ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos knew the price would sting. The first wave of free agency comes with sticker shock. But the Broncos, let's be honest, were stuck.
Right tackle has been to the Broncos what third base was the Cubs after Ron Santo, what drummers were to Spinal Tap. Over the past five seasons, the Broncos have started 11 right tackles, among them Ty Sambrailo, Michael Schofield, Menelik Watson, Donald Stephenson, Allen Barbre, Jared Veldheer and Billy Turner. James boasted the best resume among free agents. After nearly trading running back C.J. Anderson for him last offseason, the Broncos signed James. He received a four-year, $51 million deal with a $12 million signing bonus and $32 million guaranteed.
The Broncos made the 26-year-old the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history. But if you can believe it, he's not even the top athlete in the family. He married Rainey Gaffin, a softball legend at Legend High School in Broomfield and the University of Tennessee. Gaffin won four straight titles in her prep career as a two-way player, and became an All-American for the Volunteers, finishing with 33 wins as a pitcher and a .334 career average with 51 extra-base hits.
"I think I will give it to Juan as the best. We will do races. I used to think I was fast, until I raced him, and said, 'This isn't fair.' He's pretty all-around talented. When he plays basketball, he's smooth in everything he does; so fluid, his shot, the way he moves," his wife said. "I aspire to be like that."
James, who has a contagious smile and easy-going demeanor, disagreed. No arm-twisting required.
"I am going to continue to say her. She has all the accolades. She was All-American, Gatorade National Player of the Year, all-SEC, she's up there," said James, who learned how to pitch a softball to better understand his wife's excellence. "So I will continue to say her."
For James, signing with Denver came with added benefits. His wife's family lives here, he has enjoyed visiting over the years, and he is joining a team that, until the last three seasons, was among the AFC's muscle-flexing contenders with a fervent fan base.
"I go back to my rookie year when I came here (with the Miami Dolphins). It was the closest thing to an SEC feel I have experienced since college," said James in his one-on-one interview with Denver7. "Everywhere you go, you see people wearing orange. You get so much support, and we are going to need that."
Before adding James, the Broncos executed what I believe could be their best offseason move, convincing Mike Munchak to leave Pittsburgh to coach the offensive line. Not only is he a Hall of Fame player, but he brings a reputation of developing linemen into Pro Bowlers.
"His knowledge of the game is unreal. Just talking to him for an hour or so, it got me excited and riled up," James said. "He's talked about things he's done in the past with other players, and what we are going to do now. He explained how he watched film on me and things I do really well, and things I need to improve. I can't wait to work with him in April."
Free agency has not been kind to the Broncos at right tackle. They tried to make shrewd decisions with second-tier players in Watson and Stephenson and got what they paid for. Last season, Jared Veldheer played fine before suffering a knee injury, and Billy Turner filled in capably. Veldheer, however, will be 32 in June, and Turner received an eye-opening, four-year, $28-million deal from Green Bay as Denver sought to keep him as a swing player.
James is young, entering his prime. The Broncos need him to halt the dizzying carousel.
"We really like him. He’s a good fit for us with what we want to do with the zone scheme and outside zone. He’s a physical guy and he plays hard. We’re excited about him," general manager John Elway said. "There is no question that hopefully he solidifies the spot, that's what we're planning on from him. We really feel good about the two young tackles that we now have (James and Garett Bolles) and what we’re doing. We’ll just continue to get better there.”
For James, the Broncos' money was impressive. So, too, was the fit. He sees Munchak's adaptable scheme setting a tone for the entire offense.
"I get to bring my athleticism, but also my physicality. We are going to run the ball, and we are going to run it all day," James said. "We have to do it longer the D-Line can. And I feel like we have to pride ourselves in that, and we will like the results."