Once again, Dolphins prove money doesn’t trump smarts in free agency
Over the last 10 years, no NFL team has spent more money in total free agent contracts than the Miami Dolphins. From 2007 through 2016, per ESPN, this franchise has bellied up for $629 million in total free agent dollars. And in that decade, the Dolphins have put up a .419 win percentage. They’ve had five different head coaches, including two interim coaches, and they’ve appeared in exactly one playoff game—a 27–9 wild-card loss to the Ravens in the 2008 season. There are all kinds of reasons free agent signings don’t work out, but for a Dolphins franchise that can’t seem to get out of its own way no matter how many coaches, general managers and team presidents sit in those chairs, the past tends to feel very much like the present.
Mike Tannenbaum, the former Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells acolyte and Jets general manager who consulted with the Dolphins during the 2014 season and became the team’s executive vice president in January 2015, is now in charge of the Dolphins’ roster moves, and the last week has been an interesting time for Tannenbaum and his team. Last year, of course, the Dolphins set the pace in free agency when they signed Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. This year, they had to re-structure the Suh deal and several others to make their newest splashes.
The first step was to give defensive end Olivier Vernon the transition tag, which guaranteed Vernon $12.734 million if he played it out. Vernon was the ideal player for the Dolphins to retain—he was homegrown (a third-round pick out of Miami in 2012), and he’d improved every season. In 2015, only Seattle’s Michael Bennett had more regular-season pressures among 4–3 ends than Vernon, who amassed 7.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits and 41 quarterback hurries. In addition, no 4–3 end had more run stops than Vernon. And at age 25, Vernon appeared to be a player just coming into his prime. You could question the cost benefit of the minimal savings the Dolphins enjoyed by avoiding the franchise tag on Vernon (especially since they lost tight end Charles Clay to the Bills last year in a transition tag fiasco), but at least they had a good shot at retaining him.
Then, things got weird. On Tuesday, the Dolphins signed former Texans and Bills defensive end Mario Williams to a two-year, $17 million contract with $4.85 million guaranteed. The Bills released Williams on March 1 after he became one of the few players in recent memory to find himself a bad fit in a Rex Ryan defense. To be fair, Williams amassed a total of 28 sacks in 2013 and 2014, and it was on Ryan to explain why he dropped Williams into coverage so often, but the upshot of the Williams deal was that the Dolphins pulled the tag from Vernon, making him an unrestricted free agent. You can say that this was a better deal for the Dolphins, and that Williams should be a better fit in Miami’s 4–3 scheme, but keep in mind that this is a Dolphins team that negated Suh at times last year by turning him into a two-gap tackle instead of the one-gap penetrator he was born to be.
So, Vernon signed an enormous deal with the Giants, and that was that. The Dolphins opted to move forward with the 31-year-old Williams and the 34-year-old Cameron Wake. End Derrick Shelby, who played estimably in Wake’s stead when the veteran was hurt, signed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Falcons on Wednesday. Shelby was an undrafted free agent out of Utah in 2012, and he put up 3.5 sacks, six hits and 31 hurries, along with 30 stops, last season. The ascent of Vernon and Shelby speaks to the team’s personnel acumen (at least as it regards defensive ends in the 2012 draft class), but the retention plan is a bit off.
The trade with the Eagles for cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso is another matter, and a deal that had a lot of people scratching their heads. The Eagles agreed to send Maxwell and Alonso to Miami for a swap of first-round picks—the Eagles move up to the eighth overall pick, and the Dolphins move down to No. 13 in the first round. Not a big loss on its face until you look at the particulars of the deal.
Before the deal went through at the start of the new league year, it was put on hold due to complications with Maxwell’s physical. Some reports indicated that after suffering a sprained SC joint in his shoulder and missing the final two games of the 2015 regular season, Maxwell was still unable to bench-press or do a push-up. True or not, the Dolphins agreed to the deal. Now, the first complication involved Maxwell’s salary. He was signed by the Eagles to a six-year, $63 million deal with $25 million guaranteed by the previous Eagles regime in March 2015, and finished that season with 51 catches allowed on 78 targets for a team-leading 787 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Philadelphia assumed that Maxwell was a No. 1 cornerback after he spent time as a No. 2 cornerback in Seattle’s system, and it bet wrong. That was foolish, so how much more foolish was it of the Dolphins to clean up the Eagles’ mess for them?
There is, after all, a concrete reason the Eagles gave two players away for a small uptick in the first round. And that reason has to do with Maxwell’s contract. Maxwell will cost the Dolphins $9.7 million in cap space this season, but here’s the real corker—the structure of the contract he signed with Philadelphia would cause the deal to basically capsize on itself if the team released Maxwell in the 2016 league year. At that point, the cap hit would accelerate to $16.3 million. And given the fact that the current Eagles think tank was trying to boot everyone Chip Kelly wanted out the door, wouldn’t it make sense that the team trading for Maxwell would have more leverage, especially since Maxwell has not proven that he deserved No. 1-cornerback money under any circumstances? The Titans traded for Eagles running back DeMarco Murray, and all that cost Tennessee was a swap of fourth-round picks.
But this is the Dolphins, a team in love with shiny things, and they went to the mattresses with what they were convinced was the right deal. Alonso is still on the rookie contract he signed with the Bills in 2013, so his cap hit in 2016 is a negligible $991,418, but he’s also a player who missed the entire 2014 season due to a torn ACL, and missed several games in the 2015 season due to a Grade 2 sprain of the same ligament. Those injuries showed on the field—Alonso simply wasn’t the same dynamic player he’d been for the Bills in 2013, before the injury and before the Eagles acquired him in a trade for running back LeSean McCoy.
Maybe it will all work out. Maybe Mario Williams will revert back to his former greatness, and maybe Byron Maxwell will turn into a shutdown corner, and maybe Kiko Alonso will make a great comeback. But there’s no reason to believe any of this based on the team that acquired them this week. The Dolphins have been making these kinds of mistakes for years, and at this point, it looks like another high-priced string of blunders in a free agency period the franchise just can’t seem to get right.