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Under Pressure: In 2020, Ja’Wuan James has to prove he’s worth the money

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 08: Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James (70) lines up during the NFL game between the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans on December 8, 2019 at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Broncos have had a great offseason in 2020. They made some big moves in free agency, added star talent via trades and then crushed the 2020 NFL draft. Their roster has been upgraded by a wide margin just based on the elite-level talent that has been added this calendar year.

In this “Under Pressure” series, I’ll look at some of the players who are most under pressure after the moves in free agency and the draft. The talent added to this roster is going to push some players – maybe even some fan favorites – off the roster.

Today, I’ll examine the situation surrounding Broncos right tackle Ja’Wuan James. Let’s see why he’s under pressure in 2020.

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Background

There was plenty of doubt that James was a first-round graded prospect when he came out of the University of Tennessee. Many felt the Dolphins reached when they selected him with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The team was happy that they got James where they did, but some speculated that he may have been there in the second round.

James played right tackle for the Volunteers, and that’s where he initially began his career in Miami. He started most of his career with the Dolphins at right tackle, but there were times when he had to fill in at left tackle due to injury.

James himself had to deal with injuries throughout his time with the Dolphins. It seemed like he would have a good year every other season, playing well as a rookie, in 2016 and in 2018. He was playing well in 2017, but missed around half the season due to injury.

The Broncos had interest in trading for James before the 2018 season. In fact, there was a time in 2017 when there was a belief the Broncos would trade away running back C.J. Anderson for the tackle. Instead, James stayed with the Dolphins and they picked up his fifth-year option for the 2018 season. There was conversation about the team extending him, but James played on the fifth-year option in 2018 and played well.

When free agency began in 2019, James was considered one of the best players at his position that would be available. James signed a four-year, $51 million contract with the Broncos, including a $12 million signing bonus, $32 million guaranteed and an average annual salary of $12.75 million. He had a meniscus injury that kept him to just three games and 63 total snaps for the 2019 season.

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The Pressure

The contract James got from the Broncos meant that he was under a bright spotlight as the league’s highest-paid right tackle. James did not live up to that inflated price tag and thus is under scrutiny heading into this season.
Things are getting pressure-packed for James due to his long injury history and the fact that he barely played for the Broncos in 2019.

His cap hit for the 2020 season is $13 million, but there is a potential out for the Broncos after this season. The big deal for James could end up as a two-year, $27 million deal if the Broncos decide to move on after 2020. James has only $6 million remaining in dead money after this season, and that number would be something the team would consider swallowing if James continues to disappoint.

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What He Needs to Do

The answer here is easy; James needs to stay healthy, first and foremost. The pressure is on for him to play up to his price tag, and the team needs him to come through as a solid starter. They have enough issues at left tackle with Garett Bolles, and they have a competition where Elijah Wilkinson will compete for that spot.

The Broncos wanted the same competition last year, but James was unable to stay healthy and that forced Wilkinson into his right tackle spot. Denver can’t see if Bolles can be beat out for the left tackle job if James is not healthy and Wilkinson has to move over again.

James started just seven games in 2015, eight games in 2017 and three games in 2019. Not to sound superstitious, but his injury history is problematic in odd years. Good thing 2020 is an even year, and perhaps that will help James stay healthy and that would be good news for the Broncos.

Overall, James is not an elite-level offensive tackle in the NFL. He’s a solid starter with a long injury history. If healthy, the Broncos will be fine at right tackle and be able to see who wins the left tackle job.

With a rushing attack that will feature Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, having an athletic right tackle like James would help. Add in the fact that second-year quarterback Drew Lock needs the best protection possible, and you can see the task at hand for James. We’ll see if he can stay healthy and play up to the expected level in 2020.