New Miami Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey says Tennessee right tackle Ja'Wuan James was the highest-rated player on their draft board when their turn came in the first round Thursday, which made for an easy decision.
Eager to acquire a right tackle, Miami turned down trade offers and selected the 6-foot-6, 311-pound James with the 19th pick.
"We had a couple of calls, but we were excited about picking Ja'Wuan," Hickey said. "We were always targeting him. He was the best player for us. That's the way we valued him."
The Dolphins passed on a chance to take 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. They opted for a blocker even after four offensive linemen were taken among the first 16 picks.
"Seeing the run on linemen, I was just thinking that was a great opportunity for me," said James, who was surprised but pleased to be Miami-bound.
James never missed a game in four seasons at Tennessee and made 49 career starts, a school record for an offensive lineman. He's the first Volunteer offensive lineman taken in the first round since 1991.
"We're really excited about the skill set he brings and the quality person he is," Hickey said. "He played at the highest level, the SEC. We had a conviction."
"He has the ability to pass-block one on one," coach Joe Philbin said. "That was the No. 1 thing that jumped out at us."
The Dolphins gave up 58 sacks last year, a franchise record and the most in the NFL. They ranked 26th in rushing and finished last in the league in yards between the tackles.
James said he can help improve those statistics. He was initially projected by some as a third-round pick but said he helped his stock by doing well at his pro day workout.
"I'm a tough, smart offensive lineman," he said. "I pride myself on not making many mistakes, and I bring athleticism to the table."
Four of the Dolphins' five starters from last year's offensive line have departed. That includes tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Richie Incognito, who were at the center of a bullying scandal that helped to sabotage last season.
James said Dolphins officials discussed the scandal when he visited their complex earlier this year.
"I'm a tough-skinned guy, and when I was down there they expressed that that's not how their locker room is," he said. "That's definitely not going to be a problem at all."
James watched the draft with his family from their home in Suwanee, Georgia, and didn't attend the event in New York with other first-round prospects.
"I'm not one of those guys that has a camera in his face," he said. "I just like to be around my loved one. This is cool being in at home in my house on my couch."
The pick was the first in Miami for Hickey. He replaced Jeff Ireland, who departed in part because of his lack of success in recent drafts. Not one of Ireland's nine picks a year ago cracked the starting lineup, and that included overall No. 3 choice Dion Jordan.
James becomes the Dolphins' fourth newcomer in the offensive line. Pro Bowler Branden Albert was signed to play left tackle, and Hickey also acquired veterans Shelley Smith and Jason Fox.
Another lineman in the mix this year will be guard Dallas Thomas, a third-round pick last year and James' former teammate at Tennessee.
James was 8 the last time the Dolphins won a playoff game, in 2000. They haven't had a winning season since 2008, and a December collapse cost them a playoff berth last year, when they finished 8-8.
As a result, Miami still has plenty of needs, including help at linebacker, in the secondary and at receiver. Taking another blocker later in the draft is also a possibility.
"We still feel like there are a lot of good players on the board," Hickey said after the first round ended. "We were just looking at the board and mapping where we are now. There are going to be a lot of good options Friday."
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