Derwin James could be versatile chess piece for Packers
INDIANAPOLIS – For a defensive back, Derwin James talked a lot about blitzing.
What’s a strength in his game? “I can blitz.” What do teams see him doing in the NFL? “Being able to blitz.” Does he prefer a sack or interception?
That’s where James reverts to a defensive back.
“Getting a sack means they’ve still got the ball,” he said, “and No. 1 is getting the ball.”
But Derwin James likes to blitz. That much he made clear at the NFL scouting combine last week. The third-year junior was a safety at Florida State, but to peg him at one position would be a disservice to his versatility.
No, whichever team drafts James will view him like a queen on the chessboard. Line him up anywhere. Let him go make plays.
“That fits exactly me,” James said. “I did a lot of it at Florida State. They moved me around a lot. I could do it all. I could play deep. I could cover No. 2 (receivers). I can play the tight end. I could play in the box. I can blitz. Whatever you need.”
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The Green Bay Packers' defense needs a lot. So it’s no surprise James said he had a formal interview with the Packers at the combine. He said their conversation focused in part on what James could provide blitzing from the slot corner position.
That’s an important tidbit.
If the Packers assess James strictly as a safety, it’s hard to see why he’d be a worthwhile use of their No. 14 overall pick with so many other holes to fill. Even if the Packers don’t retain free agent Morgan Burnett, the safety position is far from their biggest need on defense.
The Packers like third-year safety Kentrell Brice, whose 2017 season ended early because of an ankle injury. They drafted Josh Jones in the second round last spring. And despite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s underwhelming production last season, coach Mike McCarthy has indicated he remains a core player.
James would be an upgrade at almost any position in the Packers' secondary. He could also play linebacker, whether in a subpackage or as an outside linebacker whenever new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine decides to employ a 4-3 look. But picking him — or any player other than an edge rusher – with their 14th overall pick would be deviating from their most glaring need.
Which is why things could get interesting when the Packers are on the clock, and not just because it will be Brian Gutekunst’s first pick as general manager.
“I think it’s a good class. It’s intriguing,” Gutekunst said last week before highlighting one area on defense in particular. “I think it’s a strong secondary group, you know?”
Gutekunst’s approach this offseason might be boiled down to this question: Do the Packers prioritize improving their edge rush, or simply whatever makes their pass defense better?
An edge rush is the most critical element to playing championship defense — see Brandon Graham’s strip-sack against Tom Brady in the Super Bowl — and the Packers will have options at No. 14. After North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, the Packers might be able to pick anyone they want from the edge class.
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But edge rush won’t be a strength of this draft. There’s still almost two months until the draft, and the Packers could fall in love with a specific prospect, but there’s a good chance their “best player available” formula won’t lead to an edge rusher at No. 14.
“I think the secondary as a whole there’s some pretty good depth,” Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane said last week. The Bills have the 21st and 22nd picks in the first round.
“I don’t have in my head exactly if it’s more corners or more safeties, but we just finished our meeting and went through a lot of guys we have some decent grades on in the secondary,” Beane said.
It could be especially difficult for the Packers to pass on James if he’s available when they’re on the clock.
At 6-1¾ and 215 pounds, James ran a 4.47-second 40 inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday. It’s a time fast enough to play corner, if a team desired. But James also posted 21 reps of 225 pounds on bench press, showing he’s plenty strong enough to play in the box.
There’s no guarantee James will be the next All-Pro safety entering the draft, but that’s the hype surrounding him this spring. He did nothing to squelch those expectations in Indy, even verbally.
“I try to take something out of a lot of players’ games,” James said. “I’ll just say Eric Berry’s one of them. Earl Thomas is another great safety. Players in the past like Sean Taylor and Ed Reed.”
The Packers would have to weigh some risk with James. A torn meniscus that required knee surgery forced him to miss all but two games as a sophomore. James was admittedly “rusty” when he returned last season as a junior, though he got better as the fall progressed.
Still, he didn’t match his monster freshman season, when James had 91 tackles, 9½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. His 84 tackles, 5½ tackles for loss, one sack and two interceptions still were good enough to be selected second-team all-American by the Associated Press and first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference.
James’ knee surgery isn’t expected to be a long-term concern. It could, however, give the Packers pause. A year ago, they used their top draft pick on a talented defensive back with a questionable medical history. Ultimately, cornerback Kevin King’s rookie season was cut short because of that same loose shoulder that plagued him in college.
If James slips in the first round, he believes there’s only one explanation.
“I’d say it’s more the injury,” James said. “Because I came back rusty, just being hurt the whole year. So I had to get back in the flow of things. I just feel like my best football is ahead of me. I haven’t reached my full potential.
“Whatever team does draft me, they’re going to get a great player.”