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John Elway bet on Ja’Wuan James, which wasn’t a smart wager

(Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

During the 2019 offseason, John Elway bet $51 million on Ja’Wuan James. The Broncos general manager gave the free-agent right tackle a four-year contract for that amount, with $12 million upfront and $32 million guaranteed.

Year one of the deal didn’t go well for Denver. After being injured just 10 plays into the season opener, James would only play 63 total snaps last season, across parts of three games. He didn’t start and finish a game at any point in 2019, forcing the Broncos to play a back-up right tackle at some point in all 16 contests.

That’s why a lot of people thought Elway would select a tackle in the 2020 NFL Draft. A rookie could compete with Garett Bolles on the left side, while also providing an answer for the future at that position, while also serving as an insurance policy if James was bitten by the injury bug again this season. Instead, the Broncos went with wide receivers in the first and second round of the draft, while also passing on tackles in every other round.

It wasn’t just the draft where Elway decided to not reinforce the tackle position. He also didn’t address it in free agency.

As recently as two weeks ago, the Broncos could’ve signed someone to provide competition for Bolles and another option behind James. Jason Peters just inked a one-year deal with the Eagles, while Kelvin Beachum did the same with the Cardinals. Denver had the salary cap space needed to sign either player, but chose not to do so.

Now that news has come out that James will opt out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, all of these decisions seem questionable. With Elijah Wilkinson, the Broncos swing tackle who can play either side of the line, on the PUP list at the moment, Denver is suddenly very thin at tackle.

A rookie. A veteran free agent. A one-year stop-gap insurance policy. Any of these options would’ve been smart for Elway to consider in hindsight.

Instead, he once again bet on Ja’Wuan James. And for the second straight year, that wager turned out to be a bad one.

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