After a 14th consecutive missed training-camp practice Tuesday, James’ head coach offered a glowing endorsement of the two-time Pro Bowl player and perhaps a glimpse into the negotiations.
“I don’t look at Derwin as a safety,” Brandon Staley said. “I look at Derwin as an impact player. If you were just looking at him as a safety, that wouldn’t be doing Derwin justice. For me, I look at him as a defensive back.”
Staley then went into detail, explaining that James can play either safety position, outside cornerback, slot corner or linebacker in the Chargers’ dime package.
He also noted that James can rush the quarterback as a blitzer and affect the game in either zone or man-to-man coverage.
“And he’s our signal-caller and the heartbeat of our defense,” Staley added.
That sort of sweeping versatility and responsibility could be part of the reason James remains a non-participant in practice while still being present for walkthroughs and team meetings.
Negotiating on James’ behalf means negotiating for a player who, in some very clear ways, is redefining his position.
Among NFL safeties, Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick has the highest annual average salary at $18.2 million and Seattle’s Jamal Adams the most guaranteed money at $38 million.
But when adding in cornerbacks, the numbers swell. Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander is making an average salary of $21 million a year, while Cleveland’s Denzel Ward has $71.25 million in total guarantees.
Somewhere amid all those numbers, James and the Chargers are still searching for a solution.
“If you just looked at him as a safety playing safety, you wouldn’t look at him the same way you do as a defensive back,” Staley said. “He has the rare combination of all those factors, plus the intangibles of impacting the defense and the team on every snap.”
The Chargers will practice with Dallas on Wednesday and Thursday in Costa Mesa before the teams face one another in a preseason game Saturday night at SoFi Stadium.
After that, the Chargers have one week of training camp left, culminating in their preseason finale Aug. 26 at New Orleans.
So, it would seem, the clock is about to start ticking just a touch louder in regards to James having enough time to be ready for the start of the season.
Staley, however, downplayed any such concerns, citing a very specific example from his past.
On Sept. 1, 2018, Staley was Chicago’s outside linebackers coach when the Bears traded for Khalil Mack. Eight days later, Mack had a sack, caused and recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown in his debut with the team.
Mack then went on to have the third of his three All-Pro seasons.
“When we traded for Khalil in Chicago, Khalil did not have an offseason,” Staley said. “He did not have a training camp. He showed up one week before the first game and had the game of his life …
“If you know guys like Derwin and Khalil, they’re going to be ready. And, no matter when this happens, Derwin’s going to be ready. And we can’t wait for that time when it comes.”
One difference in these cases is the health history of the player in question. Entering 2018, Mack had not missed a game in his first four NFL seasons. James was limited to five games in 2019 and missed all of 2020 because of injury.
Still, Staley said he has no concerns about James and his health when he does return.
“Derwin’s given us no reason to worry because of how he is on a day-to-day basis,” Staley explained. “We see him every day. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t here. But we see him every day. He’s in the best shape of his life. … He feels great. That gives us a lot of confidence.”
The Chargers practiced for slightly more than 90 minutes Tuesday in preparation for their joint sessions with the Cowboys. Some observations:
— Veteran Michael Davis continued to work with the first-team defense over Asante Samuel Jr. at the outside cornerback spot opposite J.C. Jackson.
“We feel like they’re both starting-caliber corners,” Staley said. “… That’s good for our football team. We wanted it to be an open competition. It has been. It’s going to continue to be. Those guys are both playing well for us.”
— Davis intercepted a pass thrown by Justin Herbert to the left side intended for DeAndre Carter in 11-on-11.
— Mack had an active day, disrupting a handful of runs and reaching Herbert at least once on a play that would have ended in a sack under live conditions.
— Second-year tight end Tre’ McKitty had two dropped passes.
— Herbert had a muffed snap and failed to complete a pass in four attempts under some desperate circumstances during the two-minute portion of 11-on-11.
— Chase Daniel hit Carter for a 75-yard touchdown in the two-minute drill as the No. 1 defense had a significant breakdown in the secondary.