Looking at the Miami Dolphins 2018 Offseason

2018 Miami Dolphins (Cap Numbers as of 1/26; source OverTheCap.com; projected $179.5 M cap)

Team Cap = $179,366,484

Total Cap Spend= $170,621,126

Top 51 = $168,124,438

Dead Money = $276,688

Team Cap – (Top 51 + Dead Money) = Cap Space

Cap Space = $10,965,358

Rookie Pool = $8,240,213

Cap Space – Rookie Pool = $2,725,145

Draft Picks:

9 draft picks: 1/11, 2/42, 3/73, 4/113, 4/133, 6/186, 7/223, 7/229, 7/247

Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com Team Needs:

  • OG, ILB, RB (Vitti says needs are OL, LB and about 5 other positions)
  • “Miami should be looking for additional talent at guard, linebacker, defensive end and running back (following the Jay Ajayi trade to Philly).”

Team’s Free Agents:

The Dolphins are in a bit of a difficult position as an organization and, of course, it’s by their own doing. The situation they’re in was created almost the day they decided to hire Mike Tannenbaum to play a major role in their decisions as an organization after he’d created an unsustainable situation in New York with the Jets that they’re just now recovering from.

From 2007 through 2010, the Jets had a total of 17 total draft picks. That was just 4.25 per season, which devastated the team over the ensuing years as they didn’t have the young talent on the roster to extend and build the core of the roster because of the lack of draft picks and the lack of success with those picks. Just over four picks per draft could work out if you hit on every draft pick, and the Jets did get to the AFC Conference Championship for two straight seasons in 2009 and 2010, so they had some success, but it was a roster construction strategy that was unsustainable over the long-term; it was betting on a small window strategy with a blow it up sort of feel afterwards that’s severely restricted the Jets’ organization for the better part of a decade.

To his credit, he didn’t make the same mistake with the Dolphins in the draft process, but he set up a similar high risk, short-term solution that won’t work out to Super Bowl glory. His strategy is almost the anti-thesis of what I talk about in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions when I discuss finding values and building sustainable models for success through keeping cap costs at a reasonable level to build a deep well of veteran talent on the roster and building through the draft. While the Dolphins still have the draft picks to build up their roster, they’ve severely restricted their ability to build out a solid roster and stack the meat of the roster with good players through a spending pattern at the top of cap that has never worked for a Super Bowl champion before.

I’ve written about this often here at Over The Cap, but Ndamukong Suh was given one of the worst contracts in the NFL from a value standpoint. While he’s a terrific player and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th best interior defensive lineman in 2017, his contract has had unnaturally high cap figures for a defensive tackle from the start of the contract with the Dolphins re-structuring it in year two to push bigger cap hits down the road, which is being brought to a head in 2018. Maybe they work out an extension that lowers his cap hits over the next three years, but over the next three years he’s projected to have cap hits of 14.54%, 14.56%, and 10.81%, which are numbers that have never worked for a Super Bowl champion on the defensive front and especially not with a quarterback at a high cost as well, which they have with Ryan Tannehill. The Super Bowl records for the front 7 are 9.82% for Warren Sapp leading defensive tackles, Terrell Suggs leads outside linebackers at 9.55%, and Reggie White leads defensive ends at 8.90%.

If they don’t extend Suh, they could release or trade him next offseason to save $15 million with his $28.1 million cap hit, but they would still have a $13.1 million dead money cap hit. If they do extend him, then they would be extending him past the 33-year old season he currently ends the deal after, which will have risks as well. Basically, to put it simply, the contract has created a lot of financial issues they’ve had to deal with. One of the big consequences of his high cost that’s not seen on the surface is that defensive tackle is usually a position where teams can find players at a decent value as it’s a low-cost market, where even the best players are typically closer to 7-8% of the cap.

Meanwhile in their own division the Patriots use the cap savings at the top of the roster to build out versatility on offense and defense with even some primarily special teams players earning roster spots on a yearly basis to improve that unit’s performance. Where the Patriots can afford a second, third, or fourth running back–plus back-up linebackers who play special teams, add versatility on defense, and can become competent starters if a starting linebacker goes down, and a third safety–teams like Miami have to bet on more rookie contract players who are less proven and thus more risky. The more unproven rookie contract players that a team has to rely on the further that risk increases for the overall roster performance. This typically also means the roster doesn’t have much depth behind them and little experience.

If Suh was the big cap hit for the team while their quarterback was on a rookie contract, it might be a sustainable model, but Tannehill has his high costs as well. Over the next three years he is projected to consume 11.03%, 10.91%, and 9.54% of the cap. Actually, if you just look at these cap hits by themselves, they’re very manageable costs for a player who can produce as a first tier quarterback in many ways with accuracy, plus mobility. Without Suh’s cap hit, the team could probably build a championship caliber roster around Tannehill, but instead they’re in a situation where they have just over $2.7 million worth of cap space after the rookie pool is accounted for with many needs on their roster and big decisions to make regarding how they’ll clear some cap space to make some of those roster improvements through free agency and before the draft.

It doesn’t just stop with those two large cap expenditures, which take up 25.57% of the projected 2018 cap of $179.5 million; there are quite a few more large expenditures that bring their Top 10 spending to 68.00% of the cap. These numbers blow past the Super Bowl records for the 23 champions of the salary cap era detailed in Caponomics, which are 21.64% for the 1994 49ers Top 2 of Steve Young and Jerry Rice, then the 2015 Broncos Top 10 of 62.33%. The Dolphins could decrease their Top 10 spending with the release of Ja’Wuan James, their starting right tackle who’s slated to consume 5.20% of the cap with a $9,341,000 cap hit, but that too will just increase the amount of needs they need to fill this offseason, which is already a sizeable list for a team with such a small amount of cap space and some free agents they might want to re-sign. The positive is that the team has 8 draft picks with five of them being in the first four rounds, which is a place teams have a decent chance of finding potential starters with the probability of finding a starter decreasing with each round.

There are some other expensive mistakes as well, though. Reshad Jones is a very good safety and, at 6.45% of the cap ($11,575,000), he’s one of the more expensive players at his position. Then we have what are three straight bad values on the roster in defensive end Andre Branch at 5.57% of the cap ($10 million), Kenny Stills at 5.43% ($9.75 million), and Kiko Alonso at 5.37% ($9,637,500). Their Pro Football Focus ratings and positional rankings for 2017 are as follows: Branch had a 50.9 rating as PFF’s 96th best edge defender out of just over 100, Stills was PFF’s 87th rated receiver with a 49.0 rating, and Alonso was PFF’s 75th rated linebacker out of 87 with a 39.0 rating. That’s 16.37% of the cap dedicated to three players who aren’t likely to produce that level of value, paired with the 25.57% going to Suh and Tannehill; add in Jones at 6.45%, and there’s 48.39% of the cap going to six players. Almost half the cap space going to six players in a sport where the roster has 53. Like I mentioned when discussing Suh’s cap hit earlier, this restricts the team from building up the best complete roster they can build.

Ja’Wuan James represents the first big cap hit they could clear some space with, but he’s one of the better offensive lineman on a roster that already needs to improve on the offensive line. According to Football Outsiders, the team was ranked 30th in run blocking and 11th in pass protection. He had a PFF rating of 80.0 in the 8 games he played in 2017 with a top five pass blocking rating of 85.3, but a weak run blocking grade of 48.6, which could be part of why the Dolphins don’t seem to be sold on him as a player according to reports I’ve read.

He could clear $9,341,000 of cap space with zero dead money, but even in that case they’d then need to replace him, so I don’t see that as a great option. Another option for him would be an extension that lowers his cap hit for 2018, but would push high cap hits into the future for a player that the team reportedly isn’t sold on. He could be looking for the kind of deal that Bryan Bulaga took with the Packers in 2015, adjusted for inflation, which would see him in the three to four and a half percent of the cap range for the next four to five seasons. It depends on how the coaching staff feels about him, but there’s an opportunity to create cap space in one of two ways there. Say they re-structure him, that could create another $3-5 million in cap space or over $9 million from releasing him.

Mike Pouncey is another high cap hit at $9 million, which is just over five percent of the cap and another high cap hit for an offensive line that didn’t perform well in 2018. Everyone covering the Dolphins thinks they need help on the offensive line, which isn’t a great place to be with four players already on the roster over one percent of the cap with Laremy Tunsil and Ted Larsen, then James and Pouncey over five percent. That’s a high investment in players that, like Branch, Stills, and Alonso, aren’t performing at the level their contracts imply. I don’t use PFF ratings as a means of living and dying by what they say, but as a reasonable indicator of where a player stands as no single writer can cover and understand how good every player in the NFL is and still have time to write, plus the team at PFF does a sound, principled job of covering the game. With that said, Pouncey has been one of the better centers in the NFL over his career, but he had a 46.5 PFF rating in 2017. The other issue is that, like defensive tackle, center is a position that can be had at a lower price, but here the Dolphins are spending five percent.

Cameron Wake and Lawrence Timmons are probably reasonable values at 4.81% of the cap and 4.58% respectively. Wake had another good season at 35-years old as PFF’s 29th rated edge defender with the third best pass rush productivity rating in the NFL at 13.3. He ranked behind only DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys and Von Miller of the Broncos, who were by all accounts two of the best in the NFL in 2017, so they’ve kind of gotten a decent value out of Wake because of his age. Timmons wasn’t ranked very well by PFF as their 67th ranked linebacker, but he had a respectable run-stop percentage of 7.4% that ranked 36th, but it wasn’t too far behind Reuben Foster who was #1 with 11.4%. Paired with a good, young linebacker out of this year’s draft he could be a good piece to the group, so he’s a reasonable value. That said, to pay that much money to an inside linebacker, you want that guy to be one of the five to ten best linebackers in the league. They did draft middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan out of Ohio State in 2017, whom they lost to a torn ACL during training camp, so he could be the solution if they don’t want to draft one.

Timmons and Alonso combining for over 10% of the cap is very expensive for 4-3 linebackers as the costs for inside linebackers and even outside linebackers in the 4-3 is decreased relative to costs of 3-4 linebackers. Timmons is an inside linebacker and Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks is one of the best and most expensive in the NFL, yet his contract from 2015 through 2019 averages at 5.08% of the cap, so both of these linebackers are near that cost. In a vacuum, by themselves, the deals aren’t cap killers, but in the broader picture of what the Dolphins have it’s not a great allocation of resources. This is a recurring theme, it isn’t any one cap hit that hurts the team: it’s a combination of sub-par values.

Their 11th cap hit, and their last one over three percent of the cap, is Julius Thomas at 3.68%. He has a cap hit of $6.6 million with $0 dead money, which could be an easy release decision for them. That could bring their cap space after their estimated rookie pool spending up to $9,325,145. If they move on from James as well, they’ll have $18,666,145 of the cap to spend in free agency and address their needs, which are many. Bringing it back to James if they want to clear some space and find a value at right tackle rather than bet on James at a high cost or bet on him long-term when they don’t believe in him, then moving on from him could be a good option to clear the space to make some key re-signings and find a couple free agents to address the holes on the roster.

This would bring their top of cap spending down slightly, but as I mention often in Caponomics when discussing things like Top 2 spending: if you’re spending over 20% of the cap on your Top 2, then will they be worth the kind of production you could expect from a Steve Young and Jerry Rice type of Hall of Fame player? If you’re spending over 60% of the cap on your Top 10, then will you have some valuable players there and find value through the draft like the 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos did? In both of these cases I say the Dolphins have a low-probability of being able to produce the same kind of result to win a Super Bowl with the roster we see in front of us. That said, I could be proven wrong through very good drafting and Tannehill improving further, although at 30-years old and coming off two knee injuries, that also seems unlikely.

Looking at team needs, the Dolphins need a guard, another inside linebacker, a cornerback, a running back to be an RB1A with Kenyan Drake, and they also need a tight end to come in and start with Thomas likely being released, which is difficult to find as tight ends take some time to develop upon entering the NFL. If they get rid of James, they’ll also need a right tackle. Without a tight end to rely on, they’re going to need excellent production out of their receiver group, which brings us to Jarvis Landry who is currently a free agent and believes he is worth a Top 10 contract that would be in the $14 to $15 million per season range.

The issue in this situation isn’t just the financial implications of that kind of contract. If it was a deal with consistent cap hits in each season meaning $14 to $15 million per season, then he’d be at over 7.8% of the cap in 2018 and in the first tier of the wide receiver market over six percent of the cap for probably the entirety of his deal. If they backload the contract, as the Dolphins seem to do, then maybe he’d just consume $8-10 million in 2018. For the purposes of this, let’s call it $10 million. Important to note that this lower cap hit just means higher cap hits for the team down the road, which can create opportunities for re-structures down the road, but I tend to like when a team makes the effort to keep a player’s cap hits as steady as possible.

If they only move on from Thomas, then that consumes all their cap space and even pushes them over the cap space they have left after rookie pool, but they could restructure some contracts to fit him in. If they get rid of James, they’ll have $8,666,145 of the cap left to spend, which could be enough to fill some of their other needs with the eight draft picks to help out. The release of Thomas and James could be the solution to keep Landry in town, but that also brings into question some past moves of the organization.

In the 2016 NFL Draft, after Landry had a season of 110 catches for 1157 yards and four touchdowns in the 2015 season and a year after the team used the #14 overall pick on DeVante Parker, the Dolphins used two draft picks on receivers. The first was a third round pick that they traded away for a 2016 6th round pick, plus a 3rd and 4th round pick in 2017 , and then spent on Leonte Carroo out of Rutgers. The second receiver was kick and punt returning dynamo Jakeem Grant out of Texas Tech who seemed like the likely candidate to replace Landry if they didn’t re-sign him. Then in March of 2017, less than a year after drafting these two players, less than two years removed from using a first round draft pick on Parker, and a year away from their best receiver hitting free agency, the Dolphins gave Kenny Stills a contract that runs through 2020 and has him making $9.75 million in 2018 and 2019, both over five percent of the cap. This signing came after a season where he had just 42 catches for 726 yards with a solid nine touchdowns. Stills is a good field stretching deep threat despite the poor PFF rating I brought up earlier, but not for costs that almost hit the first tier rate of over six percent of the cap. And it feels short-sighted that they prioritized re-signing Stills over Landry.

They’re in a position now where, if they do re-sign Landry, they’re going to be heavily invested in their wide receiver group, while also having the high investments we’ve already discussed. Maybe the goal was to replace Landry’s production with Carroo and Grant once he became a free agent, but neither has developed into the kind of player that could replace his production or replace what he represents for the offense. Few players could. Landry is not only an elite possession receiver, which isn’t the negative pejorative term people think it is, but he’s also the kind of player who can produce over 1100 to 1200 yards in a season, which is near first tier production. So if the team doesn’t re-sign him for 2018, they’ll lose their best offensive weapon and one of the best weapons in the league, which won’t put this team in position to take a step forward in 2018.

Greg Cote from the Miami Herald had an interesting take. He noted that 27 other franchises have had playoff victories since the last time the Dolphins celebrated one on December 30th, 2000, which puts them in the same category of the Bengals, Bills, Browns, and Lions. His idea for taking a step forward may seem a bit more extreme at first glance, but it also makes some sense with the Dolphins holding the #11 pick in a deep quarterback draft. I’m of the belief that the Dolphins are in a tough position with the playoff appearance in 2016 with Tannehill hurt because they could, rightfully, believe that they’re on the cusp of success with the roster they have now and that an opportunity at the playoffs was swiped out from under them in 2017. Alternatively, they could also rightfully believe that this team that went 6-10 without the good, but not great, quarterback wasn’t in a position to be a real contender in 2017 and that even with Tannehill performing at his normal production level they wouldn’t have contended for a championship. I think the Dolphins would have been better served with Tannehill under center than Cutler who averaged just 190.4 passing yards per game compared to Tannehill’s career average of 239.7 per game, but I don’t know how much better they would have been.

The team also would have also been better served not spending $10 million on Jay Cutler and sticking out the season with Matt Moore or trading for a back-up quality level quarterback and understanding the season was a wash with Tannehill down. Cutler has never been the kind of quarterback who’s going to lead a team to the Super Bowl; he’s never become the player who people thought he would become when he was drafted in the first round and he’s rarely shown flashes that he could be an elite quarterback. That $10 million could have been rolled forward into 2018 and used to improve this roster, and Moore could have produced at a similar level to Cutler. In fact, Moore averaged 215.3 yards per game in the four games he saw extended time in, so they could have saved that money and still been 6-10. This is what poorly managed organizations do, though. The Dolphins kind of went all in on the 2016 and 2017 seasons, likely knowing that Suh and Tannehill’s costs as a duo would increase to restrictive levels by 2018, and they’re suffering the consequences of being an organization that manages their roster in the short-term, rather than the long-term.

As Cote points out the Dolphins have been mired in mediocrity for almost two decades now, so it might be worth considering a new roster construction strategy and move on from Tannehill with the likely possibility that they could get a second round pick for the quarterback. They could also use him as a bridge quarterback to 2019 where the quarterback they choose with the #11 pick becomes the starter. By using the first round pick on a quarterback, with Tannehill still on the roster, they would have one less, very important pick to use on filling a key hole. If they moved on from him in 2018 he’d have a dead money cap hit of $4.6 million and the team would save $15.2 million in cap space that could go towards starting to build towards future championships rather than trying to accomplish the unlikely feat of a Super Bowl in 2018. If they move on from him in 2019, he’d have a $2.3 million dead money cap hit, which would save $18.75 million in cap space. A team built around a competent rookie contract quarterback could have a much higher likelihood of future success than the current model has at short-term success. Cote’s idea might be a bit farfetched from where the Dolphins are with the way they were raving about Tannehill heading into his second season with head coach Adam Gase going into 2017, but it’s worth considering as maybe the Dolphins are considering it as well given where the organization stands.

The Patriots are going to be the Patriots again in 2018, the Bills will be competitive, and the Jets are in the best position to build their roster that they’ve had in the last decade, so they’ll be improved in 2018 and for the foreseeable future if their front office manages the 2018 offseason well. The Jets have over $63 million in cap space post-rookie pool estimates, plus eight draft picks including two second round picks. I don’t see this version of the Dolphins they’ll likely to field in 2018 making the playoffs or making a Super Bowl push.

The other option here is to take interest in the quarterbacks in this year’s class, like Baker Mayfield, who the Dolphins reportedly spoke to at the Senior Bowl, and either taking one of the quarterbacks or enticing the teams behind them to trade up in the draft through the perception of interest in these quarterbacks. Cincinnati and Washington are right behind them at #12 and #13 with both teams needing to make a decision at the position this offseason. Could the Dolphins interest in quarterbacks cause the Bengals to jump up a spot and send them a second round pick as well? Could Washington want to leapfrog the Bengals and make the same trade? Could the Bills like a quarterback enough to trade both the #21 and #22 picks in the first round? These three teams could be candidates that return a first round pick to the Dolphins to move down and still get the player they wanted to sign, while adding a second round pick, which has a decent likelihood of becoming a starter if the team does a good job scouting.

With this we get to the Dolphins eight draft picks they currently have and I look at a mock draft done by Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider that addresses many of the holes in the roster with draft solutions. In this mock draft, he suggests taking inside linebacker Roquan Smith from Georgia, which would solve an immediate team need with what seems like a can’t miss prospect and also one that will likely be available even in the early-twenties where the Bills picks are as inside linebacker, like running back, isn’t traditionally a position that teams are jumping at drafting in the first round. Considering the value potential found in later rounds, Malik Jefferson out of Texas or the very productive Josey Jewell out of Iowa could both be available as second or third round picks. If they draft one of these middle linebackers, he could become the starter, while McMillan becomes the eventual outside linebacker who replaces Timmons as many scouts saw him as a strong-side outside linebacker coming out of the draft.

Nogle thinks their second round pick could be used on center Billy Price out of Ohio State. He could be their starter at guard and eventually take over for Pouncey at center. Walter Football writes the following about Price: “Price impressed NFL evaluators, both with his work in fall training camp and in the games of the 2017 season. They say that Price plays within himself. They like his awareness and call him an above-average athlete. He isn’t overly fast or twitchy like the Pouncey brothers, but Price has movement skills and is better than average in space. The sources also like that Price handles big nose tackles well, which can be difficult for centers and is a hard-to-find talent.” He’s also a well balanced player who can block the run and pass.

The 2018 draft class seems to be fairly deep at tight end, which feels like it’s becoming a trend at the position as its importance at the NFL level might be pushing the trend. The third and fourth round could be a great spot to take whoever the Dolphins identify as the best tight end, specifically someone who can come in and start immediately, but also develop into an elite tight end over time. If they lost Landry, then this tight end becomes a key part of the pass offense. I wouldn’t be opposed to letting Landry walk if they believe Carroo and Grant can take over the production and they draft the right tight end as the costs of Landry with other cap costs will be tough to manage. Nogle has tight end Mark Andrews out of Oklahoma as the Dolphins selection in the third round and I love the pick. I’ve thought Andrews would be a productive NFL tight end from the moment I first saw him play with his 6’5″, 250-pound frame, his plus speed and his college production. He caught 62 passes for 958 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, which are excellent numbers for a college tight end. To the point about it being a deep class, there are countless others worth considering and maybe the Dolphins even draft two tight ends in this draft to a) hedge their bets knowing they need one of them to produce and b) have the opportunity to have two big mismatches at the position.

If they don’t re-sign Landry, they could use the money not spent on him to invest in other positions of need and use multiple draft picks on tight ends or use some of the money saved to find a tight end in free agency, while still drafting a tight end of the future. Ed Dickson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Nick O’Leary could all be decent low cost options for the team.

Hayden Hurst out of South Carolina is projected to be a second round pick, so if they want to draft the tight end earlier and wait on an interior lineman this could work. Waiting until the third through fifth round to draft a guard is a valid idea considering that productive interior linemen can be found later in the draft as the Patriots have proven on a yearly basis with their starting offensive lines. If they like Troy Fumagalli from Wisconsin in the third round over Andrews, then that’s a good candidate. Players who could be available in the fourth round include Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State who had 164 catches for 2404 and 18 touchdowns over his last two college seasons, Mike Gesicki from Penn State, plus the very productive Adam Breneman from UMass who also had zero drops during his season season.

Moving into the later rounds we get into more developmental prospects in Nogle’s mock draft as that’s what’s available in these rounds. He cites quarterback Luke Falk from Washington State as a good developmental option in the fourth round, which I agree with while also adding Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State as an option. The incredible and inspirational one-handed linebacker Shaquem Griffen from UCF is who he’d take with their second fourth round pick, which is a solid decision as he adds the hybrid versatility that teams are looking for in today’s NFL with the ability to play safety, linebacker, and rush the passer. He’s also the kind of fourth round pick that can contribute in some way immediately, then grow into a larger role.

I like his sixth round pick in Bo Scarborough from Alabama to pair with their current Alabama running back Kenyan Drake. I think Scarborough has the potential to be the Derrick Henry prototype that we’ve all envisioned he could be since he got to Alabama and it’s worth taking the chance with a sixth round pick. If they unexpectedly decide to move on from Tannehill and draft a quarterback in the first round, then I would suggest using the money saved on Tannehill to address some other needs like on the offensive line, cornerback, or linebacker, then use a higher round pick on a running back as well. If you have a young quarterback, then he needs a running game to lean on for offensive balance and to make play action passing more effective. Nogle selects guard Maea Teulema from Southeast Louisiana who was an LSU transfer after academic and team rules issues, plus tackle Aaron Evans from UCF with the team’s two seventh round picks.

In summation, the Dolphins have a lot of issues they need to solve in 2018 and, while they might be able to create some cap space to fill those needs, I think they’ve wasted too much cap space on overpaying Suh, then overpaying some average to below average performing players at the top of their roster. I don’t think they’ll have the depth on their roster to be a top contender. This will lead to the Dolphins likely being in the same area where they have been since 2009 where they bounce around between 6-10, 7-9 and 8-8. I don’t think they make the playoffs in 2018 unless they have the kind of 2018 draft that the Saints had in 2017 with immediate above average starters in cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, safety Marcus Williams, and running back Alvin Kamara. I think the Dolphins have another season at or below .500 and go into the 2019 offseason in a similar position to where they are now. My hope for Dolphins fans is that the organization soon learns the lesson that taking the short-term perspective is not the path to a championship.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.