The Denver Broncos have garnered no relief from the right tackle woes they've been cursed with for nearly half a decade. Despite signing Ja'Wuan James to a four-year, $51 million contract this past spring, the right tackle position has continued to plague the team in 2019.
James suffered what was reported as a knee sprain in the season-opener after just 10 snaps. He has since appeared in just two more games, the last of which was in Week 13's win over Houston in which he played just the first half.
On Christmas Eve, James spoke publicly about his knee injury for the first time this season, dropping the bombshell that he tore ligaments in his knee in the season-opener.
"I tore some ligaments in my knee the first game of the season," James said. "I was working back to get it healed, came back for that Colts game and ended up reinjuring it. I re-tore all the scar tissue that was healing and then ended up tearing part of my meniscus. They said it wouldn't be that serious but when I was out there, even at practice, trying to come back, my knee was buckling on me. It was just weak because the ligaments weren't strong."
James' story of trying to work back into action only served as a greater indictment on the Broncos. James claims the doctor he sought out for a second opinion told him that he'd "re-tore some stuff" and that he needed time to heal. And yet, the Broncos didn't place him on injured reserve, which speaks to a massive disconnect between the team's view of the injury and the player's.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have tried to get by with Elijah Wilkinson at right tackle but he's playing out of position. A natural NFL guard, Wilkinson's lack of footspeed and quickness has resulted in the right side of the Broncos' O-line being a turnstile to pass rushers.
Wilkinson has been credited with relinquishing a whopping 10 sacks this season, along with three QB hits, 19 hurries and 32 overall pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Adding insult to injury, Wilkinson pulled up lame in the second quarter of last week's 27-17 win over the Detroit Lions.
Perhaps the Broncos should consider it a blessing in disguise, as Jake Rodgers entered the fray at right tackle and played at a surprisingly solid level in relief. However, with barely more than two quarters' worth of sample size, the Broncos have to be cognizant of the possibility that Rodgers' performance was a false-positive, especially considering how lackluster Detroit's pass rush is.
Heading into the season-finale vs. the Oakland Raiders, Wilkinson has been ruled out with that ankle, which means Rodgers will get the start and a full game to ply his wares and prove to the Broncos whether he can be their swing-tackle of the future.
Garett Bolles' play at left tackle has improved dramatically since Week 9 and were it not for the fact that he's still good for at least one face-palming holding penalty each week, it'd be safe to say the tutelage and coaching of Mike Munchak have paid dividends. And maybe it has.
Bolles has been excellent, especially since Week 13 and finished Week 16 vs. Detroit with an elite PFF grade of 93.3 after he allowed zero pressures on Drew Lock and blasted open some big holes on the ground. There's little doubt at this stage that Bolles has a place as a starter with the Broncos heading into 2020.
The question will be, will Denver exercise the fifth-year option on his contract?
If not, Bolles will enter a contract year next season. If the Broncos do pick up the option, it'll include a commitment to pay him top left tackle money in 2021.
What the Future Holds
Offensive tackle has to remain on Denver's big board heading into the 2020 draft, especially because the Broncos can't count on James holding down the fort at right tackle. Maybe Rodgers pans out, but even if he does, the Broncos would be remiss to count on it.
Barring a blue-chipper falling to Denver in the draft, like Iowa's Tristan Wirfs or Georgia's Andrew Thomas, don't be surprised if the Broncos wait until day two or three to take a tackle. This team has to hedge against the injury-prone James and the likelihood that Rodgers is just a guy.
Until the Broncos land a franchise-caliber tackle, the team has to keep going back to the well until the Football Gods smile upon them and lift the curse.