Not many players are nearly an exact match to their college scouting report at the next level. However, that was the case with Miami Dolphins right tackle Ja’Wuan James.
The Dolphins pulled off a mild surprise in the 2014 draft when they selected James out of the University of Tennessee at No. 19 overall. James was widely regarded as a second-round talent. However, the Dolphins believed they needed an immediate starter on the offensive line, and James was the best player available to fill that void.
James’ scouting report out of college was that he was a “plug-and-play” prospect who would be ready to start in Week 1. He set a Tennessee record with 49 career starts, facing top-level competition in the SEC. James was mature and ready for the NFL. However, his ceiling wasn't projected to be much higher than where he stood coming out of college. All of these traits turned out to be accurate.
Three years later, the Dolphins have an interesting decision to make with James. The team has until May 2 to pick up his fifth-year option for 2018 or allow James to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. The fifth-year option will be worth approximately $8 million.
James has been pretty much what the team expected. He started from Day 1 and played all 16 games in two of his three seasons. James suffered a toe injury in 2015 that limited him to seven starts.
James has been steady at right tackle. However, his level of play has been nearly the same for three seasons. He is good enough not to be a liability but not dominant enough to be one of the NFL’s top players at his position.
If Miami picks up the option for 2018, James will be paid for that season like a dominant right tackle. The team also can choose not to pick up the option and see if James takes his game up a level or two in a contract year. If that’s the case, the Dolphins would have to sign James to a significant multiyear extension to keep him before he becomes a free agent.
The Dolphins faced a similar situation two years ago with starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. They liked Tannehill enough to avoid the fifth-year option and instead signed him to a six-year, $96 million extension. The difference is the Dolphins were confident Tannehill was an ascending player at the NFL’s most important position. Although solid, James hasn’t shown signs of being an ascending player.
It is unlikely James will get a contract extension in the next few weeks. That makes Miami’s decision on his fifth-year option a difficult one.