If some team in the NFL is going to consistently rattle MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes, that team will need a sizable safety who can play center field against his cannon arm, a physical linebacker who can muscle up to tight end Travis Kelce, and a deft pass rusher who can push him to the brink of a bad decision.
On top of all that, a team will need a defender who has the instincts and speed to prepare for the unexpected – the no-look pass, the fourth-and-9 laser.
How many drafts is that going to take?
Well, the AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers found elements of all of that in a single draft choice. The best candidate to be Mahomes’ kryptonite might be 6-foot-2, 213-pound safety Derwin James, who fell to the 17th pick in April because many of the teams ahead of Los Angeles didn’t recognize what was right before their eyes. If James isn’t the NFL defensive rookie of the year, he’s very close.
“If you turn on the tape,” James told Yahoo Sports one day before the 2018 NFL draft, “if you really watch my game, I feel like I bring a lot to the table.”
Back then, James saw the predictions and said, “Those mock drafts are crazy.” He was expected to go anywhere from seventh to 24th.
What was crazier, though, was he may have been picked higher if he wasn’t doing all the things at Florida State that he’s doing now in the NFL.
“I could have been selfish and said I just want to play safety,” James explained back in April. “My team needed players to play linebacker, so I played weak linebacker. Just for the team. Need somebody to rush the passer? Coach, I’ll do that. I’m not really a ‘me’ guy. Whatever is best for the team, I do that.
“Once I do settle into one position, that’s when I play the best.”
Yes and no. He’s been one of the best players in the AFC by showing up everywhere, like a photo bomber at a tourist trap. Much like Mahomes, no two James highlights are the same. Through 13 games he has 88 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three interceptions. The Chargers have gone from 18th in defending tight ends to first.
“A tight end would never just run by me,” James said. “They try to push off but I feel like I’ll be good.”
James added that the best athlete he had ever faced was Lamar Jackson, but he never felt there was a better athlete on any field than him.
He sounds a little bit like former teammate Jalen Ramsey. It was Ramsey who taught James the intricacies of watching film when he arrived at Florida State.
“He showed me how to break it down,” James says. “Situation football that let me take it to another level.”
But it didn’t take long to get to that other level. Even during James’ first season, the Florida State coaches were devising schemes simply to get him on the field.
“We called it ‘Cheetah,’” Ramsey said. “It was basically bringing an extra DB in. We blitzed out of that package. He had free rein.”
Perhaps James would have gotten more national attention if it wasn’t for Ramsey and Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes before them. James was just the next in a parade of all-world defensive backs in Tallahassee. He also got hurt in his second year.
“He didn’t really have that second season,” Ramsey said. “He really played one and a half years of college football. And he did everything.”
Doing “everything” was in a way, part of the problem. The undermanned Seminoles nearly missed a bowl in what would be Jimbo Fisher’s last season there in 2017. So while some draft-ready players were on national television every weekend – fellow safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, for example, who went 11th overall – James and his teammates were stumbling toward the Independence Bowl.
“If we played in the playoff, I’d be in the top-5 discussion,” James said. “Easy.”
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who coached Ramsey in Jacksonville, wasn’t about to whiff on James. And already there are comparisons to another safety from Bradley’s past: Kam Chancellor.
It’s early, though. Thursday night at Arrowhead will be James’ 14th game. If Kansas City wins, James will be 0-2 against Mahomes, and the Chargers will have to watch the Chiefs celebrate a division title. A win would keep a No. 1 overall seed in play.
Either way, James is about as good a foil for Mahomes as a rookie can be. “Showtime” will be forced into studying James for years – all because a bunch of teams failed to study him a little more closely when they had the chance.
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