Versatile Derwin James is a prototypical NFL defender

COSTA MESA, Calif .– As Derwin James recovered from his second major injury in consecutive seasons, the Los Angeles Chargers security h...

COSTA MESA, Calif .– As Derwin James recovered from his second major injury in consecutive seasons, the Los Angeles Chargers security has found an unexpected way to help him remain one of the NFL’s most versatile defenders

He played video games.

For two hours a day last season, James played “Madden 21,” the NFL video game developed by EA Sports. Playing the game was fun, he said, but it also helped him see what his job is: flexibility.

“It really struck me,” James said in an interview. “Things are moving a bit slowly for me. I see the ball and am just in the right place.

Now finally healthy, James will switch between the rosters in first-year coach Brandon Staley’s scheme, much like the video game avatars he has spent hours controlling.

James exemplifies the kind of player coaches are looking for today – an athlete who is mentally able to juggle multiple tasks and perform them physically. Most of the best defenses in the NFL feature at least one player who fits that description, and some coaches, out of necessity, are now putting rookies in roles they weren’t originally drafted for. To say that these athletes play a role is to underestimate the territory they cover and the extent of their responsibilities.

“I think more people in the NFL understand the kind of flexibility you need to play with,” Staley said in an interview. “It requires a type of hybrid player that was not common 20 years ago.”

The “no position” trend, while becoming more popular, is not necessarily new. For years, defenses deployed nickel and dime packages – formations that typically traded linebackers for additional defensive backs and required versatile players.

Hall of Fame Security Troy Polamalu showed distance in his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers by jumping over the line of scrimmage to tackle the backfield, and he caught interceptions while hiding in cover. Many players today cite Kansas City safety that of Tyrann Mathieu role in Louisiana State and in the NFL as inspiration for their style of play.

But as attacks applied more exotic pre-snap moves, varied their replacement packages with different sets of skill level players, and as more quarterbacks exploited their opponents with their legs, defenses had to change. . GMs place great importance on players with an elastic skill set.

In recent years, the Los Angeles Rams have traded for Jalen Ramsey, the Steelers have acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Seattle Seahawks have brought in Jamal Adams. Each team distributed at least one first-round draft pick in the rally.

Ramsey last offseason became the league’s highest-paid cornerback. Adams, who in 2020 broke the record for sacks by a defensive back in one season (9.5), in August became the richest security in the NFL.

“Not all players can do this,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said in an interview. “We’re talking about 0.01% of the population, and typically 0.01% of the population finds a way to get paid or have an impact. “

The Chargers Drafted No.17 James overall in 2018. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, James ran the 40-yard scoreboard in 4.47 seconds on the NFL combine and played various roles in the Florida State High School.

But he missed 11 games in 2019 with a stress fracture in his foot and all of last season with a torn meniscus. Still, his performance as a rookie forced the Chargers to exercise his fifth-year option.

According to analytical website Pro Football Focus, James lined up in the box for 418 shots and safely took 216 shots as a rookie. He also took 166 snaps as a Slot Machine Defender and 205 Snaps on the Edge. This resulted in 105 tackles, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. His game earned him a Pro Bowl nomination and he was named to the First and Second All-Pro Teams.

“I never saw anyone do what Derwin James could have done at this size so that they could play anywhere,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout with the Eagles, Browns and Ravens who is now an analyst. for NFL Network.

James’ potential showed in his first game. During training against Kansas City, he slipped to the line of scrimmage as a passer in a blitz and sacked Patrick Mahomes. Two games later, he recognized a pass, sprinted to the end zone and kicked the ball away from wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas.

On the day Staley was introduced as the Chargers’ new coach in January, Staley and James briefly discussed the use of James. Months later, James said his new coach “opened his mind to another side of football”. Due to James’ leadership skills and intelligence, Staley named James as the caller of defense, a role traditionally assigned to middle linebackers.

Staley’s method of teaching defense, he said, is to make players think conceptually rather than memorizing certain games or a specific position assignment. Cornerbacks, for example, need to know the responsibility and technique of a safety in each cover. If they’re going to play in that lineup next, they’ll understand the approach.

“At first you could say there’s more to their plate, but over time you’ve expanded their base,” Staley said. “We think the cumulative effect, once it sets in, has a really powerful effect on a player because they understand the game at a higher level.”

In training, James often looks for challenges to test his versatility. At training camp in August, he would compete with wide receiver Keenan Allen for men’s cover in one drill, then stand near the line of scrimmage and rush the passer into another.

Over the course of six games, James leads the team in tackles (50) and makes an interception. In the Chargers’ 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 10, James made 16 tackles and lined up in midfield, in the lunge and in the men’s cover. He also rushed the passer from the line of scrimmage and strip-sacked Baker Mayfield.

“When things happen in a game, I’ve imagined doing it four or five times in practice,” James said of how he handles so many missions. “It’s like studying for an exam and waiting for the answers you already know.”

Staley used Ramsey in the same way in 2020 as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, and that saw Ramsey have his best season since being drafted in 2016. After Ramsey played mostly outside the corner with the Jaguars, Staley moved it inside the “star” Rams, allowing him to play against wide receivers in the slot and not be isolated from the roster.

Rams’ new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has expanded that role and Ramsey has played indoors more often. Ramsey has sometimes even said he doesn’t know where he will play until the game plan is set up on Wednesday or Thursday. This constant shuffling can confuse a quarterback and offensive linemen trying to identify him before the snap.

“This brings me to more action,” Ramsey said. “The teams will not be able to escape me and that can help me affect my teammates and the game in a positive way.”

Dallas Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons expects the same kind of versatility from him. Dallas drafted Parsons in the first round as a linebacker, but due to defensive line injuries he took some snaps as a rusher. In his first game at the post, he sacked and hit Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert four times.

“It really shouldn’t matter,” Parsons said of where he lines up. “If you are a dog, you will be a dog. It doesn’t matter where you are in the field.

Isaiah Simmons, a hybrid defenseman from Clemson, said some teams asked him ahead of the 2020 Draft if he can pick only one position.

“My thought process was, ‘Why limit myself? Simmons said in an interview. “If I can do more than one, it’s like having 12 people in the field.

The Arizona Cardinals agreed and drafted him in the first round. Last season, Simmons trained in six different positions, making 54 tackles and two sacks and catching one interception.

Fitzpatrick, the Steelers defenseman, said he is preparing for his multi-faceted role by studying cinema, drawing some lineups and reviewing his grades on Saturday and Sunday.

At the time of the game, he said he was comfortable with everything that is expected of him. Fitzpatrick, who enters unrestricted free agency in 2023, said he enjoys moving around high school because it confuses offenses.

Considering the precedent Ramsey and Adams have set with their recent contracts, it could help his wallet as well.

“I think it adds value for you as a player,” said Fitzpatrick. “I think it helps the team too, when you have guys who can do it.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Versatile Derwin James is a prototypical NFL defender
Versatile Derwin James is a prototypical NFL defender
Newsrust - US Top News
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