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Chargers DC Gus Bradley sees parts of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Derwin James

Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley sees All-Pro safety Derwin James as an amalgamation of several great players he coached in the past.

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- In a year full of what-if moments, the Los Angeles Chargers have to wonder how differently things might have unfolded if All-Pro safety Derwin James hadn't missed most of the season with a broken foot. Though coaches rarely engage in such hypotheticals, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's affinity for James makes the impact of his prolonged absence apparent.

"He is playing fast," Bradley says of James. "I think some of the things that you're seeing, we're getting there quicker when he's on the field.

"I think his speed really eats up the grass. He gives them the chance to make some plays like the tackle he had last week. He brings that."

James has only played in four games due to his injury, but the defense has looked different since his return. The Chargers have lined up James everywhere from defensive end to box safety to slot corner. Few players can replicate that kind of versatility, and Los Angeles certainly didn't have a replacement during the three months and change James sat out while recovering.

Given how many close contests the Chargers dropped this season -- nine defeats and just two wins in games decided by a touchdown or less -- it doesn't seem like a stretch to say a healthy James could have pushed the team to a non-losing record.

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"I think with Derwin, the more he plays, the more plays you see," Bradley says. "It's not like you go back and say, 'Look at all these games, all the plays he's made.' He's played a limited amount of plays, but we see it as a coaching staff, some of the plays he made. Back to the Jacksonville plays, there's a couple third-and-shorts or fourth down, he made the plays. And if he played the whole season, I think those would add up."

Bradley understands the importance of a field-tilting defender. Earlier in his career, he coordinated one of the greatest defenses in recent NFL history: the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom." That unit featured many of the best defensive players of their generation, including, including Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Bobby Wagner.

"Normally, I don't like to compare guys," Bradley says of James, "but he's unique because he has the speed of a corner. He has the athleticism to make plays in space. He can play in the box. He's a good rusher. He's got a combination of all those things. I remember Kam Chancellor. Kam Chancellor played in the box, was a real physical player, and had really, really good instincts. And I see some of those traits in D.J. I see a guy that can cover a lot of field like Earl Thomas, can cover a lot of ground. So, I see bits and pieces of that."

Bradley believes that, with time, James can have as much impact on games as the great defensive players he coached in the past.

"The challenge for D.J. is he does have those skill sets, how high can he take each one of those skill sets?" Bradley says. "That's where I think he's got a lot of room for improvement."

-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH