- By Andrew Abramson Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A week after the Dolphins drafted right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round — earlier than almost anyone expected — his mother still was marveling at her son’s good fortune.
It felt like winning the lottery — something Nichelle James-Mickens had been dreaming of for years.
In 2012, on a visit to the University of Tennessee to watch her son play, she stopped by a Knoxville gas station to buy tickets for the then-record $425 million Powerball drawing.
A TV reporter was there and asked her what it would mean to win. She said she would buy property in Knoxville and spend more time with her son.
Two years later, her son is cashing in. Sure, the money is nice — as the 19th overall pick, he will sign a four-year, $12.9 million contract that includes a $4.5 million signing bonus.
But it’s about so much more than money.
“This is definitely better than hitting the Lotto,” James-Mickens said. “I was able to actually see him reap the benefits of so much hard work and sacrifice.”
James will start that work as a professional Friday, when the Dolphins begin a three-day mini-camp for rookies. He probably will be smiling, just as he has been since draft night.
He knew the Dolphins liked him, but he was projected to be chosen in the second or third round. When his name was called at No. 19, he joyfully watched the tears run down his mother’s face.
“It’s a blessing, really. That’s a big accomplishment,” James said. “There are also big expectations. I can’t just look at all the good from it. I’ve got to get to work and earn what I’m about to get.”
The Dolphins, desperate for help on the offensive line, saw the top four prospects — Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Notre Dame’s Zack Martin — go in the top 16. That left Miami to choose among candidates such as James, Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Virginia’s Morgan Moses.
The Dolphins gave James the edge based on several factors: Unlike the other options, he is an experienced right tackle who can complement newly signed left tackle Branden Albert; he has never had a major injury; and at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, he has ideal size and strength.
“I was a little surprised they drafted Ja’Wuan James but I commend the Dolphins,” said Keith Sims, a former Pro Bowl guard for the Dolphins. “They believed in Ja’Wuan James and that’s the biggest hole they needed to fill.”
Sims said he was skeptical of the Dolphins’ judgment in part because of their third-round selection last year of Tennessee offensive lineman Dallas Thomas. He couldn’t find the field last season even when Miami lost starters Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin and started Sam Brenner, an undrafted rookie from the practice squad.
But Sims said he spoke to a friend at the University of Tennessee who gave James’ work high praise.
“He said that he’s one of the best athletes and pass blockers he’s seen and that he just has to work on his run game,” Sims said.
If there is any question about James, it’s whether he is aggressive enough on the field — “my only issue with him,” said NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, a former NFL offensive lineman.
James’ father, Burkley, said his son is strong-minded but could be more punishing in the trenches.
“He wants to do his job but he just doesn’t overpower people,” Burkley James said. “But he’ll make sure that person doesn’t get to the quarterback.
“If someone rubs him the wrong way, makes him mad, his (aggression) comes out then. But yeah, he’s a big teddy bear.”
James, asked if he sees himself that way, said, “Nah.” But he conceded that he could be rougher on opponents.
“It’s going to get better with the competition,” he said. “I might be a laid-back guy when I’m with the guys, but when I’m on the field I’m a competitor.”
He briefly considered leaving Tennessee after the 2012 season when coach Derek Dooley was fired. But James knew he had to improve his game, so he stayed for his senior season under a new coaching staff.
James grew up as a basketball player in New Jersey and briefly tried baseball but found it boring. When his family moved to the Atlanta area when he was in eighth grade, he quickly realized that a big kid in the South should play football.
He spent a year at tight end at North Gwinnett High and then found a home on the offensive line, where he became one of the nation’s top prospects at tackle.
Then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin recruited James enthusiastically. North Gwinnett athletic director Grady York said Kiffin wanted to land a helicopter on the school’s softball field to woo James, but the county wouldn’t allow it.
York said James will be a positive presence on a Miami team damaged last season by the a bullying scandal.
“He’s a good man with a kind of quiet strength,” York said. “He’s going to add a lot to the locker room.”
James-Mickens called draft night an “out-of-body experience.” What stood out to her the most was what her son said just after he was selected: “Mom, it’s time to get to work.”