The least popular player in Dove Valley is the player with the least visits to Dove Valley over the past year.
And when — or, more appropriately, if — right tackle Ja'Wuan James shows his face again inside the Denver Broncos' locker room, his teammates will resist the red-carpet treatment.
“I’ve talked to him now and then. He knows what he has to do to get back into the room, and he knows what he has to do to earn our trust back," Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles told reporters Monday. "At the same time, we’re going to open our arms and love him and take care of him. He has a lot of work to do to get where he needs to be, and I know he’ll do that.”
James was supposed to be Bolles' long-term bookend along Denver's offensive line. That was the intention in handing the former Dolphins first-round pick a four-year, $51 million free-agent contract in March 2019. But the best-laid plans of John Elway and Vic Fangio have gone disastrously askew.
James lasted just 63 snaps — making $202,380 per snap — and three games on the field before a series of knee injuries torpedoed his Broncos inauguration. He received criticism from the fan base who felt he could have played, but chose not to, at various points across the 2019 campaign.
Another domino fell last August when James decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Which was his right, but it did little to dispel the vitriol, nor, apparently, improve his standing with the players who sacrifice their health for blood, sweat, and tears. For football. For the Broncos.
Because those same Broncos are contractually bound to James until 2022, the 29-year-old (in June) is entrenched as the starting RT. Whether he begins to provide some sort of return on the organization's massive investment is anyone's guess.
But one fact, confirmed by head coach Vic Fangio, is indisputable: James fumbled away any and all goodwill that might have previously existed.
“I’ve been in touch a couple times with Ja’Wuan during the season, and I know he’s anxious to get back here and get back in the fold," Fangio said Tuesday. "Anytime you’ve been out for a year, you got to get yourself back into the mix and earn the respect and trust of everybody moving forward. I’m sure he’ll be able to do that.”