The most exasperating misfortune the architect of a football roster can experience is not getting his money’s worth. The Dolphins are painfully familiar with that frustration.
They’ve poured a ton of resources — money and draft picks — into both sides of the line of scrimmage the last few years, and the results have been underwhelming. The power trio of Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier and Adam Gase has tried, but there’s been little payoff for the effort.
Last year, for example, Miami was one of four teams (all of them bad) that were top-10 spenders on the defensive line and bottom-10 in sacks. The Dolphins spent 21 percent of their salary cap space on the defensive line, according to Spotrac, and that was the fifth-largest chunk in the league. When that doesn’t work out, it’s usually crippling.
As the Dolphins look to balance out their spending, a process that will take more than a year because of dead-cap ramifications from cutting players like Ndamukong Suh, there are signs that their philosophy is shifting.
The main positions on which they’re spending big this season are defensive end and wide receiver, with mid-range commitments at defensive tackle, safety and on the offensive line. The groups that ought to be under the most scrutiny are the receivers and defensive ends.
Those figures don’t take into account signing the eight new draft picks, who will come in on relatively cheap contracts. They’re also adjusted to count Robert Quinn as a defensive end, rather than a linebacker like Spotrac has him.
Miami’s receivers are set to eat up $28.2 million in salary cap space, which is the second-highest in the league this year and the most the organization has spent at the position since 2014. It’s about 16 percent of the total payroll.
Kenny Stills, rightfully, is the most expensive man in the room at a cap hit of $9.8 million. He’s the best receiver on the roster and he’s in the middle of what looks like one of Tannenbaum’s smartest moves as vice president.
The Dolphins got him from New Orleans for Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick in the 2015 offseason and he’s turned in two highly productive years as a deep threat in addition to being a valuable leader. They re-signed him to a deal that was cheap last year and pays an average of $9.4 million over the upcoming three seasons.
They’re counting on him to lead a group that features DeVante Parker, Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson. This is the last cheap year for Parker, who has a cap hit of $3.5 million and an upcoming team option for $9.4 million in 2019. Miami exercised Parker’s option, but can revoke it next spring unless he’s injured.
On the offensive line, Miami is near the middle at 19th in the NFL after shedding Mike Pouncey and giving right tackle Ja’Wuan James a massive raise by exercising an option on him. The total number stays level, though, because left tackle Laremy Tunsil is still on his rookie deal and guards Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis have small cap numbers this season.
The team is near the bottom of the league in spending at quarterback, running back and tight end. Miami restructured with Ryan Tannehill to save space this season, and the other two positions are chock full of players who are young and cheap, but promising.
The Dolphins currently have the second-most expensive defensive line in Spotrac’s calculations, but that figure will drop when Suh comes off the books in June. Instead of a $26.1 million cap hit for 2018, they incur a $22.2 million cap hit that can be spread over the next two years.
Once that happens, Miami should be around 10th at defensive tackle and third in total defensive line spending.
The reason the d-line expense remains high is because the Dolphins have loaded up on pass rushers and are on target to have the biggest salary cap number at the position. Quinn ($11.4 million cap hit) and Andre Branch ($10 million) are the two most costly players on the entire team this year. Ultimately, the line is likely to take up around 30 percent of the total cap space.
Quinn came over from the Rams in exchange for a fourth-round pick, and the Dolphins love the idea of pairing him with Cameron Wake as edge rushers. They also have Branch trying to work back from an injury-wrecked season and 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris, plus veteran William Hayes playing end and tackle.
Wake and Quinn are both former all-pros and enjoyed a run as elite defensive ends.
Quinn, who turns 28 this month, racked up 40 sacks over the 2012-14 seasons, but managed just 17.5 the last three years. He said he was “suffocating” with Los Angeles and feels rejuvenated now that he’s with the Dolphins. If that plays out on the field, Miami will be glad it has him under contract for 2019 at $12.9 million.
Wake, 36, will count $9.6 million against the salary cap this year and is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. Despite his age and a ruptured Achilles injury in 2015, he’s had 22 sacks over the last two years.
The Dolphins hope their arsenal of pass rushers will make life easier for a linebacker corps that ranks 27th in cap dollars and a cornerback crew that ranks 30th.
Just as expensive doesn’t always equal good, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad. The best teams in the league have players exceeding their rookie deals, and the Dolphins need that to happen with Tunsil, Parker, running back Kenyan Drake, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and this year’s draftees.
If that happens and their heftiest expenses prove to be money well spent, the Dolphins have a chance to be one of the league’s biggest surprises this season.
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