Derwin James is the key to the Chargers defense in 2021

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley realizes that he needs a healthy defense this year if he is going to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. Led by All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs offensive juggernaut is hard enough to stop when everyone is healthy. No single Charger player will be more important to keep healthy than safety Derwin James.

A first round draft pick in 2018, the 24-year-old James had a terrific rookie season, recording 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 13 passes defended as a rookie and was chosen to the Pro Bowl and was selected first team All-Pro at defensive back. He helped lead the Chargers to a 12-4 season, and a playoff victory over the Ravens in Baltimore.

The past two seasons have not gone as well. In the 2019 season, James missed 11 of 16 games season due to a stress fracture in his right foot. James then missed the entire 2020 season with a torn meniscus. The past two seasons have not gone well for the Chargers, either. The Chargers went from 12-4 in 2018 with James, to 5-11 in 2019 and 7-9 in 2020.

The Chargers have struggled in close games the past two seasons and a playmaker like James would have helped. In his fourth NFL game in 2018, with the Chargers hanging on to a 29-27 lead against the 49ers, James came in on a blitz and hit quarterback C.J. Beathard before he could unload a dump-off pass to his running back. The ball fluttered into the air and was intercepted, giving the Chargers the victory. Those are the kind of defensive plays that have been missing the past two seasons for the Chargers.

Staley realizes that he will need a healthy James for this defense to hit on all cylinders. "He looks great,” said Staley. “He sounds great, as you know. One of his strengths as a football player is his leadership, and that energy that he gives everybody each and every day. You can see that he is a multiplayer out there. I mean, from the minute that I got hired and when I met this guy at my press conference, I felt better about our chances. When he's out there, our chances increase by a whole bunch. He's ready to play."

James is anxious for the opportunity to play again and play in a defense that plays to his versatility: "I love it. I can't wait," James said of Staley's new scheme. "I can't share too much about what we're going to be doing, but like I said, I'm very excited for this scheme. Just know that we're going to make a lot of plays."

The Chargers are loaded on defense with a healthy James. This is a young, talented defensive group that just needs to spend time together on the field to get better. All-Pro defensive end Joey Bosa, a first round pick in 2016, enters his sixth season with the Chargers. Bosa will be 26 years old at the start of the season. Linebacker Kenneth Murray, who led the Chargers with 107 tackles, the most by a rookie in team history, is only 22 years of age. Murray was a first round draft pick in 2020.

Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, a first round pick in 2019, will be 24 years of age at the start of the season. Staley has been impressed with what he has seen of Tillery, stating that, "I'm a really big fan of Jerry Tillery's game. I think this guy is a versatile inside player. This guy has real size and speed. This guy's production last year jumped off of the page for me.”

But the key to everything on defense will be a healthy James. With his range, he can cover at deep safety. With his speed he can cover a slot receiver. His size allows him to move up to the line of scrimmage as a box safety and he is a very effective blitzer. With his first step and instincts, he is a unique player that will make the Chargers a playoff contender if he can stay healthy.


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