Last time I broke down who the Miami Dolphins need to move on from for the 2017 season, which included the likes of some familiar names such as Earl Mitchell and Koa Misi, as well as a failed project in Mario Williams and a young - but oft injured - linebacker in Jelani Jenkins who hasn't lived up to expectations and is also looking for a pay day.
Now the time has come to look at things from the other side of the spectrum. Despite the overall lack of talent that Miami ended the season with due to massive amounts of injuries, there were some players who stood out above the rest and proved that they need to be locked up before they get the chance to go elsewhere.
Without further ado, let's get started, and the first one on the list may actually be the most important player of them all.
Kenny Stills - Wide Receiver
How ironic that the player who came with a bevy of questions about why New Orleans was so willing to part ways with him has now become one of the top weapons in Miami's offense, stretching the field and being a preferred target for big plays and leading the team in touchdown receptions in 2016 with nine, which is more than both Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker combined in the same year.
Granted, he wasn't targeted as much as Landry and Parker, and he didn't accumulate as many yards either, but Stills turned out to be the true home run threat that the Dolphins tried - and failed - to make Mike Wallace back in 2013-14.
Which makes the situation Miami is in very uncomfortable. Stills has officially played out his contract, and now he needs a new one. Some team somewhere will be willing to pay him a lot of money to do what he's done for the Dolphins, and Miami is going to have to outbid them somehow.
As far as skill sets go, Colts WR T.Y. Hilton - another speedy receiver and major home run threat - could be a model for what kind of deal Stills could be looking for this offseason.
Hilton outplayed Stills stats wise in both receptions and yards by a large margin in 2016, but that could very well have more to do with Hilton's role in the Indianapolis offense and quarterback Andrew Luck's propensity to throw it his way.
Naturally, no one is making the argument that Hilton and Stills are the same player, Hilton has clearly shown more and accomplished more than Stills has and no one can argue otherwise. But their skill sets and roles in their respective offenses are similar, and with Hilton making an average of $13 million a year after signing his 5-year, $65 million dollar contract back in 2015, Stills could look for something in that price range.
If the Dolphins can be flexible with the contract structuring, they could make Stills' new contract easier to swallow if it goes upwards of $10 million per year, but simply letting him walk would not be a wise choice considering he became Miami's top scorer in 2016, and no one else on the roster - not even DeVante Parker or Jakeem Grant - are in any position to replace that.
Michael Thomas - Defensive Back
The hero of 2013 is getting ready to hit the free market for the first time in his career, Michael Thomas was a restricted free agent last season and so the Dolphins still had some measure of control over whether he would be in aqua and orange or sporting another team's colors. Now though, Thomas' fate rests in Thomas' hands and no one else's.
While not necessarily starter material, Thomas has been a special teams ace and a solid backup for the Dolphins ever since he was picked up off the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, and he's in a valuable leader in the secondary and the team.
That's the kind of player you keep around if he's willing to stay at a reasonable price. $2.5 to $3 million annually is a likely figure he'll be looking for, and given what Thomas is able to do and what he brings to the table, that seems reasonable. Versatility is a trait that is highly sought after in the NFL, and Thomas can step in and hold down the fort at any position in the secondary.
Andre Branch - Defensive End
The Dolphins got a steal when they signed defensive end Andre Branch to a 1-year deal for a measly $2.5 million this past offseason, and after Mario Williams turned out to be a major disappointment, Branch turned into a starter opposite Cameron Wake and had himself somewhat of a breakout season after two less than stellar years in Jacksonville, setting a career high in tackles with 49, and tacking on 5.5 sacks, which is only half a sack off from his career high set in 2013.
Last offseason, the Dolphins lost their top reserve defensive end in Derrick Shelby to the Atlanta Falcons, who signed a 4-year, $18 million dollar contract after spending four years with Miami. Branch's one season with the Dolphins was better than any year Shelby had, although that could be at least partly attributed to the fact that he was thrust into a starting role and thus he received more playing time.
After the season he had, Branch is likely to get a deal upwards of $5 million annually, perhaps more if he can try and convince teams he can take on the role of another former Dolphin in Jared Odrick, who spent time in the defensive line rotation at both defensive end and defensive tackle and earned himself a 5-year, $42.5 million dollar deal from Jacksonville two seasons ago, although that seems unlikely for a reserve player.
A safe bet would be to assume that Branch will get somewhere around $5 to $6 million annually on a new deal. He's shown that he has a fair amount of skill, but he didn't prove himself to be a star by any stretch. Why does Miami need to be the one to retain him? Simply put, it's necessity.
Cameron Wake is fighting off Father Time and will probably be good for at least a few more years, but even he won't decide to play forever, and Mario Williams - as previously mentioned - was a major disappointment and will be released. Dion Jordan also is unlikely to contribute any time soon, and veteran Jason Jones was released shortly before the Wild Card matchup against the Steelers presumably due to attitude problems.
This means that the Dolphins have a severe lack of players on the edges, and there's no doubt they'll take to the draft and potentially free agency to restock the defensive end position. They can start by making sure Branch stays put instead of going elsewhere.
Kiko Alonso - Linebacker
It's been a difficult road for Kiko Alonso since his initial Rookie of the Year season back in 2013, dealing with injuries has kept him from being a star linebacker in the NFL, which he clearly has the potential to do. After coming to Miami via trade from the Philadelphia Eagles, Alonso made 115 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2016 as the Dolphins MLB, and that was while dealing with an injured hamstring and a cast on his hand from a broken thumb.
As a restricted free agent, Miami will have the right to first refusal on any offers that come Alonso's way, but it would be a wise move to lock up Alonso on a new deal before it gets to that point. Whether he's in the middle (my personal place for him) or playing as an outside linebacker (where many would prefer to have him), Alonso has proven he's at least a solid NFL linebacker.
Similar players that Miami could model Alonso's contract after include Denver's Danny Trevathan and Philadelphia's Brandon Graham, who have annual salaries upwards of $6 million per year. Players with lower figures include Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore, but they - along with most other linebackers with lower figures - are older and don't match Alonso's situation.
At 26 years of age, Alonso is still in his prime and is more likely to get a contract like Trevathan's at the very least. Another option would be to simply place a tender on Alonso and let another team dictate what the young linebacker is worth, but doing so would risk losing him to another team, and given the Dolphins' desperate need for good linebackers, the best move would be to lock him up now and ensure he stays at a reasonable price rather than have another great year and drive up his leverage even further as an unrestricted free agent the next time around.
This column was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung
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