The Denver Broncos have long searched for a stable answer at right tackle. GM John Elway has invested both draft capital and free-agent dollars into the position, even giving up a draft pick to acquire a veteran last year.
Nothing to this point has panned out for the Broncos. And considering that Denver just signed Ja'Wuan James to a four-year, $51 million contract, with $27M in full guarantees this past spring, that's a big problem.
James is being paid handsomely and yet, he's only appeared in two games for the Broncos this year, playing a grand total of 32 snaps (yes, really). The sixth-year veteran suffered a sprained knee 10 snaps into the Broncos' season-opener at Oakland and disappeared into the tapestry of the team for the ensuing seven weeks.
James finally returned to the field in Week 8, starting on the road vs. the Indianapolis Colts. He lasted all of 22 snaps before he aggravated the same knee that cost him almost the entire first half of the season.
That was on October 27. One month later, there's no end in sight to James' absence from the field. And it hasn't come without cost to the Broncos.
James' replacement at right tackle, Elijah Wilkinson, has filled in admirably but he's clearly a guard miscast at tackle. On the season, Wilkinson has relinquished a whopping nine sacks, two QB hits, 16 hurries and a grand total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. But Wilkinson has only been penalized four times (two accepted), which is a far cry from the yellow-laundry magnet his counterpart, Garett Bolles, has been all year.
We're now entering the third week in which James has been cleared to practice. He was a limited participant in the days of practice leading up to both Week 11 and Week 12 but did not play in either.
Considering what the Broncos are paying him, we've surpassed the point of the James injury being questionable at best, and suspicious at worst. Why aren't the Broncos pushing him to play when he's been cleared medically?
“He’s cleared to play, but we have to get him ready to play," head coach Vic Fangio said on Monday. "He’s got to get mentally ready to play, emotionally ready to play and be able to go out there and play good, not just go out there.”
When it comes to players coming off injury, Fangio is on record as being a coach who errs on the extreme side of caution. While that's admirable to a certain degree — looking out for the interests and well-being of the players — I can't think of any other NFL coach I've covered who so consistently ties a player's emotional and mental well-being to said player's physical condition/health.
In other words, most coaches, so long as the player has been cleared by the team's medical staff and is for all intents and purposes 'healthy', are doing everything they can to get that player out onto the field and contributing, especially when they're a starter and even more so when that player is being paid an elite NFL salary. What's Fangio waiting for? The 'all clear' from James' psychologist before pushing him to play?
This situation with James has frankly been mystifying. The Broncos are treating James with such kid gloves and again, considering his salary and cap hit, it's highly unusual. What exactly is Fangio waiting for?
“He’s just got to have confidence that he can go out there and play with his knee and coming off the injury," Fangio said. "I don’t think he had that the last time he tried to play when he came back. He was fine physically, but I don’t think he in his own mind was comfortable and confident.”
James went a whopping seven weeks between starts on a knee sprain prognosis that was supposed to cost him 4-6 weeks. That the Broncos have to consider James' emotional wherewithal before greenlighting him to play speaks volumes.
Either Fangio is the staunchest, most conservative coach of all time when it comes to the handling and treatment of injured players, or there was some veracity to the reputation James brought with him to Denver as an 'injury milker'.
The only other explanation is that James' injury was significantly more severe than the team let on, but even if that was true, we're talking about a possible case of roster negligence that he wasn't placed on injured reserve. The Broncos could have used that spot on the 53-man roster James has consumed for, say, another offensive tackle who can actually play, or maybe even a cornerback.
I get that Fangio doesn't want to jump the gun and rush James back onto the field if he's not ready physically. Once he was cleared physically to practice/play, maybe add to that the need to get him a solid week of practice, where he's repping during individual period and team period with the first-team offense, so that the player has some confidence in his technique and assignments.
But going on now three weeks since he's been cleared, I can't wrap my brain around what more the Broncos could be waiting on with James. If he wasn't making the money he is, it wouldn't be quite as concerning but even if James were a player on the league-minimum salary, the team's handling of him would be no-less bizarre.