LAKE BUENA VISTA —Derwin James’ first NFL season ended where it all began, just a few miles from Haines City.
A half hour down I-4 is where the Chargers rookie safety grew up. The way his life had come full circle wasn’t lost on James earlier this week as he stood in the middle of a practice field at Disney’s Wide World of Sports as a member of the AFC Pro Bowl team.
“It’s good to be back at home,” James said. “It’s right around the corner and I am happy to be home.”
Of course, Bucs fans still are wondering why he ever had to leave in the first place.
James’ departure to the Los Angeles Chargers has been a sore subject ever since the NFL draft.
It only got worse each week as the Florida State star put together not only a Pro Bowl season, but one that is likely to wind up with James walking off the NFL Honors stage next Saturday in Atlanta with the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
James had a spectacular season, leading the Chargers with 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
The Bucs liked James a lot.
He was one of the 30 players the team interviewed at their facility prior to the draft. And James had the same grade as Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea on the Bucs’ draft board.
Both were available even after the Bucs traded down in the first round, dropping from seventh overall to No. 12.
General manager Jason Licht went with Vea. James went to the Chargers five picks later.
By the way, Vea was not at Pro Bowl practice this week.
“They chose who they felt like they needed,’’ James said. “I can’t really answer how they felt as an organization. That’s a great team, a great organization and I’m just happy I’m with (the Chargers) and I’m here.’’
It’s easy to see the success James has had and say the Bucs got it wrong. But remember, one year does not an NFL career make.
Here was how it all went down on draft day.
North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb went No. 5 to the Broncos and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson went No. 6 to the Colts.
That was the end of the consensus picks, players that everyone agreed had Pro Bowl talent and would make an instant impact.
At that point, the Bucs traded the No. 7 overall pick to Buffalo for the No. 12 overall choice and two second-round selections, No. 53 and No. 56 overall. The Bills used it to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.
Tampa Bay waited as the Bears took Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, the 49ers selected Notre Dame center Mike McGlinchey, the Cardinals went with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and the Dolphins chose Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The two players Licht hoped would be on the board were still there: Vea and James.
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The Bucs still believe both will have successful careers.
They went with Vea for several reasons.
Start with the fact the Bucs were coming off a league-worst 22 sacks and had only drafted two defensive linemen – Noah Spence and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu – since 2015. The value of the defensive tackle position generally is higher than safety, although it clearly varies based on the player.
Also, there was an awareness that six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy would be 30 and entering his ninth season. He has three years left on his contract, although none of that money is guaranteed, including the $13 million in base salary he is owed for 2019.
Vea got off to a terrible start. He suffered a calf muscle injury on the first day of pads in training camp. At 347 pounds, there was concern how the Washington star would adapt to the humid heat of a Tampa Bay training camp in July.
The fact that he suffered a soft tissue injury is not that surprising and Vea worked to lose about 10-15 pounds during his rehab.
He missed the first six games and when he returned Oct. 31 against the Browns, Vea didn’t have much of an impact. He had four tackles and no sacks through his first four games, prompting a meeting with Licht, who told him to play “more violent.”
It worked. The next week, in a win over the 49ers, Vea was dominant, showing speed and power. He had four tackles, including three for losses, and his first career sack. In his final six games, Vea showed why he was taken so high. He had 21 tackle and three sacks.
The Bucs believe he is only scratching the surface. In fact, they believe because of his range, he may be able to play defensive end in the 3-4 scheme of new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He’s also plenty strong enough to handle the nose tackle position as well.
None of that changes the fact that James would’ve looked and played great in pewter and red.
Instead, he was a key cog in a Chargers defense that helped his team to a 12-4 record. In the playoffs, James was front and center again, leading the team with 14 tackles (10 solo) in post-season games against the Ravens and Patriots.
James was rewarded by being named first-team All-Pro and spent the week rubbing elbows with the best players in the league at the Pro Bowl.
“I knew (the Pro Bowl) was one of my goals that I wanted to accomplish this year coming into the league as a rookie,’’ James said. “Now I am here and I am having fun. I just want to come out here and have fun and stay healthy. I am soaking it all in and enjoying the process playing with the best of the best in the league.”
And maybe one day, Vea can join him.