The blame for the Miami Dolphins' rebuilding season was assigned Thursday. The good news? The offending parties are already out of the building with the exception of owner Stephen Ross, whose new hierarchy is a vast upgrade over the past decade of disarray the Dolphins have been subjected to.
The Dolphins' 2019 schedule is proceeding according to plan — the vision under general manager Chris Grier includes pooling together as many assets as possible before flipping the switch into talent acquisition mode. Miami has done that by cutting nearly $65 million in dead salary cap from its books and accumulating 12 selections for the 2020 draft — plus two projected compensatory picks that have yet to be announced.
For the first time in a long time, the Dolphins are positioned to rebuild their roster in a way never before seen with three first-round picks serving as the key opportunity. But now the team must execute.
What can the Dolphins do to fix all of their problems ahead of 2020? Well, that would be impossible. They have too many holes, too many critical needs to ensure they will all be adequately addressed in one offseason. But this wave of talent infusion serves as the first set of reinforcements to Miami's barren roster and it is going to be a critical time.
Here's how the Dolphins can make the most of it.
Continue To Tear Down Bad Contracts
As the Dolphins look to transition into buyers instead of sellers, they are going to need to do their due diligence to maximize their cap space. Fortunately for Miami, several of former vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum's burdensome contracts become increasingly easier to cut once the league transitions to the 2020 calendar at the beginning of March. The Dolphins will need to tear away additional bad deals to provide maximum flexibility for next season and beyond.
The first? Reshad Jones who signed a five-year, $60-million contract — a deal that was restructured in 2018 to provide the Dolphins additional cap space to bring on players like defensive end Robert Quinn, who has already been unloaded by Grier. The contract restructure, orchestrated by Tannenbaum, left the Dolphins with a $17.16 million cap hit for the 31-year-old safety in 2019, making it impossible to trade the veteran. Over $13 million was base salary, which would have had to be taken on by a new team, but there were predictably no buyers.
Jones' restructured deal still projects for a 2020 cap hit in excess of $15.6 million, but Miami can cut Jones for a much more affordable penalty than the $25.45 million they would have incurred by doing so ahead of this season — cutting Jones after June 1 would cost the Dolphins $10.5 million against the 2020 salary cap but doing so would also save Miami nearly $5.5 million against the 2020 salary cap and provide Jones with a chance to move on.
Who knew deferred guarantees were such a bad idea in the long-term?
The next? Albert Wilson who has recorded just 26 receptions for 154 yards and one touchdown to date. He signed a three-year, $24-million contract ahead of the 2018 season with hopes of stepping into Jarvis Landry’s role after Adam Gase strong-armed the wide receiver out of town. Wilson obliged early in 2018, leading the league in yards after catch before suffering a hip injury that cut his season in half. But now has been a shadow of his former self and will enter the final year of his contract with nearly $9.5 million in base salary owed in 2020 and a 2020 cap hit nearly $11 million.
The Dolphins simply cannot afford to pay that to a slot receiver averaging less than six yards per reception. No one can. So Miami, despite worrying about creating another need on the roster, must cut Wilson in the new league year and save $9.5 million against their 2020 salary cap. It will only cost the Dolphins $1.33 million in dead cap space, the savings here and lack of production after his 2018 hip injury make this decision a no-brainer.
Finally, we move on to center Daniel Kilgore who would be a cap casualty that will need to be replaced if the Dolphins hope to adequately protect their quarterback of the future. Kilgore has allowed 28 combined quarterback disruptions and counting this year and 2019 third-round pick Michael Deiter is a viable backup center in addition to being the team's presumed starting left guard. Kilgore will be owed $3.63 million in 2020, none of which is guaranteed. The Dolphins can cut him with no ramifications against the cap and although the team won't be hurting for cap space, Kilgore will be 32 years old next season and shouldn't have a role as a starter on the team, period.
Three Contracts To Renew
The Dolphins' roster purge has left them with little to worry about in expiring contracts. Miami's talent is largely players on rookie deals or career underachievers elsewhere. But there are a handful of progressing players up for renewal the Dolphins would be wise to ensure stay part of the big picture.
Wide receiver DeVante Parker (4-years, $40 million)
This one is so much of a no-brainer for Miami that the Dolphins literally inked this one last night. Yes, seriously. DeVante Parker has, with three games left to play, set career highs in receiving yards (882) and touchdowns (six) in 2019 under first-year head coach Brian Flores. Parker's emergence is the breakthrough the Dolphins organization has waited four years for after selecting him in the first round of the 2015 draft.
Miami initially exercised the fifth-year option on Parker's rookie contract but renegotiated it in the spring 2019 to save paying him $9.4 million this season. Instead, Miami inked Parker to a two-year, $13-million extension. The deal included a club option for 2020 and the Dolphins opted to skip that all together and provide Parker with a well-earned extension.
Rush linebacker Vince Biegel (restricted free agent)
Miami added Vince Biegel to the mix in the 11th hour before the season in a player-for-player swap with the New Orleans Saints. Miami sent away a costly veteran linebacker Kiko Alonso and in return netted Biegel, who has obliged by leading the Dolphins in quarterback hits (11) despite not logging one since November 10. Biegel has been credited with 50 tackles, two sacks and five tackles for loss as well — an impressive season for a player on his third team in as many years.
He is an ideal early-down defender for the Dolphins. Biegel is best against the run and illustrates a relentless motor. Miami should be able to comfortably tender Biegel according to NFL restricted free agent procedures. The Dolphins have two logical options: a "Right to first refusal" tender or an "Original-round” tender. The latter would allow the Dolphins to match any contract offer made to Biegel by another team or receive a fourth-round pick in return.
Cornerback Nik Needham (exclusive rights free agent)
Nik Needham has been a poster child for player development Flores and his staff keep preaching about. During the preseason, Needham, an undrafted free agent, barely looked like he belonged on the field. But over the course of the past few weeks, Needham has been the Dolphins' best corner and is budding with confidence. Miami must designate Needham with a minimum salary tender in order to lock him into renewing — a low cost and low downside decision.
One to let go: cornerback Aqib Talib
Be honest. You forgot Aqib Talib was a Dolphin, didn't you? It's okay — Miami traded for Talib, an expiring contract, at this year’s trade deadline in order to effectively buy a fifth-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Rams. Talib's 2019 salary sits at $9.5 million, making the 34-year-old cornerback a logical candidate to walk away in free agency. When Miami dealt for Talib, they did so to acquire the extra pick not to make a long-term play for the veteran.
Three Key Free Agent Signings To Make
The Dolphins are going to have a massive surplus in salary cap space and the debate currently rages as to how they should spend it. Miami has gotten spurned over the course of the past decade with bad free agent signings, which understandably leaves Dolphins fans apprehensive to the idea of spending big money on big-dollar free agents.
Clues to Miami's intentions lie in Grier's press conference in the aftermath of the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade in September. When asked about Miami's timetable for competitiveness, Grier was clear this team intended to spend.
“We’ve talked about building this long term with sustained success right away and for us, we’ll be very aggressive (in free agency),” Grier said. “We’re not going to sit here on a bunch of money or anything. The plan is to build a winner here.
“No one likes losing … again, long-term vision but we will be aggressive.”
With that in mind, what would an "aggressive" free agency window look like for a Dolphins team projected to own a league-leading $117 million in cap space? It should involve players in their mid-20s with front-loaded contracts taking advantage of the surplus. By front-loading the contracts, Miami will build in flexibility to cut free agent signings in two or three years if the experiments don't pan out — the polar opposite of the Tannenbaum method, which involved deferring guaranteed money and salary cap hits to future seasons to afford short-term gains with signings.
Offensive guard Joe Thuney, New England Patriots (TDN Analyst Joe Marino)
Joe Thuney meets all the logical requirements for a Dolphins free-agent addition. He will finish this season 27 years old and plays a predominant position of need for Miami. Thuney comes from the same New England Patriots pipeline many current Dolphins coaches have, including Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea. Thuney is not going to break the bank either.
Forecasts for Thuney's next contract will range but expect it to fall somewhere around an average of $8 million per season. Pats Pulpit of SB Nation forecasted Thuney's contract extension last winter and came up with four-years for $32.425 million. That is well within Miami's price range, considering the team will know what it is getting thanks to the Patriots connections.
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars (TDN Analyst Ben Solak)
The Dolphins were this close to landing Jadeveon Clowney coming via trade at the start of the season. Clowney, as an unsigned franchise-tagged player, flexed his leverage and axed that deal but don't consider the Dolphins' hopes of finding pass rush upgrades gone. Yannick Ngakoue is one of the NFL's brightest pass rushers and the Jacksonville Jaguars have been playing hardball with his contract situation — or at least Ngakoue would have you feel that way. The Jaguars star was reportedly offered a short-term contract worth $19 million per season over the summer before talks fell apart, meaning the Dolphins are going to have to pay a pretty penny.
Miami was also in the hunt for defensive end Trey Flowers this past spring before prices ballooned and the Dolphins bowed out.
With 35 1/2 sacks in his first four NFL seasons, Ngakoue is a home-run fit for Miami if he is able to hit the market. Ngakoue will turn 25 during the offseason and as a result is a viable long-term solution for the Dolphins via free agency — he will hit the end of a second contract while still in his physical prime. The speedy DE is projected to command a contract worth nearly $18 million average in salary per season, according to Spotrac, and Miami could afford to pen such a deal.
Cornerback Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys (TDN Analyst Kyle Crabbs)
The Dallas Cowboys cannot pay everyone. The team has already handed out nine figures in contract extensions in 2019 and recent reports indicate Jones hasn't made any progress on a second deal. Imagine Jones and Xavien Howard pairing as perimeter cover cornerbacks in Miami's defense? Yes, please.
Jones will be 27 years old at the start of the 2020 season, an ideal candidate to serve as a part of Miami's rebuilt future for years to come.
The Dolphins reset the CB market in 2019 by extending Xavien Howard on a $77-million deal this summer. Could the Dolphins double down on big-money cornerbacks?
Jones hasn't yielded the ball production Howard put on display before inking that contract. Jones has defended 19 passes over his last 29 games but has logged just two interceptions in his five-year career. Turnovers pay the bills, meaning Jones is a realistic target that will likely cost less than Howard and still provide Miami with a shutdown pair of CBs in Flores' aggressive defense.
Mission Accomplished: Tank For Tua
The Dolphins teardown has always been centered around drafting a franchise quarterback. The football gods have been cruel to gifted Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, as he saw his season mired in injury. But the Dolphins have reportedly had eyes on Tua for quite some time and should have the conviction that Tua is "the one" to finally allow the ghost of Dan Marino's legend to rest once and for all.