FAB 2. The Case For Drafting James At No. 7
The last time the Buccaneers spent a first-round draft pick on a safety it was a disaster.
In 2012, Tampa Bay selected Mark Barron – also known as the guy that was picked instead of linebacker Luke Kuechly – with the seventh overall selection. Barron lasted two and a half years with the Bucs before former head coach Lovie Smith deemed him not to be a fit in his Tampa 2 scheme and traded him to St. Louis.
Barron notched 225 tackles, 19 passes defensed, three interceptions, two sacks and one forced fumble in Tampa Bay before becoming a Ram where he was moved to linebacker in 2015. In his St. Louis-Los Angeles career, Barron has recorded 338 tackles, 18 passes defensed, six sacks, five interceptions and three forced fumbles, and earned a five-year, $45 million contract extension in 2016 that included $20 million and a $5 million signing bonus.
Although he hasn’t been selected to a Pro Bowl, Barron has become a very good player for the Rams – but not at safety where he was originally drafted to play. The Bucs have nothing to show for Barron or the fourth- and sixth-round picks he was traded for in 2014.
Ironically, the Buccaneers have the seventh overall pick again and could spend it on a safety, which was a position of need that was not addressed in free agency outside of re-signing reserve Keith Tandy.
In last week’s SR’s Fab 5 we discussed how a potential trade up by Buffalo for a quarterback could force one of Tampa Bay’s top tier prospects – North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Penn State running back Saquon Barkley – down to the Bucs at No. 7.
But there is another player that Tampa Bay will certainly consider with the seventh overall selection – and that’s Florida State safety Derwin James.
Notice how I didn’t say Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick?
From what I’ve been able to gather, the team has James, whose pro day on Tuesday was attended by general manager Jason Licht, ranked as the top safety on the Bucs’ draft board – not Fitzpatrick. While Fitzpatrick may be a versatile football player, capable of playing free safety, strong safety and slot cornerback, James is regarded as the superior athlete of the two and a better strong safety, which is where Tampa Bay has a pressing need.
The Bucs have just four safeties on the roster – starting free safety Justin Evans, strong safety Chris Conte and reserves Keith Tandy and Isaiah Johnson – and want to find someone to compete with Conte for the right to start opposite Evans. But is there value in drafting a safety with the seventh overall pick?
The goal of any team drafting in the first round, especially in the top 10, is to select an impactful Pro Bowl-caliber player. If Chubb, Nelson and Barkley are gone, then a player like James or Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea comes into play for Tampa Bay.
“I just feel like I am the best player in this draft,” James said at his pro day workout at Florida State. “There is no question.”
While Fitzpatrick may have better ball skills at this stage of his career, James is the more ferocious player. He’s an angry tackler and a punishing hitter in the box, the perimeter or across the middle of the field.
Jacksonville Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a former Seminoles star, was on-hand to see James and his former teammates perform in front of throngs of NFL scouts and raved about James’ ability.
“Derwin could probably even have more of an impact than I had,” Ramsey said. “Derwin is easily going to go down as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – safeties to ever come through Florida State. What he has done and what he has put on film speaks for itself. What he has done through the whole draft process – Combine, pro day – he really has nothing left to prove. He has done everything he needs to do. He will be an impact player from Day 1 as a rookie. Whatever teams that decides they want to draft him, they are going to get a hell of a player. He has the ability to be a Pro Bowl, All-Pro (player) from his rookie year on throughout his career. He is that good of a player.
“When I was here at Florida State he was only a freshman and he was the best safety I ever played with. He was really one of the only safeties I trusted over the top. What he is going to do at the next level, it will definitely speak for itself. Actions definitely speak louder than words, people will see. All the teams that pass on him – it’s not smart, first of all – but they are going to come back and pay for it later on.”
That’s quite the endorsement.
James dazzled at the NFL Scouting Combine where he ran a 4.47 time in the 40-yard dash and checked in at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. The Haines City, Fla. native showed how explosive of an athlete he is with a 40-inch vertical, an 11-foot broad jump and benching 21 reps of 225 pounds.
Put on the film and James displays hard-hitting ability in run support with six games featuring double-digit tackles and emerging awareness and playmaking ability in the passing game.
James just four tackles in a 26-19 win at Wake Forest, but it was his game-saving pass breakup in the end zone on the game’s last play that made the biggest impact. He had a career-high four pass breakups and an interception in a 27-24 home win over Syracuse, but it was his onside kick recovery as a member of Florida State’s “hands team” with just seconds left that sealed the Seminoles’ win.
Aside from helping the Bucs’ run defense and pass coverage, which ranked dead last in the league last year, James can also help Tampa Bay’s pass rush, which was also the worst in the NFL with just 22 sacks. James was an effective blitzer at FSU where he recorded 5.5 career sacks, including 4.5 as a freshman.
The Bucs need to have more success rushing the passer in 2018 and blitzing a player like James could have an impact. Tampa Bay only had two defenders that weren’t linemen – linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Adarius Glanton – record sacks last year. Two of the best teams at getting to the quarterback – New Orleans (42 sacks) and Baltimore (41 sacks) – often blitz their safeties. The Saints had eight sacks from the safety position, led by Von Bell’s 4.5, while the Ravens had 4.5 sacks from safety, led by 2.5 sacks from Tony Jefferson.
NFL media types and draft pundits often compare James to the likes of the late Sean Taylor, Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor, in addition to Ramsey, who played by safety at cornerback at Florida State.
“People try to compare us at times, but I don’t think it’s fair,” Ramsey told Bleacher Report. “My versatility was with corner, nickel and free safety. But Derwin’s is strong safety, free safety, linebacker and defensive end. Derwin is a freak. He can do pretty much everything.”
FSU strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria took the James comparisons a step further.
“I think if you take all the attributes of all the best ones, combine it into one, you’re getting close to Derwin,” Viloria told NFL.com. “He’s got strength like (Nigel) Bradham. He’s got the desire to chase the deep ball like (Lamarcus) Joyner, competitiveness like Jameis (Winston). His ability to hit and be strong for a skill player is like Jalen (Ramsey). … His acceleration is freakish; it’s that of a Devonta Freeman. … You can keep going down the list.”
James has all the physical tools Tampa Bay needs to do it all on the field, but it’s his mental makeup when it comes to his competitiveness and leadership ability that might intrigue Licht and the Bucs the most. The Bucs had accountability issues on defense last year. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy admitted that.
During his three years at Florida State, including a sophomore season that ended due to a knee injury after two games, James was the leader of the Seminoles defense after Ramsey left.
“Everybody pretty much knows everything Derwin is capable of,” Seminoles cornerback Tavares McFadden said. “He is a great football player. He is a great player off the field, too. He is one of those guys – he is a high-caliber guy, but he is going to stay the same no matter what. Derwin is a great leader off the field. He keeps people out of trouble. He is very accountable for other guys. Derwin is a vocal leader and he is just one of those guys you just want to follow. He also leads by example, and not to mention how he plays. He plays hard all the time. He’s one of those freak athletes, but whoever is drafting Derwin is getting a great one.”
Florida State defensive end Josh Sweat agreed with McFadden about James’ presence.
“He is an accountable guy,” Sweat said. “He does what he needs to do. He is definitely going to make an impact (in the NFL). We all know what he can do on the field. You can’t go wrong. That is what I tell other teams that ask about him. Big-time accountability. Most definitely (he held others accountable).”
James’ personality is akin to that of Winston or Bucs Pro Bowl middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. He’s an upbeat, outspoken player that others naturally gravitate towards. Another guy like that is needed in the locker room, and especially in the secondary.
“I don’t mind saying something (to vets),” James said. “I lead by two ways. I lead by example first and foremost on and off the field. And when things aren’t going right or we need a spark, I am that alpha dog in the locker room that is going to get everybody going. I do the best I can do.”
That word is used a lot to describe James’ attitude and leadership ability, such as in Lance Zierlein’s scouting report on NFL.com.
“Absolute alpha in the locker room. Comes up to handle film sessions on weekends. When he talks, players listen. Hits all the height, weight, speed marks you want for an early-round safety. Extremely versatile weapon. Can be deployed anywhere on the field on any given snap. Rangy with ability to chase throws from deep middle. Quick to squeeze routes approaching his area of influence. Doesn’t just look to hit, he looks for the football once he ranges to the spot. Used in hybrid role near the line of scrimmage. Reliable in his fits and standing up to the run or peeling off and covering tight ends. Savvy blitzer with speed and athleticism to get home. Smooth, loose movement allows for coverage potential against big slots. Careful to leverage ball carriers to the sideline and won’t give away an inside cutback. Pursuit strides are fluid and powerful. Solid open-field tackler with reactive athleticism to handle late elusiveness.”
James is an alpha with attitude.
“I do believe I am the best player in the country,” he says. “I make people around me better.
“I give them all I’ve got. They give me all they’ve got. I just like to push them to the limits. I just tell them, ‘I’m going to get you better every day. Y’all get me better.’ I’m going to get it out of them one way or the other.”
Longtime Bucs radio play-by-play announcer Gene Deckerhoff also handles the play-by-play duties for Florida State radio and saw James’ leadership ability affect others.
“You need to have a player like Derwin James to direct traffic, and make his teammates play to the level he knows they can play,” Deckerhoff told FSUNews.com. “That’s what he brings to the table.”