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Chargers’ Derwin James deserves every penny of his new contract extension: Popper

Two years ago, Derwin James Jr. limped off the training camp field at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex. He grabbed at his right leg as he walked. A training staff member followed next to James, carrying his helmet. James did not know it at the time, but his 2020 season was over. It was a torn meniscus in his right knee that would require surgery. A second consecutive significant summer injury. Another year of rehab. Another year of missed games. James had set the field on fire in his All-Pro rookie season. But in the days and weeks following his 2020 injury, he was grappling with painful uncertainty. An arduous path back to that field awaited him.

That James is here now, newly crowned as the highest-paid safety in NFL history, is a testament to who he is as a player and a person — magnetically determined, madly in love with football, uniquely skilled and versatile and overflowing with energy, passion and positivity.

After sitting out the first 14 practices of training camp, James agreed to terms on a multiyear contract extension with the Chargers on Wednesday, The Athletic confirmed and the team later announced. The extension is for four years, $76.532 million, with $42 million guaranteed, a source with direct knowledge of the contract told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. Both the $19.133 million in average annual value and guaranteed money are records for a safety.

James rehabbed his knee injury and returned to practice field for organized team activities in May of last year. His relationship with new head coach Brandon Staley was blossoming. James met with the media on May 24, 2021, and, naturally, he was asked questions about his injuries — first a stress fracture in his foot in 2019, then the torn meniscus, both of which happened in practice. Would the injuries affect his mentality? Would he adjust his practice habits given the 27 games missed in two seasons?

“I can be smarter here and there,” James said then. “But I’m here to play football.”

And that is exactly what he did. James was the lifeblood of this Chargers defense last season. He played five different positions in Staley’s defensive scheme — strongside safety, weakside safety, slot corner, dime backer and a hybrid edge rusher position — while relaying the plays in the huddle as the defensive signal caller. He had three forced fumbles, two sacks and two interceptions across 15 games, all while battling through a labrum tear in his shoulder he suffered in the third game of the season.

With the way James played last season, this deal getting done was inevitable. James is the type of player you build a defense — and a team — around. There is quite literally nothing on a football field James cannot do as a defensive player. He is so much more than a safety. And he is so much more than just a player. He is a leader. He is a cornerstone. He is an inspiration and a standard-setter.

“If you were just looking at him as a safety, that wouldn’t do Derwin justice,” Staley said Tuesday. “For me, I look at him as a defensive back. When I see him, I’m like, that’s a defensive back because he can play anywhere. He can play either safety spot. He can play corner. He can play star or money. He can rush the quarterback and make an impact as a blitzer. He can make an impact in man-to-man coverage. And then he can make an impact in zone defense, whether he’s playing low or high. And he’s our signal caller and the heartbeat of our defense.”

The Chargers have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in 2022, and James, along with Justin Herbert, is at the center of those plans. Staley and general manager Tom Telesco overhauled their defensive roster in the offseason. Ownership invested the cash, and the Chargers came away with Khalil Mack, J.C. Jackson, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Kyle Van Noy and Bryce Callahan.

The last piece of this puzzle was getting James back on the practice field.

He deserves every last penny of this contract extension. When healthy, James is as impactful a defensive player as there is in football. He has come so far from those dark days in the summer of 2020.

The final loose end in this whirlwind offseason has been tied.

Now the Chargers’ focus can turn exclusively to the ultimate goal: a Lombardi Trophy.

(Photo: Chris Unger / Getty Images)

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