The Miami Dolphins have until May 3 to decide whether to place a fifth-year contract option of Ja’Wuan James and the team is declining so far to say whether it will extend the right tackle’s contract a year or let him enter 2017 as a contract year.
“That’s a decision we don’t have to make until after the draft,” Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum said recently. “We’re going to get through the draft and that will be soon thereafter. Ja’Wuan is another guy, drafted here, [offensive line coach} Chris Foerster has worked with him for a year, and he’s another home grown talent. We’ll get through the draft and then get that finalized.”
And this is where I pause and wonder, why make this so hard?
Ju’Wuan James gets the option year. The Dolphins would be outsmarting themselves if they don’t exercise the option. It’s almost a no-brainer, really.
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Some factoids to catch you up on what the fifth-year option is:
All players selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 2011 have signed four-year deals. But teams can exercise a fifth-year option that becomes guaranteed for injury -- thereby retaining a player’s rights that fifth year.
For players selected outside the top 10 -- such as James -- the fifth-year salary is the average of the third-through 25th highest salaries at the player’s position.
If you are averaging right tackles, that means the Dolphins option on James would be for approximately $5 million. If you are averaging for overall offensive line as a whole, the average would be for approximately $8 million.
The fifth year is guaranteed for injury when the option is exercised. The injury guarantee would only kick in if the player was unable to play the following season after getting hurt. In other words, only if James gets injured this coming season and cannot play at all in 2018 does that option guarantee kick in.
Teams can get around the fifth-year option by cutting the players before their salaries become official for that season -- in this case at the beginning of the 2018 league year, probably sometime next March.
So there is little risk to teams to make certain good players they invested first-round draft picks in don’t hit free agency after only four years.
The question, obviously, is whether the Dolphins consider James not just a good player - but a player good enough to pay $5-$8 million if it came to that.
It didn’t seem like James was good enough in the eyes of the new Dolphins coaching staff early last season. He was criticized by coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen (in a gentle manner by Clyde) and he was pulled from a game against the Cleveland Browns.
It looked bleak for James because he’d been doing things his way for years and had success playing that way. He was good enough at Tennessee to be drafted No. 19 overall. And although he admittedly needed improvement after his rookie year, he nonetheless started right away and even played left tackle when Branden Albert was injured.
But 2015 was disappointing because James dislocated a toe and could not stay healthy long enough to contribute. Then last season, the new coaching staff changed the offensive line’s techniques. And James struggled -- relatively speaking.
What does that mean?
It means that although James was not bad, the current coaching staff expects him to be borderline elite. He has that kind of ability, in their estimation, to be one of the best right tackles in the NFL. But he has obviously not reached those heights.
And so James is at times considered a disappointment because of the unmet potential.
He’s a good player. But he’s frustrating to the team because he could be outstanding and he’s not.
Despite that, I’m told that doesn’t mean the Dolphins have given up on James. On the contrary.
When the team begins its offseason program, James will be a focus. There will be strength coaches on his, ahem, stuff. Eventually the coaching staff will be allowed to work with the players later on and he can expect some significant attention.
The Dolphins want Ja’Wuan James to be an excellent player.
The problem is they have to decide before all this work and attention happens whether to exercise their option or not.
So does the team do this based on a projection of what is about to happen?
I say, of course. The Dolphins have high regard for Foerster and believe he’ll get James better. And a better James is well worth a $5-$8 million investment because you have to look at what right tackles are getting in free agency now.
Minnesota gave Mike Remmers a five-year, $30 million. Is he better than James? That’s debatable.
Denver gave Menelik Watson a three-year, $18.375 million deal. Is he better than James. That’s debatable.
The point is players that may not be better than James today are getting $6 million per season in free agency.
The Dolphins could avoid putting themselves in a contract-year situation with James for $5-$8 million that they could easily escape before the 2018 league year opens if James’s performance collapses. Am I missing something? What’s the major puzzle that needs to be solved here?
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero