Following the lead of Miami Dolphins beat writer Armando Salguero, I thought I’d put together my own completely made up plan for free agency and the draft if I were to suddenly wake up one morning as the Dolphins General Manager. I know it’s way too early to prognosticate such things with any semblance of accuracy, given that the NFL combine is only just beginning, free agency is a week away, and the draft is almost two months down the road, but here is how GM EJ would do things if he had the clout.
The first order of business, as is the case in any business, is looking in my wallet and seeing how much money I have. The latest numbers being bantered about show that the Dolphins will have approximately $42 million to spend under the 2017 salary cap. That number includes a couple of moves that the Dolphins have already made, but won’t be finalized until the March 9, the first day of free agency.
On that day, left tackle Branden Albert will be shipped to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a conditional 2018 seventh round draft pick. And tight end Julius Thomas will be traded from the Jaguars to the Dolphins for a 2017 seventh round draft pick.
While the Dolphins are able to wipe most of Albert’s salary off the books with the trade, a portion of that money goes to cover the renegotiated contract for Thomas, who will reportedly swap his $7 million salary for a more friendly and incentive-laden deal.
Next, GM EJ will set aside about $10 million to cover the salaries and futures contracts for rookie players added via the NFL draft in April and any undrafted free agents added to the roster immediately after the draft.
That leaves about $30 million to play with. Sounds great, but just like your first paycheck at a new job, that money will fly out the door faster than a twinkie at a weight watcher’s meeting.
The Dolphins have at least two free agents that they would like to retain, defensive end Andre Branch and wide receiver Kenny Stills. Branch, who played in 2016 on a one-year fully guaranteed deal for $3 million, proved himself as a good bookend for Cameron Wake, and helped make it easier to part ways with 2016 free agent signee Mario Williams. Branch can likely be retained for a contract that gives him about $4 million per year. Backup running back Damien Williams is also a free agent, and the Dolphins are expected to try and retain him as well.
The Stills situation on the other hand, is complicated.
Stills has been rumored (likely by leaks from his agent) to command a contract that will average as much as $12 million per season. That’s some serious moola. And a lot more than GM EJ wants to fork out, especially for a complementary wide receiver in an offense with a lot of other moving parts.
A much more palatable number is $8-10 million per year, and the Dolphins are rumored to be looking at the low end of that.
But GM EJ says, “Nope, too much to invest right now in light of a couple of future contracts we need to take care of.”
You see, next season two of the Dolphins best players will reach free agency, and the Dolphins will need to set aside money this year to hopefully extend the contracts of both of those two players and keep them in the fold. The team highly values wide receiver Jarvis Landry and safety Rashad Jones, and those two will command contracts in the $12 million per year range.
So just like that, the Dolphins are scraping the bottom of their free agency money barrel. Granted they can (and likely will) free up some additional money with renegotiated contracts for some players, and outright releasing a few other.
But the end result of all this is, if the Dolphins are going to keep Jones and Landry in the fold, they need to take care of them now, before they reach free agency next year. And that means some 2017 salary cap dollars have to be applied. And that means less money to throw towards any high-priced free agents this year.
And given the Dolphins reported interest in adding a linebacker and/or offensive lineman in free agency, GM EJ would find room for two additions on that front. And part of doing that involves a painful decision.
Let Stills walk.
As valuable as Stills was to the Dolphins offense last year, and despite Stills’ interest in returning to the team, the simple fact is there are some viable options out there to replace Stills that would cost half as much as the low end of the contract likely needed to retain him. A couple of speedy free agent wide receivers that could step in as a deep threat wide receiver for the Dolphins:
Kenny Britt anyone? Or how about Marquise Goodwin? Marquess Wilson (who played under Gase in Chicago)? Or even Markus Wheaton? See the pattern there (besides it being a lot of Marks)? All are speedsters that could likely be signed for about a quarter of the cost that Stills will command.
And if the Dolphins go that route, there will be enough money left in the till to take a serious shot at adding two big name free agents to be Day One starters at critical spots on the roster.
Dont’a Hightower or Zach Brown, anyone? Kevin Zeitler? Ronald Leary?
GM EJ would try like crazy to get Hightower in Miami. He’s a dominant three down linebacker who can cover, and immediately upgrades the defense. If he gets priced out of Miami’s price range, Brown is a great fallback option.
On the offensive line, the Dolphins have a hole at both guard spots, although technically Jermon Bushrod still holds the right guard spot, and the team has indicated that they aren’t opposed to keeping him there. Although he graded poorly in 2016, Bushrod, who has played on the left side his entire career, took time to adapt to the right side, and improved towards the end of the season.
So let’s leave Bushrod in place for now, and look at filling the left guard spot. Guys like Zeitler and Leary are going to be pricey, so GM EJ is going to wait until after the first wave of free agency signings to see who gets cut from other teams as a result of those high-priced signings, and sift through the remaining inventory for some guys who fit the Dolphins system.
If the Dolphins fill those spots, the draft is greatly simplified, and they can look at filling two huge needs right off the bat.
In the first two rounds, the team should add the best available linebacker and edge rusher to solidify the defensive front seven. Their compensatory pick at the end of the third round should also be used on defense, and then the remaining four picks (one fifth round pick, two additional compensatory picks at the end of the fifth round, plus one sixth round pick) can be used to mine for gems and developmental players without having to focus on specific positions.
The work still isn’t done, as undrafted free agents and the third round of free agency (players released from teams as they are outplayed and replaced with rookies during camps) would be signed later in the Sumer to fill in any remaining spots to fill in the roster, and target practice squad players for the 2017 season.
But the first wave, which starts March 9, is to fill those glaring holes in the roster at critical spots. Linebacker, guard, defensive end, and a complementary wide receiver are the biggest needs. Fill those needs early, and the rest of the offseason should fall into place neatly.
And that, my friends, should put the Dolphins in good shape for the 2017 season.
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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