COSTA MESA, Calif. — As Darwin James recovers from his second critical injury in back-to-back seasons, the Los Angeles Chargers safety finds an unexpected way to help him remain one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL .
He played video games.
For two hours a day last season, James played “Madden 21,” an NFL video game developed by EA Sports. Playing the game was fun, he said, but it also helped him see what his job was all about — flexibility.
“It really happened to me,” James said in an interview. “Things are going slow for me. I’m looking at the ball and I’m in the right place.”
Now finally healthy, James will toggle between alignments inside first-year coach Brandon Staley’s plan, much like the video game avatars he spent hours controlling.
James exemplifies the kind of player coaches we are looking for today – an athlete who is able to complete multiple assignments mentally and physically execute them. Most top NFL defenses have at least one player who fits that description, and some coaches, out of necessity, are now casting rookies in roles they were not originally designed to perform. . To say that these athletes play a position is to understand how much area they cover and how broad their responsibilities are.
“I think more people in the NFL understand what kind of flexibility you have to play with,” Staley said in an interview. “It requires a kind of hybrid player that wasn’t common 20 years ago.”
The “positionless” trend, while becoming more popular, is not necessarily new. Over the years the defense has deployed nickel and dime packages – structures that usually swap out linebackers for additional defensive backs and more versatile players needed.
Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu showed range in his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaping over the line of scrimmage to tackle in the backfield, and caught interceptions while lurking in coverage. Many players today cite the role of Kansas City safety Tyron Matthews in the state of Louisiana and the NFL as an inspiration for their playing style.
But as offenses implemented more exotic pre-snap motions, varying their replacement packages with different classifications of skill-position players, and as quarterbacks exploited opponents with their feet, The defense needed to be changed. General Managers place a premium on players with elastic skill sets.
In recent years, the Los Angeles Rams traded in for Jalen Ramsey, the Steelers brought in Minka Fitzpatrick and the Seattle Seahawks brought in Jamal Adams. Each team drew at least one first-round draft pick in the exchange.
Ramsey became the league’s highest-paid cornerback last off-season. Adams, who broke the record for sacks by a defensive back in one season (9.5) in 2020, became the NFL’s richest safety in August.
“Not every player can do that,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said in an interview. “We’re talking 0.01 percent of the population, and typically 0.01 percent of the population find a way to get paid or be influential.”
The Chargers drafted James No. 17 overall in 2018. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, James ran a 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds in an NFL combination and played in various roles at Florida State’s secondary.
But he missed 11 games in 2019 with a stress fracture in his leg and a torn meniscus last season. Nevertheless, his performance as a rookie forced the Chargers to exercise the option in their fifth year.
According to the analytical website Pro Football Focus, James lined up in the box for 418 snaps and took 216 snaps in deep safety as a rookie. He also took 166 snaps as a slot defender and 205 snaps on the side. This resulted in 105 tackles, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. His play earned him a Pro Bowl nomination and he was named to the All-Pro first and second teams.
Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout for the Eagles, Browns, and Ravens, said, “I’ve never seen anyone do what Darwin James was able to do in that shape, who was able to play anywhere.” .
James’ ability appeared in his first game. During a drive against Kansas City, he ran towards the line of scuffle as a pass rusher on a blitz and sacked Patrick Mahomes. After two plays, he recognized a pass that bounced toward the end zone and swung the ball away from receiver D’Anthony Thomas.
On the day Staley was introduced as the Chargers’ new coach in January, Staley and James briefly discussed the use of James. Months later, James said his new coach “opened his mind to a different side of football.” Because of James’ leadership skills and intelligence, Staley designated James as the defense’s signal caller, a role traditionally given to middle linebackers.
He said Staley’s teaching method with defense is to get players to think conceptually rather than to memorize certain plays or a specific positional duty. Cornerbacks, for example, must know the responsibilities and techniques of protection in each coverage. If they need to play in that alignment, they will understand the approach.
“On the front end, you could say they have more on their plate, but over time, you have expanded their foundation,” Staley said. “We think the cumulative effect, once it takes hold, has a really powerful effect on the player as they understand the game at a higher level.”
In practice, James often seeks out challenges to test his versatility. At training camp in August, he would compete against receiver Keenan Allen in man coverage during one drill, then stood near the line of scrimmage and ran a passerby in another.
Through six games, James leads the team in tackles (50) and has one interception. During the Chargers’ 47–42 win against the Cleveland Browns on October 10, James posted 16 tackles and aligned in the deep middle of the field, in slots and in man coverage. He also pulled a passerby off the line of scuffle and secured a strip-sack at Baker Mayfield.
“When stuff happens in a game, I already imagine myself doing it four or five times in practice,” James said of how he manages so many assignments. “It’s like studying for a test and you’re waiting for answers you already know.”
Staley used Ramsey in a similar fashion as the Rams’ defensive coordinator in 2020, and this has propelled Ramsey to achieve his best season since being drafted in 2016. After Ramsey played most of the outside corner with the Jaguars, Staley moved him inside the Rams. Star” position, allowing him to play against the receiver in the slot and not get away from the formation.
The Rams’ new defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, has expanded that role, and Ramsey played inside more often. Ramsey said that sometimes he does not even know where he will play until a game plan is established on Wednesday or Thursday. That constant shuffling can make a quarterback and offensive lineman try to recognize him before the snap.
“It gets me into more action,” Ramsey said. “Teams won’t be able to take away from me and that can help me influence my teammates and the game in a positive way.”
Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys rookie, expects the same kind of versatility from himself. Dallas drafted Parsons as a linebacker in the first round, but due to defensive line injuries, he took Snape as a lead. In his first game on the position, he recorded a sack and struck Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert four times.
“It shouldn’t really matter,” Parsons said of where he lines up. “If you’re a dog, you’re going to be a dog. It doesn’t matter where you are on the field.”
Isaiah Simmons, a hybrid defender at Clemson, said some teams asked him before the 2020 draft if he could pick just one spot.
“My thought process was, ‘Why limit me? Simmons said in an interview. “If I can do that many, it’s like having 12 people on the field.”
The Arizona Cardinals agreed, and drafted them in the first round. Last season, Simmons trained in six different positions, making 54 tackles and two sacks and caught an interception.
Steelers defender Fitzpatrick said he prepares for his versatile role by studying the film on Saturdays and Sundays, drawing some of the structures, and reviewing his notes.
As of game time, he is said to be comfortable with whatever is required of him. Fitzpatrick, who entered unrestricted free agency in 2023, said he enjoys hanging out in secondary because it confuses crimes.
With Ramsey and Adams setting the precedent with their recent contracts, it could also help their wallet.
“I think it adds value to you as a player,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it helps the team too, when you have people who can do that.”