This is paying way over the odds to fix the problem, and I’m not sure it’ll solve things. Given that the Broncos were able to hire legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak this offseason to run their offensive line, it seems like they would have been better off with a cheaper veteran such as Jermey Parnell and a rookie for Munchak to mold into a starter.
In a history of decisions that seem to be very outside the box, John Elway has gone there again.
This one is eye opening. I like James as a solid player, coming off a good season in 2018, but to pay him a top-tier deal is nuts. He’s scheduled to make a $52 million over four seasons. Once again, it’s great money for a good player.
The Broncos are desperate to improve their line, and he will help, but this looks like a panic move in terms of the dollars spent.
I’ll admit that I started this offseason out in a very similar boat. I thought James looked like the best of an average tackle market and wondered why it would make sense for the Broncos to chase after a big ticket right tackle when Munchak could probably groom a prospect into a serviceable starter without much trouble.
In a vacuum that makes sense on a philosophical level. After all, the stats suggest that Ja’Wuan James is a good, but not great tackle. Everywhere you look NFL writers are citing PFF grades to knock the deal. Chances are you’ve seen two numbers tied to James: 70.8 and $51 M. Or if you found a really spicy writer? $13 M. If you take that at face value, I fully understand your trepidation about Elway’s new right tackle.
The numbers miss the trees for the forest a good bit. Littered throughout James tape are really good plays. He has the kind of talent to go toe to toe with Khalil Mack without embarrassing himself, which is a lot more than you can say for Michael Schofield.
As I dove into the Dolphins tape, it became apparent that James is the kind of lineman that shines in an outside zone scheme. He has the ability to make quick decisions on the move and adjust accordingly. His athleticism and footwork should really shine in the Rich Scangarello offense.
In addition to that, there’s two other big reasons James is a much better signing than the national media has caught on to. The first thing is the tackle market as a whole. Bobby Hart is going to carry a cap hit of $5.6 Million in 2019. Billy Turner signed with Green Bay for 4 years and $28 million. Most young lineman are further away from competency as they enter the league nowadays, so there is a greater premium placed on veterans. Average tackles are going to get paid more than they’re probably “worth” so it’s better to have someone that can justify the cost.
James is just 26. So long as he can stay healthy, it looks like his best football is in front of him. He has the kind of tools to grow exponentially with the right coach guiding him. Someone like Mike Munchak.
Take this snap against the Vikings. James initially bites on an inside lean by Danielle Hunter, but has the balance to recover and keep Brock Osweiler clean. That’s no sure thing against an edge rusher who finished the 2018 season tied for the 7th most pressures in football. Those tools show up against Watt and the Texans, as well.
Blocking is not always by the book, sometimes you just have to do what it takes to execute. Watt has a beat on the corner, James crosses his feet to get his body in front. He is athletic enough to recover in order to cut Watt's line off. pic.twitter.com/0EeXeVagY4— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) March 9, 2019
Of course, that’s where Mike Munchak comes in. He was so well thought of that he was a final contender for the head coaching vacancy when Elway fired Vance Joseph.
To get an idea of the impact he could have upon the Broncos offensive line, I took a look back at the Pro Football Focus grades the Steelers lines got during his tenure there. Pittsburgh was 15th in the league in 2013, but from 2014 through 2018 they never finished below 6th. The last 3 years they were one of the two best offensive lines in all of football.
If Munchak had any input on the addition of James? I’m all for the move, and I’m not alone.
Solid player. Reality of the NFL is that solid OTs will be paid handsomely. Just don’t pay for bad ones. James will get markedly better under Munchak too. https://t.co/Hrpn26Pesx— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) March 12, 2019
Ledyard’s third sentence is one worth elaborating on. Remember Donald Stephenson, or how about Menelik Watson? The two combined to cost the Broncos almost $20 Million. Per Pro Football Focus the Broncos right tackles have combined to allow 272 quarterback pressures the last 5 seasons. That’s the sixth most by any team in that span. James has allowed 110 since entering the league.
James does have parts of his game that he can hopefully iron out. He isn’t your stereotypical brute, and invites a lot of bullrushes. This isn’t a death knell most of the time as James is too smooth and balanced to get beat, but against elite rushers that are as technically sound as he is this can become problematic. I also noticed that both Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch got the better of him during the Dolphins tilt with Fangio’s Bears.
I’ll admit that the more I’ve watched James 2018 tape, the less concerned I’ve become about reports that he’s average. I fully expect him to hit another level in Denver. But if you’re still looking at that record breaking right tackle contract with a racing heart, let me talk you off the ledge.
This coming season James will count $8 million against the Broncos cap. A big number, but less than Ricky Wagner and Rob Havenstein cost the Lions and Rams, respectively. In 2020 the cap hit jumps to $13 million, but Spotrac currently projects Denver to sit a comfortable $64 million under the cap. That’s before you consider a move such as cutting Joe Flacco would free up an additional $20 million.
In 2021 Elway can walk away from James’ contract and save nearly $21 million if it hasn’t worked out. In 2022 the Broncos actually hold an option on the deal and could decline it to save $13 million if it’s in their best interest.
So while the contracts average per year is the highest for a right tackle in the history of the league, the reality is Denver signed Ja’Wuan James to a 2 year contract with options to pick up in 2021 and ‘22 if he’s panning out on the field.
I’d bet he’ll do just that.