Ja’Wuan James is winning.
The Miami Dolphins starting right tackle since 2014 was recently married (many congratulations to him and his bride) and so things are obviously good on a personal side. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have publicly stated multiple times they’d like to keep James, who is a pending unrestricted free agent starting March 13 when the NFL’s new league year begins.
Add that the free agent market for offensive tackles doesn’t seem very strong and the draft is a viable but also tough option for the Dolphins and, yes, things are good for James professionally as well.
And taking all that into account and what has happened over the past year, you’d just have to say James is definitely on a winning streak.
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Well, rewind to March 2018. The Dolphins had a $9.34 million fifth-year option slated for James but didn’t love the idea of carrying that full number on their salary cap. And so they offered James what a source called a team-friendly contract that would lock up James for multiple years while lowering that cap number.
Yeah, um, James didn’t love that idea. So he rejected the offer. And the Dolphins could do nothing but keep James with that relatively high cap number because, as his agents made the Dolphins aware, if the team rescinded the option, the player could get more money on the 2018 open market as an unrestricted free agent.
So the Dolphins swallowed hard and kept James with that $9.34 million number.
Then the season came. And James started 15 games, pushing back on a short history of injuries that included him missing eight games in 2017 and nine games in 2015. He did play all 16 in 2016.
Anyway, last year was an up and down season for James — much like it was for the entire team. Pro Football Focus rated him the NFL’s 32nd best tackle with an above average grade.
According to PFF, of James’ combined 799 pass-blocking snaps in 2017 and 2018, he allowed 38 total pressures (25 hurries, four hits, nine sacks). This while 13 NFL teams had at least one tackle allow more than 38 pressures in 2018 alone.
So good. Not awesome, but good.
Did I mention the Dolphins fired Adam Gase after last season? It’s not correct to say James would welcome this change but let’s just say James was not in the club of Gase’s favorite players. James was drafted by Dennis Hickey in 2014 and that was, like, three Dolphins administrations ago depending on how you gauge it.
So for this player, the hiring of another new administration and a fresh start with the coaching staff cannot be a bad thing at this point.
And then we get to the free agency landscape ahead. There’s not a ton available to teams on that front.
Look, tackles are valuable and it’s not just left tackles anymore. Good NFL defenses come at the quarterback from both sides of the line because everyone wants at least two good edge rushers. So the right tackle’s value has increased.
And the available talent in free agency will be scarce because good teams are doing a better job of keeping their good players.
New England’s Trent Williams will be a free agent but he’s a left tackle.
Carolina right tackle Daryl Williams will be available but he missed all but the season-opener last year with a knee injury and was good-but-not-great in 2017.
Seattle’s George Fant is a restricted free agent but he’s been a solid-not-great part-time starter who was pushed into more snaps last season when injuries struck the Seahawks line.
Denver’s Jared Veldheer is scheduled to be a free agent, but club football czar John Elway said the team is negotiating a contract with him to try to retain him. Veldheer is 32 years old so that doesn’t seem like a solution.
Since the Dolphins are all about trying to be like the Patriots now, it bears mentioning that New England backup swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle is scheduled to be a free agent, too.
The point is the free agent market for tackles is a couple of wads of paper short of garbage. James is easily the best right tackle option in the group.
So, yeah, James winning.
And then we get to the draft …
The Dolphins love Florida’s Jawaan Taylor. Of course, he’s probably the best of the bunch so this is easy — Jawaan for Ja’Wuan.
The problem with Taylor is the Dolphins are not going to get a chance to turn in a card for him because they pick No. 13 overall and, barring a trade up by Miami, Williams will be gone by the 13th overall selection.
“I feel like I’m the best offensive tackle in the draft class,” Taylor said at the NFL Combine. “I never want to put no one ahead of me. I always feel like I’m the best. I feel like I have more to prove. I’m not perfect, but I feel like I’m the best one here.”
He’s correct. So moving on.
Some folks have linked the Dolphins to Alabama tackle Jonah Williams.
I get it, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier loves Alabama. He loves Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was Miami’s coach about eight or nine administrations ago. He loves Alabama players, so he drafted Kenyan Drake and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Chris Grier loves the Alabama football program and Williams produced at a high level for that program.
But the NFL is another thing altogether and Williams is perhaps better suited for an interior line position professionally than a tackle spot. He wants to play tackle, but multiple scouts believe he’ll end up at guard or perhaps even center.
Which does not fill a void should James leave in free agency.
There’s uncertainty there. We know James is an NFL right tackle. It has not been proven Williams is an NFL tackle.
One more thing about the draft: There are other tackles the Dolphins could pick to replace James and some of those would likely be just as good as James and way cheaper. But using a draft resource, predictably in a high enough round to get that quality starter, diminishes Miami’s chances of filling some other void.
The Dolphins would be walking away from a starter at a time they probably need to be adding six or or seven really good starters in the next two drafts.
This would not be addition by subtraction but rather subtraction by subtraction.
And, yes, it could be argued if the Dolphins save the $10-$12 million annually and $25 million or so in guaranteed money it would plausibly take to re-sign James they could use the money to sign someone else at another position. That’s true. That’s fair.
But that’s a net neutral move. This team needs to be adding good players, not merely making 1-for-1 exchanges.
James and Miami left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a friend as well as a teammate, recently had a cool instagram exchange in which Tunsil implored James not to leave him and presumably the Dolphins.
“Everything will work out, bro!” James responded.
Look, the fact is Ja’Wuan James has advantage all around. The market is in his favor. The draft is in his favor. If the Dolphins re-sign him, that will be in his favor. If the Dolphins let him go, he’s going to get paid and, yes, that will be in his favor.
You know what all that means?