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LA Chargers: Risk and reward in the green dot Derwin James era

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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The firing of the previous coaching staff obviously meant changes were coming, but the biggest changes were always going to be on the defensive side of the ball. A Chargers Mic'd Up social media clip pretty much confirmed that safety Derwin James will be the "green dot" play-caller for Brandon Staley:

While this is a bold shift on the defense, it's also a change that was expected. Former Rams' safety John Johnson was the prominent play-caller for Staley's defense in 2020. Staley has particularly put a lot of emphasis on the first and third levels of the defense throughout the offseason.

The Gus Bradley era as fans may remember was quite different. Usually, the starting middle linebacker was given the play-calling duties. Kenneth Murray was the field general for most of the 2020 campaign while previous years saw the role given to players like Thomas Davis and Denzel Perryman.

The positives of Derwin James being the Chargers primary play-caller are pretty obvious.

Derwin James moves all over the field and is the only player on the Chargers that can play at every level of the defense. Having James as the primary play-caller also allows someone like Murray play loose at the first and second levels of the defense. Murray played better down the closing stretch of the 2020 season when he wasn't calling the plays as much.

Versatility is also James' calling card. A recent PFF Data study from Arjun Menon showed that James ranked 12th in passer rating allowed and 2nd in pressures when his 2018 rookie campaign was stacked against the 2020 safeties.

Jamal Adams of the Seahawks was the only pass rusher who had more pressures than James, but he was much worse in coverage in 2020 than #33 was in 2018.

Staley is clearly putting his trust in the best playmaker and overall defender on the team. A lot of Chargers fans wanted the team to sign John Johnson back in March before the Browns got him, but on some level that signing might've ended up being redundant. it's clear that James is Staley's version of Johnson on this team in terms of the confidence he has in him to lead the defense.

The risk of making James the play caller is as apparent as the potential reward is. He's played just four games in the last two seasons following his foot injury in 2019 and the meniscus injury from 2020. The thought of going into the new 17 game format with James as the central defensive piece draws some cause for concern due to durability.

If James does get hurt, the play-calling duties probably go to someone like Chris Harris or perhaps Nasir Adderley since both have the most experience while taking safety reps in training camp. Harris struggled with a lingering foot injury last year while Adderley missed all of his rookie year due to a hamstring injury.

Adderley, Mark Webb, and Alohi Gilman also have just a combined two seasons of NFL playing experience when talking about the other safeties the Chargers will have to rely on.

James' health is absolutely a risk and factor that applies to this plan. At the same time, one can make the argument that this defense is only going as far as their core defensive pieces go anyway. Using James and Joey Bosa at their peak efficiencies probably makes a lot more sense than thinking about the contingencies of playing without them.

Of course Staley will still have to prepare for the "what if" scenarios including injuries for all the players and positions on the roster. But if using James as the green dot is clearly more dynamic in the view of the coaching staff than say Murray, Harris, or Drue Tranquill, then there's not much else to discuss.

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The Chargers need James to be great all costs. Otherwise, the 2021 season plays out like the last two years have on the defensive side of the ball regardless.

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