After a lengthy hold-in effort, Derwin James is now the highest-paid safety in NFL history. The Chargers and James agreed on a four-year extension Wednesday morning, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports (on Twitter).
James and the Bolts agreed to terms on a deal worth $19.1MM per year, per Rapoport. The $76.5MM pact comes with a safety-record $42MM guaranteed and $29MM in Year 1. James, who is now the only safety attached to more than $40MM guaranteed, is also now tied to a higher average salary than all but five cornerbacks.
This windfall follows the likes of D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel and Diontae Johnson of staging hold-in measures and being rewarded. But the Bolts and their top safety have been negotiating for months. This also represents a considerable reward for a player who battled extensive injury troubles over the course of his rookie contract.
From 2019-20, James played in just five games. An August 2019 stress fracture in James’ right foot shelved him for much of that season, and a meniscus injury during training camp in 2020 ended up sidelining the former first-round pick for all of that season. During his two healthy years, however, the Florida State product has been one of the NFL’s best defensive backs. The Chargers rewarded him as such and will count on the 26-year-old talent for the next several seasons.
After sliding to No. 17 overall in the 2018 draft, James became the first pure safety to earn first-team All-Pro recognition as a rookie since the AFL-NFL merger. He delivered a versatile debut season for the Chargers, who waited patiently for his return. Last season, James finally re-emerged on the career path he began to traverse as a rookie. Pro Football Focus rated him as a top-10 safety in 2021. James made a career-high 118 tackles (seven for loss), forced three fumbles, collected two sacks and intercepted two passes last season.
The Chargers now have two DBs making high-end money, giving James a monster extension after signing J.C. Jackson to a top-10 cornerback contract. The two will be tasked with spearheading a defensive turnaround. Despite James’ contributions, Brandon Staley‘s first Chargers defense ranked 26th in defensive DVOA. This offseason, the Bolts reloaded and will surround James with more talent. Jackson, Khalil Mack, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Kyle Van Noy are now in the fold for what is expected to be an AFC contender.
Wednesday’s transaction illustrates a changing safety market as well. After Justin Simmons broke through the $14MM-per-year ceiling in 2021, when the Broncos rewarded their twice-franchise-tagged player, Jamal Adams came in with a market-resetting deal at $17.5MM per year. At the time of Adams’ agreement, the Seahawks had created a $2MM-plus AAV gap between Adams and the field. The Steelers, via their $18.2MM-AAV deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Chargers have now topped that this summer. The league’s first $20MM-per-year safety accord may not be far off.
GM Tom Telesco has rewarded both his 2017 and ’18 first-round picks this offseason, with Mike Williams‘ three-year, $60MM deal preceding James’ re-up. This comes after 2016 first-rounder Joey Bosa signed a long-term second contract. The Chargers, for this year at least, have the benefit of building around 2020 first-rounder Justin Herbert‘s rookie contract. The Chargers are acting accordingly. In Bosa, Mack, Jackson and James, the Bolts have four defenders making at least $15MM per year.