Breaking Down Broncos' Financial Options in Wake of RT Ja'Wuan James NFI Injury

What are the Broncos options with Ja'Wuan James and his $10 million salary after he tore his Achilles in a workout away from team facilities?
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Word came out on Tuesday that Denver Broncos' right tackle Ja'Wuan James tore his Achilles tendon while working out away from the team facility and is expected to miss the 2021 season.

Of course, there will be Broncos fans who will be unhappy, because the team made James one of the highest-paid right tackles in the NFL back in 2019. He played 63 snaps that year, but missed every other snap with injuries in which it was never clear what was wrong with him.

He opted out in 2020 because of the pandemic, which didn't cost the Broncos anything but a small advance on his salary, and pushed his 2020 salary and cap hit to 2021. Earlier this offseason, James was working out at Broncos' facilites, until the NFLPA urged players to boycott on-site workouts citing the pandemic. 

Many Broncos players decided not to attend voluntary offseason workouts, save for a handful who had workout bonuses at stake. As frustrating as it is to see James go down with an injury, and wonder whether this may be the worst free-agent signing of all time for Denver, there are a couple of questions we need to ask. 

How did things get to this point?

And what are the Broncos' options with James now?

How We Got Here

Let's remind everyone that general manager George Paton reported that James had visited Broncos team facilities to work out prior to the NFLPA's campaigning. However, in more recent days, he hasn't been at the facilities, just as most other Broncos players haven't.

The reason for many Broncos veterans not working out at team facilities goes back to the NFLPA advising players not to. When James decided not to work out at Broncos facilities, he put his $10 million base salary at risk — a fact in which it's fair to ask whether the NFLPA did a good job communicating that risk to players and looking out for their best interests all-around. 

On Wednesday, the NFL sent out a memo to teams about how the collective bargaining agreement spells out salary protections for players.

It's not hard to figure out what the league office is telling teams: If a player chooses to skip voluntary workouts, work out on his own, and gets injured in the process, the team isn't obligated to pay him for that season. In other words, the Broncos are free to do as they please relative to James' 2021 salary.

Of course, there's no guarantee that James wouldn't have been injured if he worked out at the Broncos facilities. The real issue here is this: When the NFLPA urged players not to work out at team facilities, it put players' salaries at risk.

And, now, that means the Broncos have a way out of James' contract. But then this brings us to that second question.

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Ja'Wuan James, John Elway

What Are the Broncos Options?

Denver could immediately void James' salary and cut him, right now, but doing so would incur a $9M dead money charge. The signing bonus hit would still apply and accelerate to 2021.

The Broncos could wait until after June 1, which would spread out the dead money charges, meaning the team would absorb $4.5M in dead money in 2021 and $4.5M in 2022.

That's not the only option the Broncos have, though. The team could place him on the non-football injury (NFI) list and not pay him this season. As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap explains, that might mean the Broncos could try to recover a portion of his signing bonus.

Another option is to keep James for 2021, but negotiate a reduced salary. As Fitzgerald explains, the Philadelphia Eagles did that with Jason Peters a few years ago when he tore his Achilles tendon while working out away from the team facilities.

While it's easy to not want to pay James anything, given the Broncos have received next-to-nothing in return from him, keep in mind, he did show up at the facility to work out initially, before the NFLPA's overtures. It's likely he did so to show the Broncos his commitment to the team.

Furthermore, if the Broncos did cut bait, the NFLPA is almost certain to file a grievance. Do the Broncos really want to go through that procedure? Some fans might get a sense of sastifaction, but it's worth asking whether the Broncos find a grievance hearing to be a distraction.

What Makes Sense

First, I don't believe the Broncos will make any move with James until after June 1 because the team will want to spread out any dead money charges from the signing bonus between 2021 and 2022, rather than take the full hit this year, should the team opt to part ways with the veteran tackle.

Second, it gives the Broncos time to weigh their options. I do expect Denver will place James on the NFI list, but they may try to find a more amicable solution that avoids a grievance hearing.

That solution may mean the Broncos agreeing to pay a portion of his $10M base salary, in exchange for voiding the remaining two years of his contract, which would make him an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The team could also promise not to pursue repayment of the signing bonus.

It may not be a popular decision with Broncos Country, especially given that James has taken less than 70 snaps with the team while baking a significant amount of money. However, it may be the best way to avoid a messy split, followed by a lengthy grievance process that could be litigated. For perspective, Earl Thomas' grievance with the Baltimore Ravens over his release last year still hasn't been settled.

Bottom Line

Regardless of what the Broncos do, the lesson to learn is this: The NFLPA took a major risk in advising players not to attend voluntary workouts, and the teams who aren't doing that — not just the Broncos, but every other team opting out — took a major risk, too. The end result is James might have lost his salary.

And that means the NFLPA and every team skipping workouts, the Broncos included, need to ask themselves this question: Is it worth it?

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