Maybe 49ers lucked out not drafting Chargers Derwin James

Free safety Derwin James #33 of the Los Angeles Chargers (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
Free safety Derwin James #33 of the Los Angeles Chargers (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images) /

Former Florida State safety Derwin James was an NFL Draft crush for many a 49ers fan in 2018, but it’s probably for the better the Chargers got him instead.

The San Francisco 49ers visit the Los Angeles Chargers this weekend for Week 2 of the 2021 preseason, which affords us a small chance to break down some retrospective analysis and the ever-present “what could have been?” scenarios everyone likes to think about.

For this particular exercise, let’s go back and look at the lead-up to the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Niners were only one year into a massive rebuild under head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, and it wasn’t too hard to find hopeful analysis pieces linking San Francisco’s top draft choice to a high-profile standout safety from Florida State, Derwin James.

James’ impressive tape from his three collegiate seasons warranted a Round 1 selection, and many pundits felt he was a sure thing within the top 10.

I recall speaking with a former ACC scout that year and talking about a potential 49ers selection of James at No. 9 overall. While there were some other candidates worth considering at that spot, both the former scout and I regularly said “the film doesn’t lie” when considering James as a top target for the Niners.

And when thinking about where James could play, one common theme was to draw a circle over the entire defense and say, “there.”

Seriously, he looked that good.

49ers ended up taking Mike McGlinchey instead of Derwin James in 2018 NFL Draft

San Francisco’s selection ended up being something of a shock when the pick was announced, Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, whose position wasn’t seen as a pressing need at the time because the 49ers already had veteran stalwart Joe Staley at left tackle and a pass-blocking up-and-comer in right tackle Trent Brown.

Yet Brown was traded away to the New England Patriots the following day when Rounds 2 and 3 were kicking off, and Shanahan’s continued revamping of the roster continued.

Whether or not McGlinchey was the right pick at No. 9 overall remains a subject for debate. McGlinchey has had his up-and-down moments, now solidified as a solid run-blocker but whose pass-protection woes haven’t necessarily improved over the last three seasons.

Initially, however, it sure seemed as if the Niners gaffed by passing on James.

Derwin James’ injuries justified 49ers passing on him

Early on, it sure seemed as if San Francisco made the mistake, particularly with James earning both Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro accolades his rookie year.

True, the 49ers eventually elected to commit long term to safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, but it wasn’t hard to see why James could have been a massive upgrade within the secondary.

At least that first year.

Since then, however, James has fallen victim to the injury bug, which limited him to only five games played his second season and then completely missing his 2020 campaign.

Derwin James Defense & Fumbles Table

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Generated 8/19/2021.

A foot fracture was the culprit entering 2019, although James returned late in the season. Then in 2020, James suffered a torn meniscus in his knee that effectively ended that year’s campaign.

No one will know if James would have suffered those same injuries if the Niners drafted him. Assuming his unfortunate NFL-level injury reputation would have followed him anywhere, though, it seems as if there would be a strong chance James wouldn’t have been available to San Francisco much at all over the first three years of his career.

Related Story: Regrading 49ers’ 2018 NFL Draft class

True, James just turned 25 years old, and signs are pointing to him bouncing back from his early injuries. That’s great news for him, great news for the Chargers and potentially bad news for the rest of the AFC West.

James even picked off quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a 99-yard touchdown in joint practices between the two teams this week.

At the same time, though, the 49ers would likely have been pressed to scramble for alternatives to replace James on the field, if they had drafted him and those injuries remained, much like they had to do with Tartt, who also has suffered serious injuries over the last four years.

Only the Niners would have been reacting after using a high-profile first-round pick on James.

Maybe in retrospect, San Francisco can feel a bit more at ease for not having drafted James in the first place despite his awesome pedigree and collegiate prowess.

Even though he was a clear draft crush at the time.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 worst draft picks under Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch. dark