Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Derwin James

Futures: Derwin James
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

While the NFL has been shown to value ball-hawking, centerfielder free safeties more than traditional strong safeties, the elite strong safety talents in the league can still change the face of a defense. The average depth of target in the NFL has steadily declined in recent years, and offenses are beginning to attack defenses horizontally rather than vertically, but a dominant middle-of-the-field defender is still one of the most valuable players in the NFL today. Florida State's Derwin James looks poised to join those ranks after a strong collegiate career.

James burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2015 when he recorded 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He also had one of the more impressive physical feats we've seen on a college football in Florida State's annual rivalry game against the University of Florida.


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That's James rushing off the edge at the top of the screen. And that's 6-foot-6, 295-pound Florida tackle Mason Halter whom James is shoving to the ground like his little brother.

The explosion that James showed in that clip showed up during his performance at the NFL Combine. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, James ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash while posting a 40-inch vertical and a ridiculous 11-foot broad jump. That explosive ability allows James to be a dynamite run defender as he takes on blocks against tight ends on the fringes of the line of scrimmage. He's a smart run defender who routinely leverages his run fits to keep himself in prime position to make impactful tackles against running backs.

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Aside from the technical proficiency he showed to keep his outside shoulder free, James also flashed his strength as he completely stopped the ballcarrier in his tracks before getting him down to the grass. Stopping power is paramount for defenders who will spend time in the box and split the difference between the mike linebacker and the cornerback; Derwin James has that ability in spades.

James has also shown the ability to be an absolute force as a blitzer off the edge. His size, speed, and leaping ability allowed him to get into passing lanes with ease when Florida State sent him on a blitz.


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Of course, James is a defensive back, so the vast majority of his value is going to come from the plays he's able to make in coverage. James has an uncanny ability to excel in both man and zone coverage despite being a bigger safety prospect. When safeties who are enforcers versus the run show off the ability to thrive in coverage (Keanu Neal, Kam Chancellor, Harrison Smith, etc.), they can really hit the ground running when they arrive into the NFL.

James' explosive athletic ability allows him to be a force in coverage in the short area of the field. He can redirect and cover slot receivers and running backs with the same ability as smaller cornerbacks.

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Florida State is playing man coverage, and James is locked on the running back running a wheel route out of the backfield. Since every other Syracuse receiver is running a route breaking towards the middle of the field, the running back is the clear, defined option for the play. James does a fantastic job of using the sideline as an extra defender, mirroring the route, and high-pointing the ball for an interception at the catch point.

When James was asked to cover actual wide receivers, he answered the call more often than not. Safeties of his size with his man coverage abilities are anomalies; they should be highly coveted players even if they're going to spend a lot of time in the box. Dominant middle-of-the-field defenders should always be in high demand.

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Once again, Florida State is in man coverage. James is locked up man-to-man against Miami's Ahmmon Richards, one of the more talented receivers in the country and a player about 30 pounds lighter than James. James is able to stay right in Richards' back pocket and close in on his hands at the catch point. It's beginning to sound like a bit of a broken record, but it's hard to emphasize how rare these coverage plays are for a player of James' stature.

As an added bonus to the stalwart defensive play he already brings, James has shown the ability to be a standout return man when given the chance.

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Derwin James is the prototype strong safety/overhang defender that teams are going to covet as the passing game gets closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. He can play in the box, in the slot, off the edge, and even over the top in a pinch. The fluidity and ball skills he brings to the table are top-notch and will allow him to be a coverage weapon against the elite tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers the NFL has to offer. If James can stay on the field for all 16 games this year, he should have a monstrous first season and be a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in his debut. Safeties don't typically go high in the draft, but James would be well worth the pick.


5 comments, Last at 03 Apr 2018, 2:15pm

1 Re: Futures: Derwin James

With Kam Chancellor possibly done for the career, James would just be a perfect fit for Seattle. Fits right in that big safety/small linebacker role that's so important in their style of defense.

2 Re: Futures: Derwin James

I would not mind if the Steelers pick him up.
He has an injury history though... and here he is 6'1 but the nfl website lists him as 6'3.
Which one is it?

3 Re: Futures: Derwin James

James sounds like the lovechild of Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, who both played in predominantly 3-4 defenses. Would James suit some type of defenses better than others? I'm think that his skill-set might not be properly utilised in some schemes (e.g. vanilla Cover-2).