Should Chargers Fans Start Worrying About Derwin James’ Contract?
Chargers fans have had their share of experience when it comes to contract disputes over the last few years. Of course, there was Melvin Gordon’s holdout which bled into the regular season. Joey Bosa held out while negotiating his rookie deal. Recently, Melvin Ingram executed a modern-day “hold-in” as he was looking to get the final year of his contract fully guaranteed. Fast forward to today and we are now 14 days into Chargers Safety Derwin James’ own hold-in as he looks to get his first big NFL payday. I think it’s safe to say that this negotiation has lasted longer than anyone expected so the obvious question is: should Chargers fans start worrying about this contract negotiation turning sour?
The Embodiment Versatility
Before we begin, let’s examine for a moment what James actually means from a football perspective. Fans have long said that James is the best safety in the game, but what does that actually look like? For me, it means versatility. Brandon Staley has talked about this before, but they essentially had James playing six different positions last season: deep safety (centerfielder), shell safety (standard two-high look), box safety, slot defender (MONEY), dime linebacker (STAR), and what Staley called the X which is basically a hybrid edge rusher. According to PFF, James logged 41 snaps on the defensive line, 361 in the box, 326 as a deep safety, 224 in the slot, and nine as an outside corner. Staley has also said that the reason they wanted to go out and add players like Bryce Callahan, J.T. Woods, and Kyle Van Noy was to arm James with more pieces around him that would allow him to be even MORE versatile.
The Chargers lost Chris Harris after the first game of the season, and due to some other injuries in that cornerback room, Staley tasked James with covering CeeDee Lamb for the majority of their matchup with the Cowboys. The next week, Staley wanted to ensure that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-octane offense wasn’t going to beat them over the top so he tasked James to play deeper than he usually does to aid Nasir Adderley in that mission. A few weeks later, James logged a whopping 49 snaps at STAR against the Vikings as Staley tried to slow down Dalvin Cook. He’s also had great moments defending star AFC West tight ends Travis Kelce and Darren Waller (I still fully believe that the Chargers win that December Thursday matchup against the Chiefs if he doesn’t get hurt late in the second quarter which forced Trey Marshall to cover Kelce one on one). No other safety in the league is doing what James does on a weekly basis. Oh and he’s also the Chargers’ primary defensive play caller and heart and soul of the unit.
Staley has been asked about James’ presence every time he’s been at the podium throughout training camp, and that didn’t change today either. He echoed this same sentiment:
“I don’t look at Derwin as a safety. I look at Derwin as an impact player. I think the reason why, if you were just looking at him as safety, that wouldn’t be doing Derwin justice. For me, I look at him as a defensive back. When I see him, I’m like, ‘That’s a defensive back,’ because he can play anywhere; he can play either safety spot, he can play corner, he can play Star or Money, he can rush the quarterback and make an impact as a blitzer. He can make an impact in man-to-man coverage, and then he can make an impact in zone defense, whether he’s playing low or high — and he’s our signal caller and the heartbeat of our defense.”
I bring up the on-field roles that James plays for the Chargers and what Staley said today because it could help explain why the contract negotiations have gone this far into August. We’ve long assumed that he would simply take over the mantle as the highest-paid safety in the league on a yearly basis. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick currently holds that tag at a yearly value of $18.24 million. PFF’s Brad Spielberger projected that could mean an annual value of $18.75 million for James’ extension.
However, given James’ value on and off the field to this team and what his coach said today I could see his agent trying to reset the whole defensive back market, not just the safety market. A lot of the other highest-paid safeties are pigeonholed into one position or are frankly not as good as him. 911 of Fitzpatrick’s 1,148 snaps came as a deep safety in 2021 for example. Despite the recent uptick in contracts, Jamal Adams is still the second highest paid safety in the league and Adams is not even on the same planet when it comes to their respective coverage abilities.
Versatility is an excellent advantage on the football field, but contractually it’s been a bit of an uphill battle for some players. The league as a whole likes to pencil every player into one specific market. We’ve seen certain tight ends such as Jimmy Graham try and get paid like wide receivers. There were also a lot of rumors that the 49ers were hesitant to give top-tier wide receiver money to Deebo Samuel because of how much of a hybrid role he plays for them. Of course, there’s the Le’Veon Bell situation when he was trying to get paid wide receiver money while playing running back. None of them were truly able to do what James might be.
The financial and draft value of the safety position has certainly come a long way but it’s still pretty far off from where the cornerback market currently stands. There are five cornerbacks who make more on a yearly basis than Fitzpatrick does: Jaire Alexander ($21 million), Denzel Ward ($20.1 million), Jalen Ramsey ($20 million), Marlon Humphrey ($19.5 million), and Marshon Lattimore ($19.4).
The disparity is even worse from a guaranteed money standpoint. Adams still has the largest guaranteed money number among all safeties at $38 million total. EIGHT cornerbacks (rounded out by James’ teammate J.C. Jackson) signed deals with larger numbers than that. Even if James hits the $40 million guaranteed number that Spielberger predicted, that would merely tie him with Jackson for eighth. If he truly wants to make a dent in the defensive market, he could be aiming for $19.5 per year and $65 million guaranteed. Those numbers would make him the clearcut top safety on the market and put him right in line with Humphrey’s contract.
I completely understand why certain Chargers have been frustrated with the delay, but there is still a lot of time left in the negotiating window that the organization has generally operated within. And unlike previous negotiations, the dialogue between James and the franchise remains amicable. James has been at the facility every single day and is participating in walkthroughs before every practice. The team has looked at Labor Day as a cut-off for negotiations and they do not negotiate during the season. That being said, Keenan Allen didn’t sign his extension on September 5th, 2020. So while the clock is ticking, it’s not time to start worrying just yet. Especially now that we have a little different lens into the situation thanks to Staley’s comments today. James will eventually get locked up as a long-term Charger, he’s too important to everything this franchise is trying to accomplish on and off the field.
Top Shots 2021: Best of Derwin James – Via Ty Nowell