The Denver Broncos suddenly find themselves in a delicate spot regarding the tug of war between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over offseason workouts.
With right tackle Ja’Wuan James suffering a potentially season-ending Achilles tendon tear during an off-site workout, the Broncos have the contractual right under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to not pay James his eight-figure salary in 2021. But the Broncos aren’t required to stiff James.
The league office, which seized on the incident in an effort to persuade all players to return for voluntary offseason workouts, will surely want the Broncos to extend James no courtesies for following the union’s recommendation to stay away. The union will try to get players to pressure the Broncos to take care of James.
The Broncos ultimately will have to make the best decision for their organization. The major questions are this: (1) will they pay all or part of his $9.85 million fully-guaranteed salary for 2021?; (2) will they seek recovery of his $3 million signing bonus applicable to 2021?; (3) will they seek reimbursement of his opt-out salary advance from 2020?; (4) will the team pay for his surgery and rehab?; and (5) will the team void all current and future guarantees and cut him?
It doesn’t help James that he appeared in only three games in 2019, the first season of his four-year, $51 million contract. James received a $12 million signing bonus and a $5 million salary — a total payout of $17 million — during that first season with the Broncos. It would be easy for the Broncos to justify cutting James off, given how little they’ve gotten from him. Indeed, given his current contractual situation (and in light of the fact that he opted out in 2020), James had even more reason to show up for offseason workouts at the team facility.
The fact that the NFLPA has tried to wedge the square peg of the James injury into the round hole of a workplace injury won’t necessarily help James’ cause. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the workout program that James contends he was following wasn’t recommended; it was presented as “voluntary options” to players. More importantly, the letter attaching the voluntary options for off-site workouts cautioned players in red print and with underlining that the team is not responsible for any injuries that occur away from the team facility.
It’s possible that, if/when the Broncos place James on the non-football injury list, team and player will strike a deal. The Broncos have the leverage, and they arguably can dictate the terms. Whatever James may eventually get through a negotiated settlement, it will be far less than the 100 cents on the dollar he would have received if the injury had happened at the team’s facility.