With cap relief in hand, Miami Dolphins should copy Patriots’ blueprint

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) outruns Miami Dolphins defensive end Mario Williams (94) for a long gain during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium on Oct. 9, 2016.  (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) outruns Miami Dolphins defensive end Mario Williams (94) for a long gain during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium on Oct. 9, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Singles and doubles, not home runs.

That’s what the Dolphins should be thinking about this off-season despite the release of salary cap figures that show Miami has the most space rolled over to next season of any team in the AFC East. According to the NFL Players Association, the Dolphins have $8.36 million to carry over, compared to $5.29 million for New England.

The temptation is to think of this as an income tax refund triple what you expected. It’s not. For starters, the bottom line shows the Dolphins have $30.7 million in cap space for 2017, which ranks a more-sobering 20th in the NFL. In a twist sure to make Dolphins fans ill, the Patriots are third in the league with $67.8 million in cap space.

(Just to make everyone feel better, consider that the Cleveland Browns are $109.5M under the cap, proving you often do get what you pay for.)

The natural question is how, with a team many pick to win the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick can pull this off. Is his calculator is calibrated like his air-pressure gauge? Actually, Belichick knows how to stretch a buck, spreading the wealth across his 53-man roster for depth. That way, if Tom Brady is suspended, he’ll plug in Jimmy Garoppolo. If Jimmy Garoppolo is hurt, he’ll throw in Jacoby Brissett. Whatever. He still wins during the season, as opposed to the Dolphins, who often have won in the off-season.

The real test comes this spring, when we learn more about how today’s Dolphins conduct business. Head of football operations Mike Tannenbaum has talked about sustainability. Coach Adam Gase wants to build a program that can challenge the Patriots in the division year after year. Every sign says they’re on the same page as General Manager Chris Grier.

Together, they can take their $30.7M in cap space and quickly make it grow. Expectations are they’ll part with unproductive defensive linemen Mario Williams and Dion Jordan. Boom, there’s another $11.7 million in the bank. To be determined is whether the 2017 left tackle is Laremy Tunsil or Branden Albert. Parting with Albert would not be the most popular move but would save another $7.2M. If that’s not enough, hold injured linebacker Koa Misi upside down, shake, and watch $4.2M fall from his pockets.

LeGarrette Blount (29) was a cheap addition for the Patriots who paid dividends this season.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

LeGarrette Blount (29) was a cheap addition for the Patriots who paid dividends this season. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

But it’s one thing to have money to play with, another thing to actually play well with that money. Compare how the Dolphins and Patriots conduct business. The top two earners on the Patriots next season are scheduled to be Brady ($14M) and left tackle Nate Solder ($11.2M), which swallows just 14.9 percent of the cap. The Dolphins’ top two, Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh, guzzle 23.4 percent.

Devoting nearly a fourth of Miami’s resources to two players creates a puzzle at the back of the roster, where the Dolphins have 35 players scheduled to make less than $2 million. The Patriots have just 26 in that low-end tax bracket. So Belichick wins at both ends — he has arguably the best quarterback ever in Brady but also has more money to spend on the bottom 10 guys on his roster, who sooner or later over a 16-game season will make a difference in ballgames. And, of course, he has solid talent in-between.

The Dolphins have long loved sprees in the free-agent marketplace, where teams get sucked into deals like the $10.5 million in 2017 for Williams, who obviously will never see that money.

Each year, Pro Football Talk publishes a list of “Hot 100” free agents. If Belichick happens to stumble across it on, say, SnapFace, he skims from the bottom up. His big score last year was defensive end Chris Long, No. 84 on the list. The exception was 2014, when he landed the No. 1 player, cornerback Darrelle Revis, but that was for a one-year rental at a cut-rate $7 million against the cap and $12 million in actual salary.

In recent years, Belichick let cornerback Aqib Talib walk to Denver, linebacker Brandon Spikes pack for Buffalo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork go to Houston with nary a tear in his eye.

Running backs hold a special place in Belichick’s frugal heart. He let running back Shane Vereen become a New York Giant. He said sayonara to LeGarrette Blount, who headed to Pittsburgh for $3.85 million over two years, wore out his welcome in the Steel City and was back wearing Patriots red, white and blue three days after hitting the waiver wire. Blount’s numbers for 2016: 1,161 yards, 18 touchdowns … and $1.025 million. Starting cornerback Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free agent, makes slightly more than half that: $600,000.

You’ve heard of a hometown discount? The Patriots often seem to get a ring discount. All things being close, the lure of a ring is one heck of a negotiating tool.

You win in this league with scouting, as the four teams still alive show. The Patriots have 37 “homegrown” players (drafted or signed as college free agents). The Packers’ roster is chocked with 34 draftees. The Dolphins have just 19 draftees and almost as many former free agents from other teams (17).

That’s not to say the Dolphins have hit on only 19 recent picks. They chose wisely when drafting defensive end Olivier Vernon, tight end Charles Clay and running back Lamar Miller, but they failed to secure them after their rookie deals expired, allowing them to hit the free-agent market, where they were priced out of Miami’s range. Dolphins fans are hoping the same doesn’t apply today to receiver Jarvis Landry and safety Reshad Jones, the team’s co-MVPs last season and who would become free agents next year.

Re-signing Landry and Jones has to be the top priority for Tannenbaum, Grier, Gase & Co. Especially with a roster that has so many holes, priority No. 2 should be spreading the wealth.

Remember: Singles and doubles, not home runs.

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