With 31 players selected in the past four NFL drafts, the Florida State Seminoles have boasted some of the best players in the nation. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was a top-five pick in this year’s draft, and while it’s never good to lose a player of his caliber, the team does have another superstar-in-the-making on defense in safety Derwin James. A true sophomore heading into the 2016 season, James was our No. 2 highest-graded safety in the nation last year, and is poised to stake his claim as perhaps the best defensive player in the nation in 2016.
That might seem bold, but just how good James was in 2015 seems to have flown under the radar. That’s to be expected when you have a superstar like Ramsey on the same roster, but James’ freshman year was one of the best performances of any player, in any class, across the nation. Considering he did it all as a true freshman, it’s easy to see why there is some excitement around just how good James can become.
Versatile skill set
James’ versatility is one of his best features. In his first year in college football, he played 719 of Florida State’s 970 defensive snaps, and he did so all over the field. While 405 of those snaps came at free safety, he also saw time in the slot (132 snaps), outside cornerback (four) and in the box (108 snaps either at strong safety or an off-the-ball linebacker). It’s not uncommon for safeties to split time between playing deep and playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but what is rare is to see someone who actually lines up in the position of an edge rusher, which James did on 70 snaps last season. So that was a true freshman who could be utilized all over the field from day one, not just as a defensive back but also as a pass-rusher.
There’s a lot of value to be had in a player with that much versatility. Take Duke’s Jeremy Cash, our highest-graded safety in 2015, for example. Cash lined up at what he called the “strike safety” position for the Blue Devils, racking up three sacks, 11 hits and 15 hurries on 73 snaps as a pass-rusher. James managed five sacks, two hits and 15 hurries on 61 pass-rushing snaps, meaning he was just slightly less efficient as a pass-rusher than Cash, with the Blue Devil getting some form of pressure on 39.7 percent on his pass-rushing attempts to James’ 36.1 percent.
Getting pressure is one thing, but what really stood out about James was that he was able to take on blockers to get to the quarterback. Of his 22 pressures in 2015, he beat a blocker on 12 of them, with none more highlight-worthy than the play below, where he knocked Florida senior right tackle Mason Halter to the ground to force a quarterback scramble.
It’s a role we can expect to see more of from him in 2016, with reports out of spring practice suggesting that Florida State will continue to use him as an edge rusher in a situational role, allowing him to spy quarterbacks and rush from the edge. Given how good an athlete he is, that’s a thought that should terrify quarterbacks and offensive coordinators alike heading into the 2016 campaign.
The big picture
As fun as it is to marvel at his ability as a pass-rusher, that was just a small part of what James did as a freshman. To appreciate how good an all-around player he is, we need to look at the big picture.
He had PFF’s 13th-highest run-defense grade among safeties last year, and racked up that grade both by beating blockers and by showing excellent discipline, like on the option play below. Plays like this are seen as relatively routine, and they should be, but it’s important to play your assignment — something James does well here, locking on to Demarcus Ayers out of the backfield and bringing him down for a loss. It helps that he limited mistakes too, missing just four tackles against the run all year.
He was in coverage for 356 of his snaps, and while he still has some work to do here (he was tied for 19th among safeties last year in the PFF grading system), there was a lot to like, especially from a player so young in his college career. James recorded 22 tackles that resulted in a defensive stop in 2015, with five of those coming as sacks, and another eight coming against the run. That leaves nine such tackles in coverage. (A defensive stop is defined as a tackle for no more than four yards on first down, less than half the distance required on second down, and short of the yardage needed for a first down on third or fourth down.) Nine might not seem that impressive a number, but considering the fact that he spent more than half of his snaps as a deep safety, the fact that he was able to get up and make sure the receiver was brought down short as often as he did does impress.
His stat line in coverage doesn’t jump out, with no interceptions and just one pass defensed to his name, but he did break up another three receptions with big hits. Becoming more of a playmaker in coverage should definitely be an aim for 2016 and beyond, but he’s already making a name for himself as a big hitter and someone who can track receivers out of the backfield well. This play against Chattanooga highlights it well, with James turning into a head-seeking missile as he tracks wide receiver C.J. Board and brings him down behind the line of scrimmage.
Be it as a pass-rusher, against the run, or in coverage, James lines up all over the field and grades well across the board. He’s the highest-graded returning safety in the nation, and he did it all as a true freshman. Considering that, in theory, he should get better with age, it’s terrifying to think how good he can be over the next two or three seasons in college. Like so many impact defenders before him, opposing quarterbacks will be scanning the field to find him before every play. There’s a definite chance people will be talking about him as the best player in the nation on the defensive side of the ball in the 2016 season.