Broncos could move on from Ja’Wuan James despite dead cap hit

Denver Broncos free agent bust Ja'Wuan James. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Denver Broncos free agent bust Ja'Wuan James. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The Denver Broncos have some massive roster decisions to make with new general manager George Paton at the helm in 2021, starting with players like Von Miller, Kareem Jackson, and Justin Simmons.

One player that hasn’t been talked about as much is right tackle Ja’Wuan James, the team’s biggest free agent signing in the 2019 offseason.

James came over to the Broncos from the Miami Dolphins where he was a first-round pick out of Tennessee. He struggled in Miami with injuries, but James was one of the better right tackles in the NFL when healthy. As an under-30 free agent at the tackle position, he was understandably highly coveted in that free agency period.

In his first season with the Broncos, he was injured in the season-opener on what amounted to a pretty cheap shot by then-Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who flew full speed at James’ knee.

He avoided a “major” knee injury in terms of torn ligaments, but the pain and discomfort lingered throughout the year for James. Even after being medically cleared by the Broncos, however, he still couldn’t get on the field to play.

After what amounted to a lost 2019 season, James opted out of the 2020 campaign due to the pandemic, leaving the Broncos scrambling at the position once again.

Because he carries a $19 million dead cap hit, the idea of cutting James this offseason has not really been discussed much. According to Broncos insider Benjamin Allbright of 850 KOA in Denver, there is a chance that could happen anyway.

"The Ja’Wuan James thing is actually the most fascinating to me because even with that big hit they may move on from him. I think that would be the only “surprise” that would be in there.Benjamin Allbright (via Manely Broncos podcast)"

You can check out the full podcast and a number of other intriguing nuggets from Allbright here.

Now, let’s clarify what it would look like for the Broncos to “move on” from James because there is more than just one way to do that.

The team’s options are as follows:

Broncos 2021 options for RT Ja’Wuan James

Cut before June 1: $19 million dead money, -$6 million cap “savings”
Cut after June 1: $13 million dead money, $0 cap savings
Traded before June 1: $9 million dead money, $4 million cap savings
Traded after June 1: $3 million dead money, $10 million cap savings

As you can see, those options are in the reverse order of what would be financially preferable for the Broncos and the top two options are exactly why it seems as though it would be bordering on useless to cut James.

But the idea of the post-June 1 cut designation, eating the dead money and simply breaking even on the 2021 salary cap is not without merit.

The Broncos could also shop James to tackle-needy teams or teams in desperate need of some salary cap space who would rather acquire some assets than make cap casualties. They could try to pull off some kind of NBA-style salary swap and perhaps include a draft pick along with James to get a team to take him off their hands.

Perhaps something with Paton’s old team the Minnesota Vikings like James and a pick for Riley Reiff, or James and a pick for linebacker Eric Kendricks.

Who knows how amenable the Vikings or any other team would be to something like that, but there is a precedent of teams with plenty of cap space taking on contracts in exchange for solid draft pick compensation.

One way or another, Allbright’s intel here is noteworthy. That the Broncos are thinking about the possibility of moving on from James despite the dead cap hit would be one of the bigger stories of the 2021 offseason.