The signing of kicker Jason Sanders to a contract extension Tuesday was the first significant move of the offseason for the Miami Dolphins, though it certainly won't be the last.
The focal points clearly will be free agency, which officially kicks off with the start of the 2021 league year March 17, and the NFL draft scheduled for April 30-May 1.
But before we get to those two major events, the Dolphins will have decisions to consider and moves to make.
Before we get to those, let's revisit the Sanders extension, which is for five years with reports indicating a total value of $22 million with $10 million guaranteed.
Sanders is coming off the best season ever for a Dolphins kicker, one that ended with him being selected to the All-Pro first team. With Sanders' rookie contract scheduled to end after the 2021 season, the Dolphins made sure to lock up Sanders before he had the chance to become an unrestricted free agent.
The move locks up Sanders through the 2026 season and keeps the Dolphins from having to worry about contract negotiations with Sanders as a free agent if he — as everyone hopes — has another memorable season in 2021.
On the flip side, the move can be questioned because the deal gives Sanders the second-most guaranteed money for an NFL kicker behind only Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens.
And while Sanders was the best kicker in the NFL in 2020, it's Tucker who's generally considering the top player at the position right now. And the reason is that he's done it for five years now, with a field goal percentage of at least 89.7 percent since 2016.
Sanders, on the other hand, put together his magical 2020 season after an inconsistent 2019 performance when he made only 23 of 30 field goals for a 76.7 percentage that ranked 25th among NFL kickers with at least 10 attempts.
As a rookie, Sanders also was effective, making 18 of 20 attempts for a 90 percent success rate.
So Sanders has been very good, mediocre and excellent in his three seasons. The next step for him to get recognized along the likes of Tucker is to keep stacking up great seasons.
Because he hasn't done it yet, it's fair to question whether the Dolphins should have waited a bit before signing Sanders to a contract extension.
The balance between securing a player's services before he's able to hit the free agent market and making sure not to do long-term contracts prematurely always is a balance that every NFL team needs to strike. And it will be a big part of the Dolphins' decision-making process this offseason as we move to the other three major pre-free agency issues.
So instead will focus on the 2022 potential free agents and whether the Dolphins should or will make a move to extend them a year early.
The Sanders extension left the Dolphins with six players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents a year from now: DE Emmanuel Ogbah, LB Jerome Baker, TE Mike Gesicki, TE Durham Smythe, WR Albert Wilson and C Cameron Tom.
Because Wilson opted out in 2020 after agreeing to take a pay cut and because Tom was signed to a futures contract last month, neither will be getting a contract extension beyond this season at this point.
Of the other four, maybe Smythe is the most logical candidate because he's a player the Dolphins like because of his ability to block and he's also not likely to command huge dollars because he's not a big-impact receiver at the position.
Baker just might be next on the list because of the way he finished the 2020 season and ended up as one of only two players in the NFL – along with Bucs linebacker Devon White — with at least 100 tackles and five sacks in 2020.
Ogbah clearly was the Dolphins' best pass rusher in 2020, but his production dipped dramatically in the second half of the season — he had eight sacks and 14 QB hits in the first nine games against only one sack and seven QB hits in the final seven, with five of the QB hits coming against Cincinnati — and that might give the team some hesitation to sign him to a big contract extension at this point.
Gesicki is an ascending player and should be somebody who figures in the Dolphins' long-term plans, but there will only be so much money to go around and it's going to be difficult for them to sign too many players to extensions this offseason.
POTENTIAL CAP CASUALTIES
Part of the issue is the 2021 salary, which figures to be lower than the $198.2 million for 2020, though news came out Wednesday morning that the floor will be $180 million.
The Dolphins currently have the eighth-most cap space at $25.2 million, according to overthecap.com, but they also could create more space by restructuring some contracts or asking players to take pay cuts, as they did with Wilson last year.
The Athletic did a rundown of every team's potential cap casualties and listed four players for the Dolphins, three of them safeties Bobby McCain, Eric Rowe and Clayton Fejedelem.
Releasing McCain and/or Rowe would save a bit more than $5 million in cap space for each player and the Dolphins do have 2020 third-round pick Brandon Jones waiting to move into a bigger role after he showed promise as a rookie.
Cutting Fejedelem would save $2.5 million against the cap, but while his on-field contributions in 2020 might have been minimal he did serve as a special teams captain.
The aforementioned Wilson, whose new contract tolled after he opted out of the 2020 season, and Jakeem Grant are each scheduled to count around $5 million against the cap and certainly need to be mentioned as potential cap casualties, although Wilson brings big-play ability potential to the offense and Grant is valuable because of his work on punt and kickoff returns.
One quick note on contract restructures: These are short-term solutions and only push cap issues down the road, which might be ideal with a lower cap this year. But these should be done judiciously with players who figure to be around for a while because converting salary to bonuses spreads the cap hit over a number of years and those come due at the same time if the player don't make to the length of the contract.
Lastly, the potential issue of a new Xavien Howard contract almost looms over the Dolphins even though the All-Pro cornerback is signed through the 2024 season after getting an extension in May 2019.
Howard hired David Canter as his new agent in January and it's not difficult to assume he'll be looking for a new contract after the Dolphins signed Byron Jones to a bigger deal last offseason.