When last we heard Ja'Wuan James' name mentioned in the context of the Denver Broncos, All-Pro left tackle Garett Bolles said what every player in that locker room was likely thinking: "He knows what he has to do to earn our trust back."
After opting out of the 2020 season, James has a lot of work to do to earn back the faith and trust of his teammates, the coaches, the front office, and the fans. Bolles said this on the day he cleaned out his locker before jumping off into the 2021 NFL offseason. The next day, John Elway stepped down as general manager and little more than a week later, George Paton was hired to replace him.
One of the big reasons for the Broncos making the change at GM was the abject need to get a new set of eyes and a fresh perspective on all the issues that have prevented this team from making the playoffs for the past five years. One problem that a fresh, new perspective could perhaps crack is that of James.
Earlier this week, 9NEWS' Broncos insider Mike Klis discussed the James issue with The Drive's Darren McKee and Tyler Polumbus, leveling a controversial take that I can only assume is educated.
“If I’m the Broncos I’m not sure you bring Ja'Wuan James back. I know you’d have to eat another $10 million dollars," Klis told 104.3 The FAN on Friday, via Reddit. "But you already had to eat $17 million so that would be eating $27 million for nothing. How good is he going to be after two years off?"
What would it cost the Broncos for the privilege of not having James on the roster? If cut before June 1, James would carry a $19M dead-cap charge per Over The Cap. If the Broncos waited and designated him a post-June 1 cut, the dead-cap charge would be $13M this year, with $3M dead in each of the next two seasons.
"I think that’s a possibility, I really do," Klis said of the Broncos releasing James.
Up to this point in time, James has been a Bronco for two calendar years and has taken home, as Klis hit on, $27M. What has the team received in return?
63 snaps. James appeared in three games in 2019 after injuring his knee in the season-opener. That knee injury was controversial on multiple fronts, not the least of which was the Broncos' belief that from about Week 8 on, he was healthy enough to play.
James returned to the field that week on the road at Indianapolis, only to exit a few snaps in. The Broncos strong-armed him to play in Houston six weeks later and in that game, James gave the team his most complete performance but it was far from a 60-minute display.
James played the first half in Houston and then exited, later complaining to Nicki Jhabvala, then of The Atheltic, that his knee was collapsing on him. In that sitdown with Jhabvala, James claimed that he'd torn ligaments in his knee in Week 1 but the Broncos have never confirmed that.
One of the cliches of the NFL is that 'money is the language' thereof. Another maxim that is oft-used because of its veracity is this: If you really want to know a team's opinion on a given subject, watch what it does, not what it says.
How did the Broncos act that so obviously ran counter to James' passive-aggressive claims about torn ligaments? The team never placed James on injured reserve. Why? Because the severity of the injury wasn't viewed as being serious enough to keep him off the field for a minimum of eight weeks.
"It goes back—the medical staff thought he should have been able to play the first year," Klis told McKee and Polumbus. "Ja'Wuan wasn't very happy about that. That's got a chance to go down as the worst of the worst free-agent signings."
Paton's predecessor made James the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history (a short-lived distinction) back in 2019, giving the ex-Miami Dolphins first-rounder a four-year, $51M deal with $27M in full guarantees. That was then, this is now.
If Paton swoops in and releases James, the right tackle will definitely go down as the biggest free-agent bust of the Elway era — if not in franchise history. However, there's time yet for James to turn the ship around, depending on whether Paton pulls the plug.
It would be painful (costly) to cut him but if Paton simply wants to turn the page on a botched deal in which the player operated in bad faith, and cleanse the Broncos' palate of James, it might be worth it. Exorcising that particular demon, especially in light of Bolles' ascendence to All-Pro status, might have more than enough collateral benefits to offset the dead-money charges.
If Paton were to make such a bold move, Elijah Wilkinson, who has started 19 of the 29 games James has missed, would likely become a priority to re-sign. Wilkinson is coming off his restricted free-agent tender and will hit the open, unrestricted waters of the NFL market in March.
Demar Dotson would be another option but at 35 years old, it would be the epitome of a short-term band-aid. Obviously, Broncos O-line coach Mike Munchak has a soft spot for Wilkinson as Dotson was benched in 2020 despite not relinquishing a sack in eight starts.
It's been assumed absolutely that James will be a Bronco in 2021 by virtue of the dead-cap charge the team would suffer by releasing him. However, Klis gave voice to the distinct possibility that Paton could cut bait. This now becomes a situation we'll be paying closer attention to in the coming weeks.