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Growing Pains: Why Derwin James, Jr., is Better Than Ever

DJ

Derwin James, Jr., feels for the lengthy list of his teammates who are hurt or on Injured Reserve right now.

And while James isn't part of that group that features more than a dozen key names, he has been there before. Just look at his 2019 and 2020 seasons when he was limited to five total games due to various injuries.

But James, while healthy now, is also a realist, too.

He knows the reason he's playing at such a high level right now and drawing praise from coaches, teammates and opponents across the board.

"Being injured, actually," James said with a chuckle. "People don't understand but being injured means you get so much time to come to the building when no one is here. Meet with the coaches when no one is here.

"I feel like I got to see that aspect as a coach and how they really want it done," James added. "It helped me grow. That's why, when I got back on the field, it was easier for me."

From the #17 pick in the 2018 draft to cornerstone of the defense, Derwin James continues to leave his mark on the Chargers organization

This season has been a slog at times for the Bolts, who sit at 5-4 despite a rash of injuries to nearly every position group.

But the safety thankfully hasn't been one of them, which has allowed James to impact every level of the defense through nine games.

And it's difficult to articulate just how vital James has been for the Chargers defense this season.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley tried his best earlier this week to do just that.

"I think that for the average NFL fan, to be able to do as much as he does on the football field, not only what he is doing, but how he is doing it — and how challenging that is physically and mentally, like the tax — it would just be hard to explain to people the tax that Derwin has on him during a week," Staley said. "That's what special players in the league get paid for, for that tax.

"But he always answers the bell and there is no role that he won't perform for our team," Staley continued. "I think what he does is he does all of those roles at a premium level. That is what is rare about him. You don't have any defensive backs that can do what he can do.

"That is why I say you can never take what you are seeing for granted," Staley added. "Because you can name a handful of people in the last 20 years who are doing what he's doing on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis."

That is hefty and high praise from Staley, who is known as one of the top defensive minds in the league and has an ardent amount of respect for the history of the game.

But it's a challenge that is enthusiastically welcomed by James.

A year ago, he lined up at five different positions in his first year in Staley's scheme. His workload is even greater this season.

"They're asking me to play six or seven positions," James said as he rattled off a few of them, including edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and safety (you know, his listed position).

"But I feel like that's a privilege to be able to do that," James continued. "For them to trust me to able to go out there every week, every game plan, they trust that I'm going to do it right and not have any mental lapses at any of those positions.

"When you're doing that much, one lapse can be a touchdown," James added. "I don't feel overwhelmed or feel like I'm not making my plays. I'm do everything I can to give us a chance and have us be right there to win the game."

The Bolts have indeed been in nearly every game they've played, and have done so with a roster that has seemingly churned over each and every week.

James' on-field impact on the team can be seen each game, but his presence in the locker room and in meeting rooms is paying dividends, too.

As the quarterback of the defense, per se, he has to know everyone else's assignment and style while roaming the field in his own role.

That's been a week-by-week process with so many new faces getting shuffled into the lineup.

"I've definitely had to change it a little bit because I have to get familiar with new players coming in," James said. "I met a guy [Wednesday] who just came in, but I have to help him get ready to play on Sunday."

James' hybrid (and immeasurable) role on the defense is one he has had years to prepare for.

But the 26-year-old has embraced all that has been put on his plate.

"Where I am today, mentally, is two different stratospheres than where I was my rookie year," James said. "I was just playing off instincts and didn't grasp the playbook until midseason then.

"I was just reacting and playing and didn't know how the offense was playing me," James added. "All I saw was the ball and just learning my job. Now? I know my job well enough, I can see how you're trying to come at me now."

And if there's a team that James loves playing against, it's the one with the red helmets the Chargers will face on Sunday night.

James lit up when asked about the Chiefs, a team that Chargers seemingly always play tight. In fact, six of the past eight matchups between the AFC West rivals have been decided by one score or less.

"I love playing that team, man. Love playing the Chiefs," James said. "It's fun, a four-quarter game that always come down to the wire. We know who they are and they know who we are. There's no hiding."

James' skillset will be on display for all to see Sunday night, and he also won't be backing down from the challenge of helping the Bolts get into the playoffs down the stretch.

"It's on me," said James, who signed a multi-year contract extension in August. "It's part of my job and why the Chargers paid me, part of why I'm here as a leader on this team and a voice. No matter what it is, I'm going to play hard every play.

"We've got eight games left. In the NFL, you never know," James added. "Right now, where we're at, we're above .500 and in a good spot. Everything we want is still right there."

Check out the best photos of the Chargers Wednesday practice at Hoag Performance Center

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