Big payday near, Ja'Wuan James will see how much Dolphins value him

There might not be two closer Miami Dolphins players than left tackle Laremy Tunsil and right tackle Ja'Wuan James. After their season-ending loss at Buffalo on Dec. 30, the duo lingered in the locker room trying to tiptoe around the possibility that they had played their last game together.

James will be an unrestricted free agent in March, and he's headed toward a big payday. He's waiting to see how much the Dolphins value him.

The uncertainty around coach Adam Gase's job security seeped into the locker room in the last few weeks of the season. Gase's return would have increased the chances of veterans returning for a win-now 2019, but James wasn't optimistic that group would include him anyway.

"Oh no, the complete opposite," James told ESPN after the season finale. "I feel like if the current staff is back next year, then I probably won’t be. We’ll see how this situation works out over the next few weeks.”

Less than 24 hours later, Gase was fired.

Brian Flores, who is expected to become the Dolphins' next head coach, will discuss James' status with general manager Chris Grier next month, but James seems destined to at least test the free-agency market.

“I'm looking forward to free agency," James said. "We'll see how they feel about me."

Former NFL agent and CBS Sports salary-cap analyst Joel Corry said tackle Rick Wagner's five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Detroit Lions is an important data point for James. That could ultimately be the mark his agent will aim to match or exceed.

Many teams will treat that as the top of the right-tackle market because Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson signed a five-year, $56.25 million deal with the expectation that he would switch to left tackle. Jason Peters has continued to play at a high level, so that switch hasn’t happened. But Johnson's salary could be used in negotiations, too.

James in 2018 played out his fifth-year option, a $9.341 million salary that made him the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL. A significant pay cut from that figure for 2019 and beyond doesn't seem likely.

Los Angeles Rams RT Rob Havenstein signed a four-year, $32.5 million extension in August. The Bears re-signed RT Bobby Massie to a four-year extension that NFL Network reported was worth more than $8 million per year. James’ camp could look at those numbers and consider that James’ floor.

James, 26, has started 62 games for the Dolphins in the past five years. His play hasn't always been steady, but he's been more good than bad. James' athleticism allowed him to pull effectively throughout the season, too, a task that not many tackles willingly and successfully accept.

He's also coming off a season when he and Tunsil were the only two Dolphins offensive linemen who played well enough to be considered guaranteed starters going into 2019. But those bright spots were dimmed because the entire offense didn't play well, and James thinks he knows why.

"All year, we never had an offensive identity," James said. "When things go really wrong, you don’t know what to go to if you don’t have any identity. You just end up trying random stuff."

The Dolphins are starting anew with Flores. So they will have to decide if James is a key cog worth building around for years to come. James was No. 21 on ESPN's Kevin Seifert's top 50 players with expiring contracts list, the top pending free-agent right tackle, and the only Dolphin.

In free agency, average players get paid like good players and good players get paid like great players. If James reaches free agency, he should be expected to cash out. The Dolphins have to clean up their cap and get some big salaries off their books. They easily could decide that they aren't ready to compete in the near future and therefore choose not to spend the money needed to retain James.

"He’s huge for us. We are a better team with him. I love playing with him. I hope I can again next year," Tunsil said. "But he definitely has to do what’s best for him moneywise, too. I'm excited for him to get this opportunity."

James also raved about playing with Tunsil, who is coming off his best season and will be looking for his own big payday in the next year or two.

"I love playing with Laremy. He played like the best tackle in the league. He’s my brother and he will be for life," James said. "I hope I get playing with him, but if it doesn’t work out that way, we’ll still be tight."