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Derwin James: The steal of the 2018 NFL draft

Derwin James has been one of the best at every level of football he’s played. Out of high school, James was the number 5 recruit in the country and the fifth highest rated recruit to enroll at FSU. From the moment he stepped on campus in Tallahassee, James was one of the most impressive players in college football. As a freshman, James was running through 300-pound offensive lineman and making highlight plays all over the field. After a knee injury, James’ junior year was full of highlights, vaulting him to the top of many teams’ draft boards. After an exceptional draft combine, James surprisingly fell to the 17th spot in the NFL draft. With that pick, the Chargers got the steal of the draft and possibly the defensive rookie of the year.

On the night of the 2018 draft, many thought Derwin James would be a top 5 draft pick and top 10 at worst. But somehow, the FSU product fell into the hands of the Chargers at number 17. James was the 9th defensive player taken in the draft, the 3rd DB, and the 2nd safety. But there were no players quite like James in the draft with the ability to play at all three levels of the defense. From day one, he made an impact on the Chargers’ defense. After an impressive preseason, James started the first game of the season and never looked back, starting all 16 games. James made impacts at each level of the field, with 4 TFL and 3.5 sacks when playing on the line, 105 total tackles playing as a linebacker and safety, and 13 pass deflections and 3 interceptions in coverage. James has the speed to run step-for-step with guys like Tyreek Hill, the length to cover guys like Travis Kelce, and the strength to run through offensive lineman.

So how did 16 teams pass up on James? I’m not saying all 16 picks were bad, but certain picks look like busts compared to James. Many players picked before he put up great numbers this year, but none of the defensive players have quite the skill set James does. His range, speed, strength, and length make him one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire NFL. In particular, I’m sure the Dolphins, Buccaneers, and Saints wish they could have a redo on their first round picks.

At pick number 11 the Dolphins took safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is a 6’1, 202-pound safety that put up 14 bench press reps, broad jumped 121 inches, had a vertical of 33 inches, and ran a 4.46 forty-yard dash. James is 6’2 215 pounds, had 21 bench press reps, a broad jump of 132 inches, a vertical of 40 inches, and a 4.47 forty-yard dash. Fitzpatrick, like James, played in all 16 games, but only started 11 of them in contrast to Derwin’s 16 starts. The only stat Fitzpatrick beat James on for the season was TDs. James had more INTs, tackles, sacks, pass deflections, and tackles for loss. There is no doubt the Dolphins would trade Fitzpatrick for James.

Defensive tackle Vita Vea was taken with the next pick by the Bucs. The Bucs had already passed up on Derwin once, trading away their 7th pick and moving back in the draft. It was also the second straight year that the Bucs, surprisingly, passed up on an FSU star (Dalvin Cook in the 2017 NFL draft). Vea missed the first three games of the season before playing the last 13, but he only started 8 of those. The defensive tackle had fewer tackles for loss and sacks than the safety Derwin James. The Bucs also already had pro-bowler Gerald McCoy at the DT position. In 2017, the Bucs had the worst passing defense in the NFL with arguably the worst safety combination in the NFL. But instead of drafting the draft’s best safety, they drafted a DT. The Bucs’ pick still confuses me to this day.

With the 14th pick, the New Orleans Saints took defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport didn’t record a start for the entire season, and only had one more sack than James and fewer tackles for loss. The Saints are currently the favorites to win the Super Bowl, but they have the 26th ranked passing defense. If the Saints had drafted Derwin James and put him at the back end of their stout front seven, this would be, by far and away, the best team in the NFL.

Derwin James’ knee injury and drop in production his junior year could be a reason he fell in the draft. But was his knee hindering his play in 2017 for the Noles or was former defensive coordinator Charles Kelly not using James’ ability in the right ways. James’ sacks decreased by 3.5 and his tackles for loss decreased by 4 from his freshman year to his junior year. James was rarely used on blitzes or close to the line. FSU’s scheme made James a coverage safety instead of a do it all type of safety. If James had been put in better spots and used more to his abilities, the 2017 FSU defense could’ve improved significantly.

In his rookie season, Derwin James proved what he could do to the teams that passed up on him. He also proved that he will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of his career. The safety was one of only 5 rookies named to the 2019 Pro Bowl rosters and was just named Pro Football Focus’ defensive rookie of the year.

The DBU alum will look to continue his dominant play in the postseason this Sunday against the Ravens and old foe Lamar Jackson. Look for James to spy on Jackson for the majority of the game.


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