The Chargers paused their football business Wednesday with the conclusion of their two-day mandatory minicamp.
Yet, the business of football will continue for the team with the possibility of a contact extension this summer for safety Derwin James Jr.
Entering his fifth season, James is set to make slightly more than $9 million on the option year of his rookie deal. His representatives and the Chargers are believed to have begun negotiations.
James, who turns 26 in early August, is coming off a season in which he made his second Pro Bowl and firmly established himself as the key piece of head coach Brandon Staley’s defense.
He is the Chargers’ signal-caller and widely acknowledged leader — both physically and emotionally.
James possesses the versatility to play all over the field, from lining up deep to coming off the edge as a pass rusher — and nearly everything in between.
“We feel like the way he plays, where he plays … he’s in the middle of the defense,” Staley said last month. “He never leaves the field. We think that that’s important. We think that can be an advantage.”
The Chargers are now off before reconvening in late July for the start of training camp in Costa Mesa.
The extension market for safeties was reset Wednesday when Pittsburgh agreed to terms with Minkah Fitzpatrick on a deal that added four years and up to $73.6 million — with $36 million guaranteed — to his rookie contract.
The $18.4-million annual average is the highest in league history for the position, eclipsing the $17.5-million mark of Seattle’s Jamal Adams.
In the 2018 draft, Miami selected Fitzpatrick 11th overall, six spots before the Chargers picked James. The Dolphins traded Fitzpatrick to the Steelers in September 2019.
Before agreeing to his extension, Fitzpatrick was set to make $10.6 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal.
The only knock on the early part of James’ NFL career involves health. A foot injury limited him to five games in 2019 and a knee injury cost him all of 2020. He suffered the setbacks in consecutive Augusts.
James had shoulder surgery after the 2021 season but was able to remain on the field and provide production despite getting hurt early.
He totaled 118 tackles, finishing third leaguewide among defensive backs. Fitzpatrick was first with 124. James was one of only five NFL players to have at least 100 tackles, multiple interceptions and forced fumbles and a sack.
Publicly, he has remained focused on football this offseason, repeatedly dismissing questions about a potential extension. Because of his shoulder, the Chargers have limited his action during offseason workouts.
“Whenever that takes care of itself, it takes care of itself,” James said in May. “My job right now is just to help guys like [veteran edge rusher] Khalil Mack and [rookie safety] JT Woods get up to speed.”
The importance of James to the Chargers is evident even in the way the team has rebuilt its defense in recent months, the sweeping changes intended to further exploit James’ abundant skills.
Among other additions, they used their second pick in the draft to take Woods in the third round. Staley explained later that Woods’ potential to play deep should help free James.
“We’ve surrounded him with a lot more depth and talent so that all of his talents will shine even brighter than they did last season …” Staley said. “Derwin, all he needs to do is continue to do what he always does because he’s one of the special players in the league.”
An extension for James would continue the Chargers’ recent trend of re-signing their biggest names.
In July 2020, they gave edge rusher Joey Bosa a five-year, $135-million deal that included $102 million in guaranteed salary.
Six weeks later, the Chargers and wide receiver Keenan Allen agreed to a four-year extension worth up to $80 million, $50 million of which was guaranteed.
In March, they signed wide receiver Mike Williams to a three-year deal worth up to $60 million with $40 million in guarantees.
Notable sightings: Asked Wednesday to identify any players who stood out particularly this spring, Staley mentioned wide receiver Jalen Guyton and safety Nasir Adderley.
The last two days, Guyton was employed as a gunner in punt coverage — a new assignment for him — the Chargers hoping to take further advantage of his speed while also increasing his value.
“That’s going to be a big factor in him being in the league for a long time and hopefully making his way in this league,” Staley said. “Jalen is coming in with a good mindset, and I’m excited to see him in training camp.”
Staley talked about Adderley’s emergence with James being held out of competitive drills as a precaution because of his shoulder surgery.
Still looking for No. 2: After spending most of the offseason training near his home in Las Vegas, running back Austin Ekeler joined his teammates for mandatory minicamp.
Entering his sixth year, Ekeler is coming off a season in which he set a career high with 276 touches.
He talked repeatedly in 2021 about the importance of the Chargers having a second running back emerge to help ease his workload. He talked about it again Wednesday.
“I’m in the No. 1 spot right now,” Ekeler said. “I want these guys to come challenge me. Like, ‘Let’s go. Bring it. Come on. Come earn some reps.’ That’s what I want it to be.”
The Chargers drafted Isaiah Spiller out of Texas A&M in the fourth round in April to join two other recent picks — Larry Rountree III (sixth round, 2021) and Joshua Kelley (fourth round, 2020) — in battling for the No. 2 spot.