Derwin James’ Game-Changers: Top 5 Plays That Defined His NFL Career (So Far)

What are your favorite plays of Derwin James Jr.?

Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. is excited for this upcoming season. At his most recent press conference, he said that having all of the newness of the defensive additions, the scheme, and the coaches was like Christmas. And every year they feel like they’re going to do better as a team but this year in particular feels right.

Under the new head coaching regime of Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, James will hopefully be a different player. One that is more steady and grounded in certain positions and not over-utilized.

That’s what happened to James, he was asked to do too many things over the years, and last season that manifested in his stats, when all of his Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades dropped from the previous year. Former head coach Brandon Staley took advantage of James’ versatility and stretched him too thin.

Now it’s up to Minter and Harbaugh to piece James back together. Minter mentioned wanting to reestablish James as one of the best safeties. And though they’re focused on versatility, it doesn’t seem like they’ll have a repeat of what they had under Staley. James thinks he will still be used in multiple positions with more detail than before.

James is so talented that he needs to be used as much as possible but there needs to be more structure and maybe not as many positional changes every game. 

To celebrate James’ return to form this season, I’ve compiled below a list of his five best plays in the NFL. It’s hard to make a list like this when you have a player like James, so I’m definitely interested to hear what others think: 

1. Derwin James Body Slams Travis Kelce, 2022, Week 2 vs. Chiefs

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Derwin James
Denny Medley-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This was one of THE games of 2022. The Chargers’ defense was on point and did a good job containing Patrick Mahomes and overall, this game was so competitive and fun to watch. But the best play had to be the bodyslam heard around the world. 

This play happened during the third quarter, when the Chargers were up by 3, with a score of 17 to 14. At the Chargers 22, on a 2nd-and-6, Mahomes was pressured by edge rusher Joey Bosa with the pocket collapsing, so he escaped on a bootleg out to the right side and found Kelce, who he completes the pass to at the 10-yard line.

Kelce weaves in and out of defenders and he’s powering toward the goal line. A touchdown seems inevitable. Then Derwin James comes out of nowhere, picks Kelce up, and slams him down. Since Kelce is picked up horizontally, you can see the momentum of his body, like when you pick up a toy car that’s running along a track, its wheels still moving at full speed, and he’s trying to push forward, but James just won’t let go. You see James’ pure strength and determination to do absolutely everything in his power to make sure that Kelce doesn’t score, and it’s incredible to watch.  

Derwin James Sacks Baker Mayfield, 2021, Week 5 vs. Browns

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

This was a very high-scoring game for the Chargers and the Browns with a final score of 42 to 47 in the Chargers favor. Herbert had the most passing yards for the 2021 season during this game. During the play, you get to see James lined up on the defensive line, something he does a little now, but not nearly as much as when he started his career in 2018.

In the first quarter, on a 2nd-and-10 at the Chargers’ 17-yard line, the ball is snapped, without any interference whatsoever, James shoots down, right along the edge of the pocket and into it to sack Mayfield before he even sees him coming.

Mayfield is taken down with such force that his body actually spins around as he falls, and he fumbles the ball as he’s hit immediately when he pulls back to throw. It’s one of those clips you can’t help but play over and over because it’s just that cool.  

The Sack of C.J. Beathard, 2018, Week 4 vs 49ers

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even as a rookie, James came out hot. 2018 is still one of his best years in the league. It’s the year he played the most snaps (1,169), had the most STOPs (47), and it’s tied with 2022 for the most sacks (four).

This was the game too where Beathard got his first start of the 2018 season after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL during the previous week.

As the play begins, the score is tied 17 to 17 and they’re at the 49ers’ 32-yard line, on a third-and-8 during the third quarter. It starts similarly to the Mayfield one where James is lined up on the defensive line and manages to get to Beathard and take him down. And it again just shows the determination of James to finish a play, as he’s blocked initially from getting into the middle of the pocket, so he redirects, going out to the right side to catch Beathard as he’s running.

Unfortunately, this was the first of many sacks Beathard would be subjected to during his brief stint as starting quarterback for the 49ers in 2018. 

The Interception, 2018, Week 13 vs the Steelers

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

James showed just how vertical he can get during this game, and it makes sense, considering at the combine he had a vertical of 40 inches with a broad jump of 11 feet.

On a third-and-10 during the second quarter, with the Chargers down by six, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass intended for tight end Vance McDonald.

James seems to come out of nowhere to leap up and snatch it out of the air. He then sprints along the sideline into the middle of the field, cutting in and out of players, until his ankle is grabbed and he’s tripped up at the 44.

This play also shows off his speed. He literally starts on the other side of the defensive line and sprints across the field to make the interception. He’s this piece that you never quite know where he’ll end up or what he’ll do, which is why any offense that faces him should always be looking for his number. 

The Sack on Joe Burrow, 2021, Week 13 vs Bengals

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Chargers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This was a high-scoring game as well for the Chargers, where they won 41 to 22, and Herbert also had over 300 passing yards. It was also the first time that Burrow and Herbert went against one another, so it was must-see TV.

The James play was another deeply satisfying sack. On a third-and-seven during the third quarter, the Chargers are up by two, 24 to 22. At the Cincinnati 46-yard line, James flies off the defensive line and powers past running back Samaje Perine to get to Burrow, while former safety Nasir Adderley also sprints into the pocket and hits Burrow so that he spins right into James’ arms. It’s a tag team sack and is extra special as it marks the only sack of Adderley’s career.