Capable of playing man coverage on elite receiving tight ends
Big; good weight and length
Excellent strong safety
Speed; flies around the field
Can separate the ball from the receiver
Excellent in run support
Superb as eighth man in the box
Very good in zone coverage
Takes good angles
Covers a lot of ground in the middle of the field
Athletic enough to help in coverage on tight ends and running backs
Could contribute on special teams
Experienced and successful against good college talent
Keeps plays in front of him
Should be able to play quickly
Can play zone or man schemes
Good reviews from team sources for his off-the-field character
Had knee surgery as a sophomore
Had some missed tackles in the early going of 2017
Could use some development in coverage skills for the NFL
Could struggle as the single-high, deep free safety
Not a good man-coverage matchup for slot receivers
Ball skills need work; dropped interceptions
Summary: Safety play is critical in the passing-driven NFL even though the position has been devalued in the NFL draft to an extent. Teams need safeties who can help cover receiving tight ends and play-making receivers, plus stop the run. James is a talented, versatile safety who is well made for the current style of play in the NFL.
Coming out of high school, James was one of the top recruits in the nation. As a freshman in 2015, James had a strong debut with 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes broken up, two forced fumbles and zero interceptions. That strong freshman season led some in the college football media to say that James could be the best defensive player in college football as a sophomore. James totaled 11 tackles and an interception through two games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
James returned to the field in 2017 and totaled 84 tackles with 11 passes batted and two interceptions. Early in the season, the junior played well overall, but had some painful missed tackles in a few games. He admitted that he was rusty early in the year and the missed tackles were resolved before long. Late in the season, he put together a huge performance against Syracuse with an interception and three passes broken up, although some of those breakups were dropped interceptions. James sat out the bowl game to protect his health since he was declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft.
James is a very good run defender. He has sideline-to-sideline speed and will consistently dish out bone-rattling hits. Coming downhill to the line of scrimmage, James is a heat-seeking missile who will blow up plays. He has good instincts and is quick to read his keys. Aside from a spell of missed tackles early in 2017, James is generally a good form tackler. He should be an asset as a run defender early in his NFL career while being a real presence filling in as the eighth man in the box.
James has a lot to offer an NFL team in terms of pass coverage. With his size, speed and athleticism, he is a great weapon to help in man coverage on tight ends. James is faster and more athletic than most receiving tight ends, plus has the size and strength to battle them for position or jump balls. In zone coverage, James is very good and has impressive diagnosis skills. He possesses instincts and functions well to attack the receivers. He is a true enforcer in the middle of the field and will not hesitate to punish wideouts for coming across the middle. While James is a hard-hitter, he isn't a dirty player, and he wasn't one to get flagged for unnecessary roughness or targeting penalties.
James could stand to improve his pass coverage for the NFL. Right now, he could have problems lining up in man coverage on slot receivers. He also is not a natural single-high free safety for the deep part of the field. James is better and more comfortable closer to the line of scrimmage and playing a strong safety role. Another area that James needs to improve is his ball skills. He has the ability to defend the ball, but he had some painful dropped interceptions as a junior.
For the NFL, James could fit in a defense that alternates its free and strong safety pre-snap. That makes it a lot harder for quarterbacks to diagnosis where coverage will be. James has the speed and athleticism to cover in the deep part of the field, but needs to improve his pass coverage. Once he does, he could play some free safety. There is no doubt that he has the size, physicality, and the strength to function as a strong safety. With his stature and violent style of play, James also could play some dime linebacker. Similar to the Rams' Mark Barron, some team sources think that James could grow into a Will - weak side - linebacker in the NFL if he puts on weight as he ages.
In the 2018 NFL Draft, the consensus from team sources across the league is that James is among the handful of elite prospects. Multiple teams picking in the top 10 have told WalterFootball.com that James is their top-rated safety, possessing a higher grade than Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Player Comparison: Adrian Wilson. I think that James could be similar to Wilson at the next level. For a decade, Wilson was one of the best strong safeties in the NFL. He was a third-round pick in 2001 out of N.C. State, but obviously he should have been drafted higher. James will be a first-rounder like Wilson should have been.
Both Wilson and James are physical football players who are always around the ball. Wilson (6-3, 230) is slightly bigger than James, but they are similar in size and Wilson entered the NFL he was 213 pounds. Over his impressive career, Wilson was a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection. James has a similar game to Wilson and could be a potential special strong safety.
NFL Matches: Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle and Dallas
There probably isn't a head coach, general manager, or defensive coordinator in the NFL who wouldn't want James on their team. Thus, many franchises without a perceived safety need could consider taking him.
Tampa Bay could use a safety upgrade next to Justin Evans. James would be a big addition to improve one of the more vulnerable pass defenses in the NFL. There has been a lot of talk of the Bucs taking James, and sources have told WalterFootball.com that the Buccaneers like James a lot. He could easily end up being the pick for Tampa Bay.
San Francisco could consider a safety in the first round. Eric Reid is a free agent, while Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward are in the their last year of their contracts. All of those safeties were picks by the previous regime as well. The 49ers will probably revamp their safeties for their new scheme, and James could be their strong safety.
Washington could consider looking for a safety upgrade. The position isn't a screaming need, but James could be in play for the Redskins if he's the best player available.
The Los Angeles Chargers are probably the lowest that James will fall. They have had a hole at safety since Eric Weddle departed in free agency. James would give them a play-maker on the back end of their defense.
Seattle is starting to revamp its great defense, and there has been a lot of rumors that the Seahawks could move on from Earl Thomas, plus Kam Chancellor's playing future is in doubt. James could be a cornerstone for the future of the Seahawks' defense.
Dallas also is in need of a safety upgrade after losing Barry Church in free agency. It seems unlikely that James will get to the Cowboys, the Seahawks or the Chargers, so these teams would probably need to trade up for him.