In continuing with this series looking at college players who could become future Pittsburgh Steelers, we examine a player that is not only the best at his position, but quite possibly one of the best all around players of the entire 2018 draft class.
Name: Derwin James
College: Florida State
Height: 6 ?3
Weight: 211 lbs
Derwin James was already considered one of the best at his position before he even wore a Seminoles uniform. Coming out of high school, James was unquestionably one of the top recruits of the 2015 class. In his final year for Haines City High School, James finished with four interceptions and 94 tackles in just 8 games. In addition, he accounted for 11 receptions, 181 yards and two touchdown playing on offense.
Coming into his freshman year, James didn’t waste any time living up to the hype that followed him. He finished his year with an incredible 91 tackles, five pass breakups, 4.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. James was in essence one of the best all-around freshmen in the country. For his efforts, he received several All-American mentions, including All-ACC third team honors. His most notable performance that year came against NC State where he accounted for 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack.
In his sophomore year, James suffered an injury setback after a week two game against Charleston Southern. Even in two games played that year, James accounted for 11 total tackles and an interception in week 1 against Ole Miss.
James returned for his Junior year looking to redeem himself after missing all but two games last season. In 12 games played, James accounted for 84 total tackles, 11 pass break ups, one sack and two interceptions. He was awarded first team All-ACC, second team All-America honors from Walter Camp, and first-team All-America honors from the FWAA.
By all accounts, James is projected not only to be one of the top safeties in the draft, but one of the defensive players in the draft, period. When viewing James on tape, there is no doubt that he has Pro Bowl-caliber defender written all over him. From an observation standpoint, his skillset is athletic and is superior to a majority of the prospects that I have observed so far.
Athleticism and Instincts
When watching James on film, there is no question that he is as natural an athlete as I have ever seen. One of the ways you can tell the measure of an athlete is by the way he is used on the field. James is so versitile and athletic, he would often be seen lined up in a variety of ways — in the deep third of the field, as a weak or strong side linebacker, or even at the line of scrimmage. No matter where he was lined up, I noted that teams would often run plays opposite his side and with good reason. One of the notable aspects of his athleticism is his vertical. Though he has not yet been measured in the combine, one can assess that James will likely score high in this category.
In this particular play against Alabama, James is lined up at the line of scrimage in 7-tech against the Alabama offense. Note Alabama running back Damien Harris in motion, which gave the first indication that this is going to be a screen pass. The second indication comes after the snap, as James is able to rush the backfield unblocked. Instead of fully committing to getting the sack, James is able to set the right base and jump; not only was able to block quarterback Jalen Hurts’ pass, but he came inches from intercepting it, likely resulting in a touchdown. What makes this play impressive is not just how high he jumped, rather the fact that he had the presence of mind to change his strategy midway in his blitz.
James’s two interceptions this past season does not constitute, in my mind, a fair assessment of his ball skills. Part of the reason was the fact that teams generally avoided throwing to his side and when they did, the outcome was generally in his favor. In addition to having great instincts, James demonstrates the type of quickness that is necessary in one-on-one or zone coverage. Add this with his incredible athleticism and instincts, then one can see why teams avoided throwing around him.
In this particular play against Syrcacuse, wide receiver Dontae Strickland is going to run a wheel route to the outside. Initially it seems the quarterback Eric Dungey has an open throw, but if you observe James on this play, he beautifully disguises the coverage and runs Strickland’s route. The aspect of this play that I personally enjoyed is how James is able to high-point the ball and make the interception, once again showing his athleticism in the process. In this particular game, he was absolutely incredible as he accounted for several pass deflections, many of them could have been interceptions. Though he may not have the interception numbers to prove it, James’ ball skills are one of his best attributes.
Area of Concern – Tackling
If there was one area of concern that I found with James, it would have to be with this tackling. At 6’3″, it is inevitable that he would have a harder time getting low and using the proper form to make a tackle against a smaller running back. From what I viewed, he is good enough to make the initial hit, but he has trouble sealing the tackle by making a proper wrap. One theory for this may have to do with his timing. What I found with James is that he accelerates too quickly before establishing the proper base to make a good tackle. The intent is there, but the execution is not. If James is to improve in this area, this will likely require him to make the right judgement in when to use his speed and when to slow and finish a play.
When it comes to producing defensive secondaries, perhaps no other university has been more prolific in doing the last three decades than Florida State (University of Miami is a close second). When you think some of the great secondaries that have come out of Florida State, it is fitting that one of them, Hall of Famer and Seminoles alum Deion Sanders, would give his alma mater the title of “Defensive Back U”. Most recently, All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey has kept up this great tradition in Florida State secondaries as arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. James to me has all the makings of the next great safety to come into the NFL. There is no doubt in my mind that he has the skillset necessary not only to start on any NFL team, but to make an immediate impact. If there is one player on my draft wish list for the Steelers defense, it is most certainly this one.