The best players in any sport always want to test themselves against other top-tier talent, and that's what happened during a joint practice between the 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday in Costa Mesa, Calif.
All-Pro tight end George Kittle went up against Chargers All-Pro safety Derwin James Jr., and the matchups were tightly contested.
On one play, as documented by The Mercury News' Cam Inman, a healthy Kittle beat an equally healthy James, much to the dismay of other Chargers players on the sideline, who thought they were about to witness an interception.
After practice, James was asked about testing himself against a player of Kittle's caliber.
“It’s big for me," James told reporters. "We’re going out here going fast. I played against Kittle, one of the best tight ends in the league. Their offense is one of the best in the league. Seeing the looks from them only helped me get better.”
James, who didn't play at all during the 2020 NFL season, appreciated the level of competition during the joint practice Thursday.
"I was the first one over there against Kittle," James said. "He wanted to see how he was against me, and I wanted to give him what he wanted. It was good going against him. He’s the best and I feel like I’m the best — why not go against him.”
James was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and in his rookie season, he was named to the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro honors.
But injuries slowed James down in 2019 and 2020. His second season was hindered by a stress fracture in his foot, limiting him to five games. He missed all of last season after tearing his meniscus in early September.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was impressed by what he saw from James on the practice field.
“Just same thing you see from every time that he's out there," Shanahan told reporters. "He’s the man. He’s as good as it gets. Coming out of college, we loved him. I just love how he carries himself. You know how talented he is but just talking to the guy, how he acts out there, you can tell he's a special guy, as a person and as a talent.
"So, you guys got a good one there.”
The 49ers and Chargers face each other in a preseason game at 4:30 p.m. PT on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium, but it's unclear if either Kittle or James will suit up and take the field. If not, at least they got to test their skills against each other in practice this week.