The 2018 NFL Draft class is likely one that litters the NFL with defensive talent for years to come as several of the first-round draft picks have become household names in just 17 weeks this year. The draft class saw the likes of Darius Leonard, Leighton Vander Esch, Da’Shawn Hand, Denzel Ward, Levi Wallace, Bradley Chubb, Vita Vea and Jaire Alexander to name a few. However, impressive in their own regard, that group all finished the 2018 regular season behind Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James in overall grade as James’ impact across the field was felt immediately and all season long for Chargers’ opponents.
While the debate raged on for weeks between which linebacker was having a better season, Leonard and Vander Esch each put forth dominant seasons in their own regard, but our selection for Defensive Rookie of the Year made little time announcing his presence for the Chargers.
James logged at least 56 defensive snaps and put forth game grades of 70.0 or higher in his first four contests this season, grabbing an interception and two additional pass breakups on his first seven targeted passes in coverage. A solid season debut is one thing, a full season with such prowess on the backend of one of the league’s better defenses is another.
And that’s exactly what James managed to do this season.
He played at least 47 snaps in all 17 games this year and only finished three contests with game grades lower than 65.7 while he manufactured eight game grades above 70.0. All of this led to an 88.3 overall grade that saw him finish first among all defensive rookies and fifth among qualified safeties this season who logged at least 300 defensive snaps.
What made James so special in his rookie season was his ability to do it all across the field, something we saw during his time at Florida State and something that clearly represents the shift in today’s prototypical safety in the NFL. In total, James lined up deep safety, a box safety, an outside linebacker, an inside linebacker, outside cornerback and as a slot cornerback, all on multiple occasions, and in multiple games. He had no trouble rushing the passer, stopping the run or covering outside receivers just the same as he did with smaller, shiftier slot receivers.
He was a threat in coverage just as much as he was a threat when he rushed the passer, recording near-elite grades in both categories this season. James’ 89.7 coverage grade finished third among his peers while his 86.0 pass-rush grade was the second-best among safeties who rushed the passer at least 30 times in 2018.
All told, James’ 19 QB pressures on just 68 pass-rush snaps were good enough for second, as he tied for first with New York Jets safety Jamal Adams for the positional-leading four sacks. His 7.1 yards per reception allowed ranked fourth among all safeties who spent at least 200 snaps in coverage while he tied with Arizona’s Antoine Bethea as the only two safeties to see more than 33 targeted passes and not allow a reception longer than 21 yards.
Described as a ‘movable chess piece’ along the defense, James’ ability to line up across the field, and do so efficiently, led to his selection as our Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as his ridiculous statistics in our PFF advanced metrics.