looks forward to playing alongside one of the NFL's premier defensive backs once again.
"Derwin, I feel like he's the best safety in the league," Hayward says. "So, any time you can get one of those types of guys back, it's going to help your team. Obviously, this is going to be his first game back, so we can't expect the world out of him," Hayward says. "But we expect him to do Derwin things."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH