8:31pm: James might not miss the entire season, per Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network (via Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk). Doctors have told James that they are hopeful he can return at some point this season, though doctors will have a better idea of his prognosis when he undergoes surgery later this week.
Mike Klis of 9News.com confirms that the Broncos are indeed actively making calls in search of a new RT as they await word on James (Twitter link).
James was training away from the team’s facility, which will put his $10MM base salary in jeopardy. The veteran right tackle signed a big-ticket deal with the Broncos in 2019, but he missed almost all of that season and opted out in 2020. Now, it looks like the 29-year-old blocker will miss the entire 2021 season as well.
Denver has been unable to fill its right tackle post for the better part of a decade. Moving three-year right tackle starter Orlando Franklin to guard in 2014, the Broncos have used a different Week 1 right tackle in each of the past eight seasons. This instability led to the team giving James a four-year, $51MM contract two years ago. However, that streak will reach nine in 2021. Elijah Wilkinson, the Broncos’ primary right tackle of the past two years, signed with the Bears this offseason.
Knee injuries kept James off the field for all but 63 snaps in 2019. The former Dolphins first-rounder opened that season as the Broncos’ right tackle starter but went down in Week 1 and endured setbacks as he attempted to come back. While Wilkinson and Demar Dotson worked as James fill-ins last season, Calvin Anderson is set to play that role now. The Broncos tendered Anderson as an ERFA in March. A UDFA out of Texas, Anderson played in 16 games last season and started two of those.
This is a tough blow for both parties. The Broncos passed on Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, despite rampant issues at right tackle, presumably in large part because of James’ impending return. James’ injury certainly provides a bad look for the NFLPA, which advised its workforce to boycott OTAs. James’ 2020 numbers tolled to 2021, because of his opt-out, but this development may well end his Broncos career at just 63 snaps.
The Broncos will look to the veteran market, Troy Renck of Denver7 tweets. They did so last year, signing Dotson. Several notable options remain available. Dotson joins former Chiefs All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency. The latter is coming off back surgery, however. Ex-Bears tackles Bobby Massie and now Charles Leno are free agents, with Chicago releasing both this offseason. Cameron Fleming, Dennis Kelly and Ricky Wagner are also unattached. All were right tackle starters in 2020. However, Wagner — a Packers cap casualty — is considering retirement. Jason Peters has played left tackle for most of his NFL life, but the perennial Pro Bowler agreed to play guard last offseason and hopes to play in 2021.