COSTA MESA – In five seasons since Derwin James broke into the NFL, he's quickly established himself as one of the game's top safeties. But the value he provides to the Chargers is more than just what he does from his most natural position.
The praise and admiration for James' game can't solely be quantified by his play from the safety alignment. But rather, his capabilities when being utilized at other positions while still maintaining his elite level of productivity is what makes him such a unique player.
James' versatility at the NFL level has been put on display ever since he was drafted No. 17th overall by the Chargers in 2018. But this season in particular, Chargers coach Brandon Staley has given James a larger workload to shoulder in an effort to fully maximize his qualities.
“He’s doing the job of six other players," Staley said of the role James has played this season. "If you just said that one player is doing that job, you would have an expectation, but he is doing the job of six other players. That is what makes him so valuable. Mentally, there is a huge tax in understanding what to do and how to do it. Then, you have to understand what is going on, on the other side of the ball and that implication in six other roles."
James has lined up at every level of the defense this season. From the defensive line, to a glorified linebacker, to playing the deep part of the field, James has been asked to do it.
Snap counts from James this season, per Pro Football Focus:
- Defensive line: 56
- Box: 291
- Free safety: 296
- Slot corner: 134
- Outside corner: 17
On Wednesday, James drew a lofty comparison to another star athlete in Los Angeles from his coach.
Staley compared the Chargers' do-it-all defender to Lakers star LeBron James based on the similarities they have to one another in how each player is able to play numerous positions without sacrificing efficiency.
"He is like that LeBron James-type of player where he can just do everything," Staley said of D. James. "The thing that makes LeBron so unique is that he plays all five positions, and he plays them all at a premium level. He can do everything at the highest level that you could ask anybody to do — point guard, two guard, scoring, three-point, guard any position, post-up game, transition. You name it, LeBron can do it. That is something that is rare, and that’s why everyone reveres him that way because everyone knows that there are not many people that can do that."
James spoke Wednesday at his locker with a great sense of appreciation that Staley delivered such a compliment in comparing him to one of the basketball greats.
"He said that? Oh, appreciate that," James said. "I don't try to look at myself like LeBron, but I try to look at myself like I can do a lot to help this team win. Whether it's playing in the box or playing deep. I'm not just out here thinking I'm LeBron."
As James has been deployed across the field in more ways than one this season, the Chargers have turned to him in the most critical spots to cover the opposing team's top skill player man-to-man.
Two weeks ago against the Chiefs, James received snaps matched up against tight end Travis Kelce. Last week, he was tasked with slowing down Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for lengths at a time.
"I say it all the time, but last week was a signature play because it’s him on Hopkins and Hopkins is as good of a receiver as there is in the pros," Staley added. "Derwin was able to knock that one down for us. You need those signature plays in big games like that to give you the energy, give you the lift. You have heard me say that, but your premium players in this league, they have to make premium plays for you because it really ignites your football team.”
After the Chargers' Week 11 loss to Kansas City left the team with a sour taste in their mouths, James looked to have taken that personally. Last Sunday in Arizona, he proved to be a difference maker, forcing a fumble that the Chargers would recover and later came down with an interception on a contested pass to Hopkins.
James says he use to envision himself being a versatile playmaker to this magnitude before it actually became a reality.
"I used to imitate it on the video game, as crazy as it sounds," James said of the thought of him lining up at so many different positions. "Just trying to move my player everywhere. And then when I tried it in college, I'm like 'hey, this is not as bad as I think it is.'"
It's clear that James and the Chargers defense go hand-and-hand. He sets the tone for that unit, and they go as he goes. But James, while playing a multitude of different positions, says he prioritizes not just being a player that can play different spots, but that he wants to ensure he's able to do so at the level of expectations that he's set for himself.
"I don't want to be the guy just playing positions to play them," he said. "If I'm gonna move somewhere, I'm going to play them at a high level. That's always been my mindset."
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Nick Cothrel is the publisher of Charger Report. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickCothrel for more Chargers coverage.