Denver Broncos: Ja’Wuan James injury implications on salary cap

After signing a four-year, $51 million contract in free agency that, at the time, made him the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history, Ja’Wuan James played 63 snaps for the Denver Broncos in the 2019 season. Those 63 snaps are likely all we will ever see from James in a Denver Broncos uniform.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, James has suffered an Achilles injury that will cause him to miss the entire 2021 season.

After opting out of the 2020 season, James will have only played those 63 snaps (while dealing with a knee injury) in 2019 over the course of three years. You hate to see the potential of this, but is it possible that James will be done in the NFL at this point?

Hopefully James is able to get healthy soon and get back on the field, but it’s fair to question how badly he wants it.

There were questions about James’ desire to play football dating back to his time in Miami and it’s rare to see teams let good offensive tackles walk in free agency. Still, the Denver Broncos had to take that risk at the time as James was 26 at the time and had proven he could play really well when he was healthy, even though he had three injury-plagued seasons in Miami.

All told, what was once a four-year, $51 million with $27 million guaranteed at signing could soon dissipate into a much less headline-worthy figure.

If $10 million of guaranteed cash voids in 2021 — which it likely will as James opted to work out privately away from the Denver Broncos’ facility after spending the majority of the offseason there until recently — then James’ contract with the Denver Broncos essentially looks like this.

2019: $12 million signing bonus + $5 million salary ($17 million fully guaranteed)
2020 (opt-out): $600,000

All told, that’s a one-year deal worth $17 million plus $600,000 in the opt-out year.

If the Denver Broncos decide to cut James and his $10 million in guarantees are voided because of an injury away from the facility, it would free up $4 million in cap space for the team, although James would still be counting $9 million against the cap in dead money (three more years of a prorated signing bonus at $3 million per year).

Regardless of the ultimate outcome here, which seems will likely be James getting released, this was a poor free agent signing in hindsight, to say the least. Although the Denver Broncos will not have wasted $51 million as some media outlets will try to say, they invested over $17 million in James for one season and 63 snaps.

That stinks, no matter what way you cut it.

The Denver Broncos did not use any 2021 NFL Draft picks on the offensive tackle position. They will need to look to free agency to replace James’ spot on the roster and potentially his role in the starting lineup.