The broad discretion that teams possess when a player suffers a serious injury away from work typically will be exercised based on various factors. The more important the player, the more valuable he is to the ongoing effort to win games and pursue championships, the more likely he’ll get paid even if he technically has squandered his ability to do so. The less important the player, especially in light of what he has been and/or will be paid, the more likely he’ll get nothing.
For tackle Ja'Wuan James, the Broncos have opted to take the “you’ll get nothing” approach. They paid James $17 million in 2019, and he played in only three games. Then, he opted out last year, during the pandemic. (That shouldn’t count against him, in theory. But it’s impossible to expect to completely ignore this when assessing the aftermath of his off-site injury.)
So after a year out of football, James began working out at the team facility. Then he reportedly left at the recommendation of the NFL Players Association. Although the team gave him and others “voluntary options” for workout regimens away from the team, the communication from the team made it clear that the team isn’t responsible for injuries happening away from the facility.
And so James did indeed suffer an injury, a serious one. And the Broncos, all factors considered, decided not to carry James on the roster and pay his salary for 2021 but to sever ties with a player who, but for the off-site injury, would have made more than $10 million in 2021, with that money guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the Broncos did not move to void the remaining guarantees in his contract (the $10 million this year plus a $5 million injury guarantee for 2022). Instead, the Broncos relied on the simple notion (as the Ravens did last year with Earl Thomas) that the guarantee for skill, injury, and cap does not cover an injury away from work.
The next question becomes whether the Broncos will try to recover the $3 million signing bonus allocation that applies to the 2021 season. Based on the manner in which Article 4, Section 9 of the CBA is written, that will be hard for the Broncos to accomplish. To recover the full amount of signing bonus applicable to a given year, there first must be a “forfeitable breach,” along with a continuous violation through the end of a given season. By cutting James before a “forfeitable breach” causes James to miss at least six days of training camp, the right to recover any of the 2021 signing bonus allocation never vests.
The Broncos could argue that the nature of the injury (torn Achilles tendon) necessarily means that forfeitable breaches would have occurred, all the way through the end of the regular season. James would respond by saying that this doesn’t matter; the team cut him before his inability to practice resulted in James actually committing the kind of forfeitable breach that allows signing bonus to be recovered. Thus, the team can take none of it.
In other words, James arguably would be treated no differently than any other player who is cut with unearned signing bonus payments remaining on his deal. The player keeps that money.
The Broncos easily could have kept James on the non-football injury list for all of 2021, allowing the “forfeitable breaches” to run and then seeking the $3 million. It’s unclear why they opted to cut him now. Maybe they simply didn’t want to deal with any potential P.R. pushback for refusing to pay James his weekly paycheck once the regular season began. Maybe they don’t want him in the facility as he rehabs the injury, serving as a constant reminder to the rest of the roster that the Broncos chose to stick it to James. Maybe they simply want to stick it to the union by forcing James to pay for his own rehab.
Regardless, while James arguably keeps the full amount of the signing bonus paid in 2019, he gets nothing more. That should serve as another reminder to all players that “fully guaranteed” money isn’t. It’s guaranteed only for skill, salary cap, and injuries suffered while in the building or on the field.
The Broncos didn’t release James for skill, for salary cap, or for an injury suffered at work. The $10 million therefore evaporates.
But what about the notion that James will exercise his right to fight this outcome? I also have the right to fight Mike Tyson, which then would give him the right to beat me into a bloody pulp.