Dennis Hickey, the Dolphins’ new GM, has the tools—and the cap room—to build a winner. Plus, how J.J. Watt plays into Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney decision
Since being hired as the Dolphins’ general manager on Jan. 26, Dennis Hickey has spent his time as you might expect: in various meetings, including daily morning discussions with coach Joe Philbin and frequent strategy sessions with the entire coaching staff and the personnel department. So far, Hickey likes what he sees.
“I do think there’s a good foundation of players, a good foundation of coaches that develop players,” says Hickey, who was the most curious hire among the nine major staff changes made by NFL teams this offseason (seven new head coaches and two new GMs). Despite spending the past 18 years with the Buccaneers, including the last three as the director of player personnel, the 43-year-old Hickey was not offered the Bucs’ GM job after Tampa Bay fired Mark Dominik in late December. The Dolphins scooped up Hickey after parting ways with Jeff Ireland in early January.
Miami certainly has a unique power structure. It’s not strange for a team to retain a head coach and hire a general manager—the Panthers proved you could be successful doing so, by hiring Dave Gettleman when Ron Rivera was already in place—but a new GM is usually given the power to evaluate and make his own decision on the coach after one season. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has made it clear he’s the one who will be doing any firing and hiring of the coach. That leaves Hickey in charge of player personnel. His results in that department were a mixed bag in Tampa, but they’re trending upward.
During his tenure directing player personnel, the Bucs landed top free agents such as receiver Vincent Jackson, cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson. Before his promotion, Hickey was the director of college scouting from 2005 to ’10 under Bruce Allen and Dominik. While several solid players were drafted in Hickey’s early years (Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Barrett Ruud, Jeremy Zuttah), there were other high-profile players who didn’t work out (Josh Freeman, Carnell Williams, Gaines Adams, Aqib Talib, Dexter Jackson, Da’Quan Bowers.)
The prevailing opinion throughout the NFL is that the Buccaneers turned things around so well in recent years that the team severely underachieved under Greg Schiano, though Dominik was fired in tandem with the coach.
“Learning from mistakes, being reflective and looking hard at how you do things on a yearly basis, that’s the most valuable lesson that I’ve learned in my career,” said Hickey, who helped shaped Bucs teams that won four division titles and a Super Bowl before going on a 28-52 skid over the past five years. “When you make mistakes, learn from them.”
In Tampa, Hickey and Dominik worked hard to get the team on a pay-as-you-go salary cap system, meaning the team gives big base salaries instead of large signing bonuses. That gives the team freedom to cut players who don’t work out without being subjected to the accelerated cap hits that come with signing bonuses. The Dolphins’ salary cap, managed by executive vice president Dawn Aponte, is a mixture of both approaches and has left Hickey with more than $30 million in cap room as he builds the team for 2014. “Just sitting down and talking to her about the short and long term, I’m excited where we are,” Hickey said. “We have a lot of flexibility to make the decisions.”
Hickey has a lot of tough decisions to make. The Dolphins have 13 unrestricted free agents, nine of whom started at least eight games last season. Basically, the entire starting offensive line and the secondary (minus center Mike Pouncey and safety Reshad Jones) are set to hit free agency, along with top defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. There are also others, such as marquee free agents Brent Grimes (corner) and Chris Clemons (safety). “We’re putting together our strategic plan,” Hickey said. “At this point, we’re still putting that together.”
There’s also the issue of taking on Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s Patriots, the reigning AFC East power for 13 years now.
“The first thing you have to determine is who you want to be, and that a vision that Coach Philbin and I shared,” Hickey said. “We’re in alignment on what type of team we want to be. We want to be tough, smart; play disciplined and consistent football. That is our focus. Obviously, we are very aware of our division and who we have to [beat], the matchups and all those things. But the important thing for us is to make good decisions, one decision at a time, to be who we want to be and the rest follows.”
Hickey is now on the clock.
WHAT ABOUT WATT?
One of the more interesting dynamics to watch this offseason will be what the Texans do with superlative defensive end J.J. Watt, and it could go a long way toward determining whether they will take Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick of the draft.
Watt became the league’s most dominating defensive lineman because he was given so much freedom by former coordinator Wade Phillips, who ran a one-gap, 3-4 defense. Romeo Crennel, the Texans’ new coordinator under new head coach Bill O’Brien, has always run a two-gap, 3-4 defense going back to his days with the Patriots. It’s all he’s ever run, but Crennel has said in his limited media appearances that he will install a multiple defense.
The big difference between Phillips and Crennel is that the latter has always played with a nosetackle and two big ends who played both gaps, to their left and right. Those duties aren’t glamorous; there’s a lot of grunt work involved in holding the man in front of them and then moving toward the direction of the ball.
There’s no question that Watt, at 6-5 and 290 pounds, can play as a two-gap end. He has tremendous length and strength. But it would seem wasteful to force Watt to become a two-gap player. It would limit the every-down impact that he enjoys right now. Of course, this is only regarding base defense. In sub packages, which can account for nearly 60% of a defense’s snaps over a season, Watt could still play as he always has.
There are three options for what the Texans can do with Watt:
1) Nothing. Leave him as the five technique (over a tackle) in the new 3-4: That’s what former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham thinks his former defensive coordinator will do with Watt. “[Crennel] isn’t beholden to any particular scheme, although he’ll probably come in with 3-4 as his starting point,” Chatham said. Doing so would mean the Texans might draft Clowney to play the “elephant” position at outside linebacker (more on this below). In an earlier story I wrote on Clowney, two personnel executives told me that Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, whom Crennel learned under, would love Clowney as a player. Still, playing Watt at five technique would seem to waste some of his every-down explosiveness.
2) Go to a 4-3. That would allow Watt to do many of the things he excels at and still allow the Texans to draft Clowney and put him at end, which is probably his best position. Chatham said the Patriots always had “tilt”—their 4-3 package—as part of every game plan, and ran it quite often.
3) Put him at outside linebacker. Crennel has never had an end-type with Watt’s athleticism. Richard Seymour was the best, but he was elite because of his strength and power; he didn’t have anywhere near Watt’s agility. When the Patriots’ defense was at its best and winning Super Bowls, Willie McGinest played their “elephant” position (an end/linebacker hybrid) at 6-5 and 270 pounds. Chandler Jones (6-5, 265) plays the same position now for New England when that scheme is employed. As opposed to some 3-4 schemes, the elephant outside linebacker drops into coverage only occasionally. They are mostly on the line. Watt definitely has the skills to play elephant, especially if he loses about 10 pounds.
Elephant could also be Clowney’s position in the Texans’ scheme. Though not impossible, it would be difficult to see the Texans playing both Watt and Clowney in that role at the same time (outside of sub packages). You can have one elephant at outside linebacker, but the other outside linebacker must possess the ability to drop into pass coverage at a higher rate (think Mike Vrabel, who happens to be the Texans’ new outside linebackers coach). That doesn’t seem to fit Clowney.
Chatham doesn’t see Crennel using this option. “You’d take away his pocket-busting and ball disruption by putting him as an end on the line,” Chatham said.
There are a lot of possibilities for the Texans to consider. But one thing seems likely: don’t expect them to divulge any hint of their plans before the draft. If they declare Watt to be an outside linebacker, that would indicate that Clowney isn’t in play for the first overall pick.
Five takes on recent NFL news
1. After winning his first Super Bowl, Bill Walsh lamented that his team no longer had the same desire. “There was a loss of will, a loss of need and personal sacrifice,” Walsh says in David Harris’ book, The Genius. One of the biggest challenges for NFL coaches is maintaining a championship level: getting everyone, players and coaches, to put everything all in with the same fervor and trying to repeat. I don’t know about you, but the Seahawks might be the exception to that rule. The feeling in their locker room after Super Bowl XLVIII was essentially, OK, this is nice. But what’s next?
2. Here’s hoping that new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak doesn’t limit quarterback Joe Flacco by taking away his ability to audible at the line of scrimmage. Pre-snap control was a hot topic with Flacco in his formative years, but he eventually earned that trust. Flacco’s checking out of a run on 3rd-and-1 and hitting Anquan Boldin for the conversion in the fourth quarter was one of the Ravens’ biggest plays in their Super Bowl win over the 49ers. Kubiak has always been averse to giving that kind of freedom to his quarterback, and it was likely the root of the play that torpedoed the Texans’ 2013 season: Schaub’s pick-six against Seattle, which Kubiak admitted was a very poor play call.
3. There isn’t anything more important in today’s NFL than finding a franchise quarterback and keeping him. That said, more than a few power brokers have to be looking at the success of the Seahawks and 49ers with Russell Wilson (third-round pick) and Colin Kaepernick (second), and their locked-in, dirt-cheap contracts for three seasons, which enables money to be spent on the rest of the team. How many scouting departments have been tasked with thinking, We have to start looking harder to find a young quarterback who can start right away.
4. The silly season is officially here. If you read any reports about which quarterback is preferred by which needy team, just ignore them. There is a long way to go in the evaluation process. Interviews and board work are just as important as the film at this stage, and those haven't even started.
5. Happy to see Pepper Johnson move to the Bills after being associated with Bill Belichick for 23 years. When Matt Patricia was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012, instead of Johnson, the writing was on the wall in Foxborough. Patricia hasn’t received any sniffs for a head coaching job, which means Johnson’s time wasn’t coming any time soon, if ever. Johnson’s a terrific coach who did great work with the defensive line and, later, the linebackers. Both groups improved when he was in charge. Change is good, often for both sides.