It was interesting when Miami Dolphins Executive Vice President Mike Tannenbaum said at the Senior Bowl that after free agency, you would basically like to be able to field a decent team at all positions. The theory is that this allows you more flexibility to later draft the best available player at any position. While it is clear Miami will be exploring any and all available linebackers, defensive ends, guard/centers and tight ends in free agency and the draft, Dolphins leadership has also set a priority of keeping their own free agents, whenever possible.
At the right price, of course.
With that in mind, here is a look at the Top 10 most important Miami Dolphins free agents. Free agency begins March 9 at 4 p.m. ET. Remember that any player is replaceable. That’s the mindset the New England Patriots take. That’s the mindset any winning organization takes. So while it would be nice to keep them all, Tannenbaum and General Manager Chris Grier acknowledge that’s not how the NFL system is designed.
- WR Kenny Stills (Unrestricted Free Agent). Stills had 42 catches for 726 yards and led Miami with 9 receiving touchdowns. Stills also ranked third in the NFL with 17.3 yards per catch and second with 13.0 yards at catch. The Dolphins have publicly stated the value and importance of Stills. But he’s Miami’s third receiver. If a team like the Eagles, Rams or 49ers chooses to offer him more than $8 million per season, perhaps Stills jets. The hope is Stills relishes his connection with head coach Adam Gase and his fit for the offense and accepts a deal in the range of $6.5 million per season.
- DE Andre Branch (UFA). With Cameron Wake turning 35 years old and the expected departure of defensive end Mario Williams, the Dolphins need defensive ends. It may be as great a need as linebacker, which is massive. Branch was a nice find on a 1-year, $2.7 million deal. But is it smart to lock him up for say, more than $7 million per season? Wake has said he’d love to see the high-energy Branch return but understands it’s a business. Remember, Jason Jones was also let go at the end of last season. If Branch goes, Miami must add at least one starting defensive end, someone like say Calais Campbell, in free agency.
- LB Kiko Alonso (Restricted free agent). It would be smart of Miami to lock up Alonso on a long-term deal worth, say, more than $8 million per season, now. Alonso has the type of side-to-sideline speed, athleticism, instincts and aggressiveness the Dolphins want to add to their roster. Alonso would have been an unrestricted free agent if not for an injury he suffered which cost him an accrued NFL season. Miami could just bring him back for one more season, but Alonso shouldn’t be a backburner issue, considering the Dolphins’ need for linebackers just like him.
- S Michael Thomas (RFA). In order to ensure that their special teams captain and team leader returns, Miami would need to offer a one-year deal at a substantial raise which also gives the team the right to match an outside offer. Or Miami could risk exposing Thomas to free agency with hope of signing him to a longer-term deal. Not to be overlooked, Thomas is one of the best special teams players in the NFL.
- RB Damien Williams (RFA). Turns out Williams was an undrafted free agent in 2014. Not a bad signing from a guy who is a core special teams contributor and an occasional sparkplug on offense. When Adam Gase met with Ryan Tannehill after taking the job, the quarterback told Gase to take a closer look at Williams because the quarterback believed in his potential. Would some other NFL team view him as more than a third running back? Williams is due a raise or a longer-term extension. It would be a mistake to view Williams as a luxury item simply because Kenyan Drake is due more carries in 2017.
- TE Dion Sims (UFA). Sims has said “I’d love to stay” in Miami. Sims is an excellent run blocker and improved as a pass-catcher this season. But could the Dolphins look to add a faster, deeper threat in free agency or the draft (such as O.J. Howard or David Njoku)? The web site spotrac.com calculates’ Sims’ market value at $4.8 million and compares him to Ladarius Green and Dwayne Allen, which might make his destiny free agency.
- LS John Denney (UFA). Denney was the NFL’s highest-paid snapper at $1.15 million in 2016. Denney is very solid and he’s also by far the longest-tenured Dolphin. But Denney is 38 years old. Is this a spot where Miami could look to save a few dollars? Maybe it’s not worth the headache of trying to find a reliable snapper. Miami hasn’t worried about snapping for so long.
- LB Jelani Jenkins (UFA). Jenkins’ season was besieged by myriad injuries. And it seems unlikely Miami would consider Jenkins a priority this offseason. The Dolphins are desperate at linebacker however. Pro Football Focus ranked Jenkins as the 87th-best linebacker in the NFL last season. Jenkins was solid in 2014 and 2015 but fell off dramatically. Perhaps some other team will see Jenkins as a value add capable of bouncing back when healthy.
- G Jermon Bushrod (UFA). Bushrod was rated at the 69th-best guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. While that seems a bit harsh, it wasn’t always easy for Bushrod to adjust to playing guard for the first time. And after a stellar career, Bushrod is going to be 33 in August. If he continues playing, it will likely be only in Miami. But if Bushrod does return, perhaps it’s in a depth role as Miami will likely look to add some younger players at guard.
- LB Spencer Paysinger (UFA). Paysinger is a solid special teamer. The Dolphins will need depth at linebacker so it’s certainly possible the team brings him back. Paysinger has signed back-to-back one-year deals with Miami, so perhaps a third would be in order.