ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It is subtle to be sure, but there was a benevolence to Ja’Wuan James not playing through a knee injury last year and opting out of playing this year.
His absence has made way for Elijah Wilkinson to make a lot of money.
Wilkinson, an undrafted prospect from the unheralded University of Massachusetts three years ago, was supposed to be a nice reserve offensive lineman in the NFL. But he replaced injured players to start seven games at right guard in 2018, then started 12 more last year at right tackle for the injured James.
That led to Wilkinson receiving a second-round, $3.259 million tender as a restricted free agent this year. Wilkinson was supposed to earn that money as a swing backup to Garett Bolles at left tackle and James at right tackle – with a chance to compete with Bolles for the starting left tackle position during training camp.
But then James opted out Monday. Fill in once as a starter and you’re still considered a fill-in. Fill in twice and Wilkinson is now looking at entering unrestricted free agency after this season as a legit NFL starting right tackle. As starting offensive tackles are hard to come by, Wilkinson has a real chance to bank after this season.
"I thought Eli made a lot of progress last year throughout the season," Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said Tuesday in a Zoom media video call. "He ended the last game-and-a-half or so where he hurt his ankle. (James’ opt-out is) a good thing for (Wilkinson) personally because he gets to go back to the position he spent 800, 900 snaps at last year and all the practice that goes for that. So from his perspective, it’s a good thing."
However, from a competitive depth standpoint, losing James for a second consecutive season figures to hurt the Broncos’ offense, especially when they are counting so heavily on young, inexperienced quarterback Drew Lock to stay healthy.
"Yeah, any time you lose a player you think is a good player there’s going to be challenges, there’s no two ways about it," Fangio said.
Last year, as the media asked for a James’ update on a weekly basis, Fangio once said his right tackle was cleared to play medically, but that he wasn’t emotionally ready.
That didn’t sit well with the masses as James was the league’s highest-paid right tackle last year with $17 million in signing bonus and 2019 salary.
James’ referred to a "false narrative" about how he dealt with his knee injury during his opt-out statement Monday.
"No, I don’t think it factored into it at all," Fangio said. "Ja’Wuan and I had several conversations in the offseason. They all were very good and productive. I don’t think it had any bearing on it whatsoever. He was training to have a good season all through the offseason. I thought he had a good offseason. We spoke many times. And down towards the end here when he had to make a decision he just chose to opt out, which is his choice and we’re fine with it."
Other topics Fangio addressed Tuesday:
*The first full-squad, full-speed practice will be August 14. The Broncos camp schedule:
Tuesday-Friday: Conditioning, meetings, walkthroughs
Saturday: Player off day
Sunday-Aug. 11: Conditioning, meetings, walkthroughs
August 12-13: Veterans begin their phase 2 ramp-up period (practice in helmets). Rookies have separate practice.
August 14: First day all players are on the same schedule. First full-squad, 2-hour practice in helmets and shells.
August 15: Player off day
August 16: Second full-squad, 2-hour practice in helmet and shells.
August 17: First practice in pads for no more than 1 ½ hours. Padded practices can be extended in 15 minute increments each day until reaches 2 hour, 30-minute maximum.
August 18: Padded practice for 1 hour, 45 minutes
August 19: Padded practice for 2 hours
August 20: Padded practice for 2 hours, 15 minutes
August 21: Padded practice for 2 hours, 30 minutes
August 22: Player off day
August 23-September 6: Players are to have four more off days and no more than 10 padded practices in this 15-day span.
Monday, September 7: Start of regular season practice schedule.
Monday, September 14: Broncos regular-season Game 1 vs. Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High.
*Fangio was asked about cornerback Bryce Callahan’s foot injury that underwent two surgeries and caused him to miss all of last year, and whether he would play at the outside cornerback position or inside at the nickel slot.
"Bryce’s health is good," Fangio said. "About a week or 10 days before we came back here he got sick. Not COVID sick, he had a stomach virus and he lost some weight so we’ve got to get that back on him. But his foot is fine, no problems.
"We’re going to work him at both spots. He’ll play corner and inside at nickel along with a bunch of other people at both positions."
*Fangio will be fully immersed in his 42nd season as a football coach when he turns 62 on August 22. In many ways, but not all ways, he exemplifies the definition of "old school."
Do all the COVID-19 protocol hoops he has to jump through just to put on a practice seem awkward to him, or make him feel uncomfortable?
"I don’t think it matters where you are in your coaching career experience-wise," he said. "This is new for everybody. Nobody has experience in this. I always like to say the great ones can INA it, which is improvise and adjust. We want to be a bunch of great ones here and excel at improvising and adjusting.
"There’s no wiggle room. The protocols are what they are. We’ve got to abide by them and move past it.
"Once we’ve gotten on the field – we’ve gotten on the field just for walkthroughs now, for conditioning, etc. – it does feel normal.
"The good thing is our guys are excited to be here. The overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten from the players as a group and individually is they’re all very happy to be here, they’re ready to go.
"They kind of wish, I think, they were practicing normal by now. They’re ready to go. These guys had a good offseason individually. I talked to all of them three to five times during the spring when all this was going on. And they were working out and I think it’s proven to be true."
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