Derwin James Injury A Brutal Blow To The Chargers. What Next?

Los Angeles Chargers Safety Derwin James. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | LAFB Network
Los Angeles Chargers Safety Derwin James. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | LAFB Network

Death, taxes, and the Chargers being without key players in week one. Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Chargers, that trend has continued two years in a row for All-Pro safety Derwin James. When healthy, he’s arguably the best safety in the game. The sad reality is that injuries are starting to pile up for the former Florida State Seminole.

Chargers fans were holding their breath when news broke that James had left practice early on Sunday. All of the beat writers said that he was grabbing at the back of his right leg and angrily threw down his gloves before being looked at by the medical staff. It was then reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter that James was being diagnosed with a strained hamstring, which would have been an ideal outcome considering the alternative being reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Rapoport is reporting that James is going to “miss significant time” with a meniscus injury. 

A hamstring injury could’ve been just a few weeks recovery period, but the meniscus injury could potentially be season-ending if the Chargers and James elect for surgery. There’s no other way to put it, this is a brutal turn of events for both the team and the player. There have been multiple occasions this offseason where reporters from the various networks and websites have said that this is James’ team going forward, that he was going to fill the void previously held by Philip Rivers as the face of the franchise. 

Now, James is facing the second recurring injury of his career. He missed 11 games last season after re-aggravating a foot injury that sidelined him in college. This time, it’s a meniscus injury that forced him to miss the majority of his sophomore season.

The reports have changed quickly for James, and there is still a chance this does turn out well for him. The team was better equipped to deal with his injury last year with veterans Adrian Phillips, and Jaylen Watkins on the roster, but both of them also dealt with their share of injuries. Former undrafted free agent Roderic Teamer ended up starting seven games for the Chargers. Hopefully, that kind of snowball effect does not happen this year for the team because they simply do not have the kind of depth to survive a repeat of 2019. 

That being said, let’s break down the team’s main options to at least attempt to replace the former All-Pro. 

Option One: Next Man Up

The ever-popular mantra for football coaches everywhere. This will ultimately depend on the severity of James’ injury. For now, rookie safety Alohi Gilman is technically the backup strong safety. He could be moved into the starting lineup now. That’s the simplest approach and the one with the fewest moving parts. However, Gilman is simply not ready to be thrust into that kind of position, then again neither was Teamer.

The former Notre Dame Golden Domer was almost instantly pegged as a special teams pick after the draft. Gilman brings a lot of juice to the football field, his energy is immediately evident when you pop on his college tape. That’s the good, the bad is that he appears to struggle with the same kind of things that Rayshawn Jenkins does: taking bad angles and inconsistent tackling.

Needless to say, having two players that struggle at similar things manning both safety spots at the same time is not ideal. Gilman is a fine developmental project, but he’s not ready just yet.

Option Two: Focus On Versatility

If you’ve been paying attention all offseason, one of the themes all year has been versatility and that brings us to the next option. The Chargers have been moving guys around a lot so far in camp. NBA fans have seen in recent years a de-emphasis on positions and an overall emphasis on simply getting the best players on the court, or in this case the field, all at once.

This was the motivating factor in the team signing Chris Harris Jr. instead of a traditional outside corner. Harris has made a Hall of Fame career out of being an elite slot corner, but he does possess the required skill set to play on the outside as well. As we saw on Hard Knocks this last week, he’s still able to keep up with the best of the best. 

Desmond King used to be the team’s main slot cornerback and had a breakout season in 2018. Unfortunately, he took a big step back in 2019, another factor in signing Harris Jr.

King is a fierce tackler in space and a nice playmaker when brought off the edges via blitz calls. He did play both safety spots in college and could be another versatile option for the Chargers. He’s reportedly been taking reps at slot corner and both safety spots. 

I mentioned Jenkins struggles, but 2019 was his first year at free safety, and he did have some very good games. He played particularly well against the Detroit Lions and against the Kansas City Chiefs in Mexico City. He is probably the second-best athlete in the secondary after James. He’s got excellent ball skills and his one-on-one cover skills are very good as well. He played strong safety in college at Miami, and for his first two seasons in the NFL. People forget this, but he played a lot as the team’s dime linebacker in 2018 and did it well. This might be a hot take, but the Chargers don’t beat the Ravens in the 2018 playoffs without Jenkins.

Former second-round pick Nasir Adderley will also be in the mix. Adderley also brings a lot of juice and versatility to the table. He started his career at Delaware as an outside corner, and he played it very well. Then he switched to free safety and took his game to the next level. He has elite range and great ball skills. He’s got all the makings of being a very good player for the Chargers if he can prove that last year’s injury struggles really are a thing of the past. 

There is no replacing James with one individual player, and perhaps that’s the approach they should be taking. If they want the best cover unit, they could go with Jenkins at strong safety and Adderly at free safety. If they want physicality and tackling, they could go with Jenkins at free safety and King at strong safety. If they want to move Harris to the outside spot, they can put King at the slot, Gilman at strong safety, and Jenkins deep. The Chargers have a lot of options, and they should use them, especially if James is only out for a few weeks.

Option Three: Bring In A Veteran Free Agent

Although this is not my preferred option, the Chargers probably have to bring in some outside help if Derwin James does opt for season-ending surgery. They have two sub-options here: sign a veteran corner and move King to safety permanently or sign a veteran safety for depth there. 

Former All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas is obviously the popular name on the market, and on paper it does make sense because of his familiarity with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme. However, I just wrote about versatility being a key factor in the Chargers decision making process this offseason and Thomas does not bring a whole lot to the table at this point in his career.

There are a lot of conflicting reports out there as to why the Ravens decided to cut Thomas, but one of them is that they were not pleased with his ability in the box and as a tackler in space. Derrick Henry made a lot of people look silly last year, but I have to think that famous stiff arm he put on Thomas was a lasting image in the minds of the Ravens’ front office. Signing Thomas would bring even more moving parts than anything else because he is exclusively a deep safety. Aside from all the off-field baggage, he brings to the table, I just don’t love the fit with the non-James safeties.

If you sign Thomas, that likely means moving Jenkins into the box in James’ place, a year after he moved to the free safety position. It also means way fewer reps for Adderley, who needs every rep he can get as he tries to find his place in the league. Personally, I’d rather see what they have in Adderley, Jenkins in year two as a starter, and King as a versatile chess piece. 

There are other options out there that could be much cleaner fits. Eric Reid is currently a free agent and would bring the kind of physical presence inside the box that James does. Tony Jefferson wouldn’t be the worst signing in the world. If they are truly desperate, they could even bring back Jahleel Addae to fill in behind the younger players mentioned above as a depth piece. 

The Chargers are in wait and see mode. Hopefully, Derwin James will just need a trim and won’t be out for an extended amount of time. If he is, they absolutely need to bring in a veteran presence for depth.