The hits just keep on coming in 2020, with the latest NFL blow being that Los Angeles Chargers superstar safety Derwin James will miss 6-8 months, and therefore the entire NFL season, after suffering a meniscus injury in practice.
This was always a possibility with a meniscus tear, and as PFF’s injury analyst Mario Pilato pointed out, it’s better for James in the long run; it allows for a complete repair to his meniscus rather than cutting a piece out to simply reduce the pain and clean it up.
James is now in danger of entering a phase of his career where his health and availability is a significantly bigger question mark than his dominance once he returns to the field. Dating back to college, James has earned excellent PFF grades — and in pretty much any role.
That latter part is the true strength of his game. James is one of the most versatile defensive players in the game, and in the true sense of being excellent at everything he turns his hand to, not just being able to adequately pull off whatever is asked of him.
Videos had been surfacing throughout training camp of James covering Keenan Allen — one of the best route runners in the game — in one-on-one drills. Allen eviscerates full-time cornerbacks in space, but James was able to hang with his teammate multiple times, breaking up a pass and picking off another one. Even if every other rep that never saw the light of day was bad, that’s a better return than a lot of cornerbacks have had against Allen, and James is a strong safety by trade.
In his NFL career, James has upwards of 250 snaps each as a deep-lying free safety, in the box and covering the slot. He also has a smattering of plays split wide as a perimeter corner, albeit mostly covering backs and tight ends.
As mentioned on the PFF NFL Podcast, the Chargers are well-placed to withstand the loss of James because of the other talented players in their secondary, but that versatility is where his absence bites deep.
Chris Harris Jr. has been arguably the best slot corner of the past decade, and Desmond King II has been the best slot corner since he entered the league. King will likely be a capable safety this year as he switches position to make room for Harris, so the team has a wealth of matchup options to cover the difficult areas inside, but it no longer has a player who can play any of those roles at a moment’s notice and move from one to the other.
Losing James massively restricts the creativity the Chargers' defense can bring to the table. James has the ability to line up in several different positions, to provide the fulcrum on which the rest of the defense can pivot and reassemble in a new form. Without him, the other pieces in the defense remain elite, but they no longer have the dexterity to adjust snap to snap.
It's a blow any time you lose a player as good as Derwin James, but it will be felt the hardest in that area.