The teams were about to start the first seven-on-seven session of their joint practice, the Chargers and Dallas Cowboys ready to go at each other live and with purpose.
Coach Brandon Staley looked up and had some last-second instructions for one of his players.
“Derwin,” he said, “get off the field.”
Derwin James Jr., his helmet in his hands, jogged to the sideline, took a knee and returned to being just an observer.
On the day he became the highest-paid safety in NFL history, James did only individual work, mostly on his own, as the Chargers began the regular-season ramp-up of their two-time Pro Bowler.
“It was super hard,” James said of missing the team’s first 14 training-camp practices. “Everyone knows how much I love football, how much I want to be out there.”
On Wednesday morning, James signed a contract extension that added four years and up to $76.5 million — $42 million of which is guaranteed — to the one year he had remaining on his rookie deal.
He had been with the team throughout camp but not practicing, James limiting his participation to walkthroughs and meetings. He is expected to join seven-on-seven periods next week.
“I’m just really excited for him,” Staley said. “It's just really special, any time you see a dream come true. That's what happened today, a dream came true for him. You know how hard that he had to work in order to make it happen.
“This wasn't like every other big contract that gets signed, because you know what he had to go through in order to make it to this point in his pro football career. He overcame a lot to earn this contract, and he earned every cent of it.”
After a rookie year in which he was an All-Pro, James missed 27 of the Chargers’ next 32 games because of foot and knee injuries suffered in consecutive Augusts.
He returned in 2021 to start 15 games, finishing with 118 tackles, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks and earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl.
James did all of this despite playing most of the year with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.
“I think these contracts, when they’re so big, it's just over little things,” Staley said. “You just have to stay patient and positive with the process. He was fantastic. I can't imagine it ever going any better with a player.”
Staley has repeatedly called James the “heartbeat” of the Chargers defense and one of the team’s unquestioned leaders. When he wasn’t practicing over the past few weeks, James could be seen helping coach his teammates.
Along with that leadership, James also brings an uncommon versatility to his position. He is capable of playing every spot in the secondary in whatever package Staley wants to employ.
James also relays the signals in the huddle and is responsible for making sure all the Chargers’ defenders are lined up properly.
“It’s the ultimate synergy,” Staley said. “He knows how I call things and he knows what to expect.”
Given James’ importance and popularity, it was no surprise Wednesday when his signing was greeted publicly by well wishes from teammates, opponents and so many within the organization.
“It was just so much love that I got from my teammates, from my coaches, from the cafeteria people, from everybody,” James said. “It was just like all over. As a player, that’s all you can ask for. I’m humbled and I’m thankful for it.”
He said the first person he reached out to after agreeing to his extension was his mother, Shanita Williams. He credited her for passing down a work ethic that others now trumpet.
James also thanked the Chargers’ front office and coaching staff and more than once saluted his agent, David Mulugheta. After the Chargers and Cowboys ended their practice, James posed for pictures on the field with his family.
Later, he was asked where he was going to take good friend and Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey for dinner. James joked that the two would be marking the occasion at a McDonald’s.
“Dollar Menu that boy,” James said, laughing. Then he added: “We going to eat good. I’m going to take my brother somewhere nice.”
With their top defender now returning to practice, the Chargers have slightly more than three weeks to prepare for their regular-season opener against Las Vegas.
“We don’t try to put too much on ourselves, but we know what’s at stake,” James said. “We know that we have a Super Bowl-caliber roster.”
Staley said linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (ankle) would be ramping up his activity starting Monday. He is coming back from offseason surgery.
Edge rusher Emeke Egbule left practice early and did not return after suffering what Staley called a soft-tissue injury.
Cornerback Tevaughn Campbell (knee), linebacker Damon Lloyd (ankle), edge rusher Ty Shelby (leg) and wide receiver Joe Reed (illness) did not practice.
Tight end Donald Parham Jr. (hamstring) remains “more week-to-week than day-to-day,” Staley said.
Observations from Charger-Cowboys practice
The Chargers and Cowboys practiced for about two hours, running one-on-one drills against each another followed by seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 periods. Some Chargers defensive observations:
—Michael Davis started again over Asante Samuel Jr. at outside corner and had an interception against Dak Prescott.
—The Chargers’ starting defense dominated the Cowboys in a two-minute period near the end of practice. Khalil Mack likely would have sacked Prescott on the opening play.
A snap later, the Chargers pressured Prescott again, forcing him to throw short and hurriedly to running back Ezekiel Elliott, who had the ball bounce off his hands and into the arms of Kyle Van Noy for a series-stopping interception.
—The Chargers appeared to surrender some early yardage on the ground but then tightened up. Among those making play were Mack, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Joey Bosa, Chris Rumph II, Alohi Gilman, Jerry Tillery and rookie Otito Ogbonnia.
—Slot corner Bryce Callahan had a pair of pass breakups, including one in the end zone.
—Defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko had an active day. He was routinely disruptive inside and also recovered a fumble when the Cowboys botched a handoff.
—Backup corner Kemon Hall gave up a 20-yard touchdown pass, from Cooper Rush to Dontario Drummond.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.