The 2016 Miami Dolphins had a winning record for the first time since 2008, a dismal 7 year span with the end of the Parcells regime. Then began the painfully boring Philbin years (unless Bullygate excited you), where highlights were a cleaner playing field bereft of garbage, except of course for the actual play of our team. Last year began the Adam Gase era, and I say era, because I believe Adam Gase is going to be here in Miami for a long time. So what lies ahead for Adam Gase, Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier, our Head Coach, Executive Vice President of Football Operations and our General manager respectively?
The first wave of adding talent (and subtracting) is Free Agency. The front office has repeatedly made it clear they want to take care of their own, so that means re-signing players that are set to be eligible to play anywhere, not just here in Miami, so let the bidding wars begin! Our most important free agents are WR Kenny Stills, DE Andre Branch, TE Dion Sims, LS John Denney, RG Jermon Bushrod, special teams LB Spencer Paysinger, and special teams ace S Michael Thomas. I’d say I ordered these players in just about the correct order of importance, which of course is debatable.
Speculation as to what it will take to re-sign WR Kenny Stills is really all over the place. Estimates run from approximately $6M per to $8-10M per year. I know they want to keep Stills, but I can’t see paying Stills the latter, at least not above $8M per. We will have a lot of money invested at the WR position very soon when we re-sign Jarvis Landry, and we have Devante Parker who really needs to step it up, and if he does, he will need to get paid too, and he becomes an UFA in 2019. I know that’s still a ways to go, but Landry will undoubtedly be expensive to keep, and although Landry doesn’t score as many TD’s, Landry keeps the chains moving, and has made some incredible plays for this team. I’d say if the bidding stays at about $8M per, Stills will be with the Dolphins for at least the next 3-4 years, but if it goes beyond that, and it can, I think we may have to let him go.
I think Andre Branch is a little different. I don’t think the market will be as active for Branch, and while he played well enough to want him back, he wasn’t really a standout. Branch played all 16 games, started 11 of them, and finished with 5.5 sacks. He had 49 tackles (27 solo), 2 FF’s and 1 pass defensed. Those aren’t jump off the page numbers, they’re pretty pedestrian actually, but he played every game, stayed healthy, and contributed, and we need that too.
Then there’s TE Dion Sims. Some here I believe got a little too excited about Sims late season heroics, catching 4 TD’s in a 4 game span. You could also say he had ZERO TD’s in the other 14 games he played. I like Dion Sims, but I think he’s best served as our 2nd TE, or #2 on the depth chart, not #1. He’s a big bodied in line TE who can block, and is a decent receiver, no more than that. Can he be a starter, sure, because he can block and catch, but if he’s your #1 TE, you don’t value the TE enough.
Besides re-signing our own players, we have positions of need right now, and the most glaring ones are at LB, DE and OL. We need at least 2 starting caliber LB’s before we start the season. If you’re wondering why I didn’t include LB Kiko Alonso in the FA’s, he’s an ERFA (Exclusive Rights Free Agent), so we have control over Alonso, at least for this coming season. We will likely place the highest tender on him which means if any team decides they want him, and they negotiate a contract, that team has to surrender their 2017 1st RD pick, which I think is pretty unlikely to happen. So we keep Alonso, but I’d let the other guys go and test the market, which leaves 2 LB spots open. I think we’ll likely add some depth players in FA, but our starters may very well come from the draft.
At defensive end, Wake is 35, and Superman can’t play forever. Along with Wake, that leaves Terence Fede as the only other remaining DE on the roster, assuming we cut Mario Williams, which is almost a given. The cupboard is bare, so no question we have to bring in a player or two in FA, because you never know how the draft shakes out.
On the offensive line, there is talent, but a lot of questions too. If the top 5 on our line can stay healthy, LT Branden Albert, LG Laremy Tunsil, C Mike Pouncey, RG Jermon Bushrod, RT Ja’Wuan James, we’re in good shape. The problem is, that only happened 5 times last season. Pouncey has serious hip issues, and of course, he said he’s excited about 2017. I would like a realistic medical report as to where he’s at, so we can make a critical choice as to what we do going forward. I won’t be surprised if we move on from Pouncey. It would be ideal if we get a clear medical report that says either Pouncey will be OK, or he should retire. This way, we can either count him, or worse, count him out. That leaves a huge hole at C. Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik are capable, but not very good players. They’re best when just filling in, and neither showed the ability to play anywhere near the level of a healthy Mike Pouncey. Branden Albert is a great LT when healthy, but “when healthy” has been the smaller percentage of the time each season. Albert carries a $10.6M cap hit next season, but only a $3.4M dead cap hit. My guess is Albert will be back for another season, but I think it’s obvious we have to have a solid fallback plan. If Tunsil has to move to LT, who do we have at LG, and of course, who is playing C, and RG. So lets’ take a look at who can help our team in 2017 free agency . . .
Kevin Zeitler OG 6’4” 315 (Bengals) – I think Zeitler is the best FA OG available in 2017, but he would also likely be the most be expensive. How expensive will be determined, but almost certainly upwards of $8M per year, and more likely closer to $10-11M annually. That is definitely a lot of money, but it’s what the top guards are getting paid now. I can see us making that happen, but only after we open cap space elsewhere. Cutting Branden Albert opens up $7M of cap space, and then you move Laremy Tunsil to LT. Is it worth it to pay $10-11M for a top 5 OG? Tough to say, we could draft 2 OG/C and groom them ourselves, it would be a lot cheaper, and there are some good OG/C prospects in this draft.
Why he fits: He would be a veteran, proven plug-n-play top quality RG for the next 5 years who played in a similar blocking scheme in Cincinnati.
–Why he doesn’t fit: He will eat a lot of cap space and may make re-signing our own guys difficult or impossible.
T.J. Lang OG 6’4” 305 (Packers) – Lang was one of the bright spots on the Packers line. Lang has played every spot except C on the Packers line. He started as a LT in ’09, has played LG, RG and RT. Lang will be 30 near the start of the season, and due to his age, won’t command as long or as lucrative a contract as Zeitler. He does offer great versatility, and you know our guys value versatility.
Why he fits: Although not a real long term answer, he would give us stability for at least 3 years. He’s also able to play all along the O-line, so we have great flexibility with him. His salary will probably somewhere around $8M per annually.
Why he doesn’t fit: The only reason might be his age, as he will be turning 30 at the beginning of the season, and they may want to go younger.
Ronald Leary OG 6’3” 324 (Cowboys) – I’m sure all of us have said I’ll take anyone from that Cowboys O-line, so now here’s our chance. Leary, considered possibly the “weak link” on the Cowboys line came back and had a good season this year. He started 12 of the 13 games he played in. He has played mostly LG, but did play some at RG too. Leary is also one of the better guards available this year in FA, and of course, will be paid like it. Leary is probably 2nd in line to Zeitler salary wise, and should expect about $9M annually.
Why he fits: Another relatively young quality player who you have for the next 4-5 years.
Why he doesn’t fit: I think because Leary has played predominantly LG, unless Branden Albert isn’t on the team this season, or they feel Leary would be good at RG, he may not be the best fit for the Dolphins.
Luke Joeckel OT/OG 6’6” 306 (Jaguars) – The 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft has had a tough career. Joeckel struggled at LT for the Jaguars, starting only 5 games at LT and RT in his rookie season. He did start the entire ’14 season at LT, and then all 14 games he played in ’15, but last year the Jags moved Joeckel to LG, and then he was injured. Joeckel tore his ACL and MCL, and had surgery on October 7th, so he should be able to play in ’17.
Why he fits: Former LT, before the injury, a very agile mover, who can both pass protect and run block well. Like T.J. Lang, he would also give the Dolphins flexibility to play guard or tackle. His contract would have to be of the “prove it” variety, so not top dollar like Zeitler or Leary. He also just turned 25, so he’s a very young player, and provided his knee healed well, and his rehab has him ready to go, he could be somewhat of a steal if he can become as good an OG in the pros as he was a LT in college.
Why he doesn’t fit: Coming off a major knee injury, he’s risky, and he only has little experience playing inside at OG. He seemed to settle down some at LG, but he was not a dominant player, in fact he had a lot of struggles. It would be all about his upside, and not what he’s accomplished as a pro. He would be a reclamation project of sorts.
Jabaal Sheard DE 6’2” 254 (Patriots) – Sheard has played the last 2 years in New England, and has been a reserve/starter at RDE, and even played DT in pass rushing downs. Sheard played in 15 games last season, starting 8. He finished with 33 tackles (20 solo), 5 sacks and 4 passes defensed. In his early days in CLE, Sheard was a playmaker, totaling 22 sacks and forcing 7 fumbles in his first 3 seasons, and his first year with NE, forced 4 more fumbles. Sheard will be 28 YO.
Why he fits: If we’re expecting to draft a DE, Sheard won’t break the bank, and is a viable starter who can either compete with or replace Andre Branch. Sheard will probably get around $8M annually. It also takes a player away from the Pats.
Why he doesn’t fit: If we choose to re-sign Branch, there’s no way we spend that much on another RDE.
Charles Johnson DE 6’2” 270 (Panthers) – Johnson is on the downside of his career, and was once a fearsome DE. Johnson, now almost 31, would certainly be a depth player who could start, and would provide some insurance for Cam Wake. He’s 2 years removed from a very productive season, in ’14 he finished with 46 tackles (31 solo), 8.5 sacks and 3 FF’s.
Why he fits: Starter/depth player who might be able to give more with less snaps at his age. Plays LE, and would be a great player to spell Cam Wake. Shouldn’t be expensive, around $6M annually.
Why he doesn’t fit: If they decide they want to draft Cam’s replacement, and feel that see enough in Fede that want to keep him.
Chris Long DE 6’4” 275 (Patriots) – Long is now a shadow of his younger self, and hasn’t been healthy enough to be the player he was. His best season was in 2011, where he rang up 37 tackles (31 solo), 13 sacks, 1 FF and 2 passes defensed. he did play in 16 games for the Patriots last season, a good sign, but only started 7. Last season Long totaled 35 tackles (22 solo), 4 sacks, 1 FF and 3 passes defensed.
Why he fits: He shouldn’t be very expensive, and he knows how to play the game, he just needs to be healthy. He could provide depth at LE behind Wake.
Why he doesn’t fit: Do the Dolphins want another oft injured player named Long? Same as Charles Johnson, they may want to draft a DE early, and feel Fede is adequate depth.
Dont’a Hightower LB 6’2” 265 (New England) – 5 year starter for NE, Hightower is a big throwback MLB. Last year Hightower finished with 65 tackles (only 31 solo), 2.5 sacks, and 1 FF. He’s not a tackling machine, in fact, he only reached 100 tackles once, and only 65 of those were solo.
Why he fits: He subtracts talent from the Patriots, and would allow Alonso to move to WLB.
Why he doesn’t fit: He might be expensive, and I think he’s more of a 2 down MLB. Not as much of a thumper as his size would lead you to believe.
Malcolm Smith LB 6’0” 226 (Oakland) – Smith, while a little undersized, has the speed we covet, and has played both inside and outside for Oakland and Seattle. The boy can tackle too, logging 103 tackles last season (86 solo), along with an INT, 3 passes defensed, 2 FF’s and 1 FR. In ’15, Smith totaled 100 solo tackles and 23 assists, 6 passes defensed, 3 FF’s and 1 INT, along with 4 sacks. Ran a 4.44 at his pro day back in 2011.
Why he fits: He’s a starter who can play inside or outside, has the speed to go sideline to sideline and cover, and hey, he can tackle!
Why he doesn’t fit: He fits! He’s probably better than anyone else we have now, and until we sign Alonso, he IS better!
Melvin Ingram LB 6’1” 246 (Chargers) – 5 year starter in a 3-4 defense at OLB. Ingram has been accomplished pass rusher at 3-4 OLB, has 18.5 sacks in the last 2 seasons. Last season, Ingram finished with 60 tackles (46 solo), 8 sacks, 5 passes defensed and a whopping 5 FF’s. Ingram is more quick than fast, he has good explosion.
Why he fits: He’s more talented than any other LB on the roster, can cover and can tackle.
Why he doesn’t fit: It would be a change of position to go to a 4-3 SLB or WLB after playing in a 3-4 the last 5 years. Instead of rushing the passer, he would be more involved with run support and pass coverage. He will also undoubtedly be the most expensive FA LB on the market right now, since the Browns re-signed Jamie Collins for 4 YR/$50M. You can put Ingram at that, or possibly higher, so this is a big contract for a player who will have to essentially learn a new position and new responsibilities.
I expect us to negotiate with Jelani Jenkins, which would be smart if we can get him at a fair contract, commensurate with all his missed playing time. He’s a talented player who when healthy early in his career, really impressed, and he’s our own. I hope we can come to an agreement with him as well.
There are other positions we will address as well, but these are our most glaring needs. We may be surprised that we ignore or merely add depth at one or two of these spots, but then that will be a clear indication what direction we will be taking heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Incidentally, the NFL combine is only 26 days away! Free agency is soon to follow on March 7th. I can’t wait for ALL of it! GO DOLPHINS!