After ending the season on injured reserve due to a neck injury, Kam Chancellor’s football future is unclear. While he has absolutely no reason to retire - something reiterated by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport last week - he may spend all of 2018 on the physically unable to perform list. With a potential hole at strong safety heading into next season, Florida State safety/swiss-army knife Derwin James has been a popular selection for the Seattle Seahawks by mock drafters. It makes sense for a host of reasons: James brings a diverse skill set that suits the role of the strong safety in Pete Carroll’s defense, elite athletic ability, and the sense that Seattle’s coaches could get the best out of an inconsistent prospect. But for all the sense it makes, there’s a strong possibility the Seahawks aren’t on the clock at selection 18 to draft James. John Schneider and the Seahawks haven’t used their original first selection since 2011, when they selected James Carpenter with the 25th overall pick.
Schneider’s history, combined with the team’s lack of day two selections, makes it likely another trade down is on the horizon. A move into the 20s or into the second round makes it unlikely James will be available, and it would turn the team’s attention to day two prospects. If James’ skill set appeals to the Seahawks, West Virginia safety Kyzir White could be a possible fallback option for Seattle. White is similarly flexible, lining up at safety, as a boundary cornerback, in the slot, and on the edge for the Mountaineers.
While White offers a similar skill set to James, there is a considerable difference in talent. At his absolute best, James is one of the top-20 talents in the entire draft, and has the ability to take over games. His flexibility is an incredible boon to any defense in the modern NFL; in the Seminoles’ game against Alabama in 2017 alone, James lined up as the single high safety, traditional strong safety, boundary cornerback, slot cornerback, as an EDGE defender and as an inside linebacker. With lines being blurred between tight ends, running backs and wide receivers, that sort of flexibility is invaluable.
Importantly to the NFC West, James can be absolutely dominant in coverage against backs, able to meet them at the flats from the center of the field and turn upfield to run with them without allowing separation. In man coverage in the slot, he’s able to mirror a receiver’s movements at the line of scrimmage; in zone, he has good instincts shading towards the ball before breaking on it with tremendous speed. Playing near the line of scrimmage, James even has experience rushing the passer and blitzing. His closing speed makes him an effective rusher when left unblocked off the edge, and he shows a knack for disguising blitzes.
James’ athletic ability jumps off the screen, and there is a chance his stock rises even higher after a strong performance at the Scouting Combine. He possesses the size to hold up both on the edge and in traffic inside against the run, as well as against larger tight ends in coverage. His athletic ability allows him to cover backs out of the backfield, or wide receivers on the perimeter. It won’t be surprising at all if the NFL falls (even more) in love with James as a prospect in the weeks leading up to the draft.
For all of James’ strengths, there’s his downside and why he’s unlikely to be a high round one selection. The biggest negative attributed to him - especially considering his talent - is that he has a penchant for running cold. He was the most talented player on the field often at Florida State, but it didn’t show up on a game-by-game or even snap-by-snap basis. On one play, he would violently and aggressively disengage his blocker and arrive at the ball in the backfield, before lazily supporting the run leading to a large gain on the next play. His hot/cold play is a reason why James could make sense for the Seahawks — who better to unlock the upside than Carroll and whoever is left of the Legion of Boom in 2018? In addition to streaky play, James can be handsy with players at the top of their routes, clumsily grabbing at their chest and not resembling the fluid athlete he is.
If the Seahawks do in fact move back from the 18th selection into day two, James will certainly be gone, but White will certainly still be around. Like James, White lined up all over the field and looks like another ideal defender to combat players like Alvin Kamara and Evan Engram that are set to take the league by storm. The similarities to James don’t end there. While he won’t be the star of explosiveness drills in Indianapolis like James, White has good athletic ability and closes on the football with great anticipation and speed.
White plays well against the run, strong on the edge and big enough to play inside. In space, he tirelessly pursues the ball carrier, taking good angles and arriving at the ball physically. He doesn’t have the ability to violently disengage like James, but the effort is there on every single snap. As the strong safety in Seattle’s defense, he would be asked to set the edge and fill lanes versus the run, two things he did at West Virginia and can absolutely do in the NFL.
In coverage, White has similar ability to James in that he can takeaway an opposing offense’s mismatch. He’s fluid enough in space to pick up running backs and run with them laterally or down the field, or match up against them in the slot. Against quicker tight ends or slot receivers, White has the physical tools to stick with them all across the field. Lining up in the slot and near the middle of the field, White played zones similar to what was asked of Chancellor and Bradley McDougald in Seattle’s defense. White even had snaps as the single-high safety for the Mountaineers. Playing deep isn’t where he’ll play in the NFL, but versatility is important, and the interchangeability of Earl Thomas and Chancellor in the deep middle (or middle third) has proved to be important to the Seahawks in the past.
Derwin James is one of the best talents and athletes in the draft, and had all of that shown up week in, week out, he’s likely in the conversation with Minkah Fitzpatrick to be the first defensive back selected. Kyzir White isn’t as tantalizing of a prospect as James is, but he possesses a similar skill set and could fill a similar role, while allowing Schneider and the Seahawks to recoup some of the selections they previously traded away.