Former first-round pick Stephone Anthony: ‘I have to become starter’ for Dolphins

Stephone Anthony is trying to get his career back on track. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Stephone Anthony was a first-round pick just three years ago and he’s only 25, but there’s a sense that he’s already running out of time.

The NFL is turbulent, and things change quickly. Anthony was one of the most promising rookies in the league for the Saints, then found himself shipped to the Dolphins for a fifth-round pick last year and is fighting for a job this offseason. He’s battling a rookie, among others, for one of Miami’s starting linebacker spots and he knows it’s a critical point in his career.

“Before I can do anything else,” Anthony said, “I have to become a starter.”

That’s a key step toward righting his career, and he’s in a good position to do it.

While Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan can be marked down as certain starters, the rest of the Dolphins’ linebacker corps is wide open. Third-round pick Jerome Baker is likely to be in the mix, as well as undrafted scrappers Cayson Collins and Mike McCray and returning players Mike Hull and Chase Allen.

Anthony said he’s been taking snaps with the first- and second-team defense during Organized Team Activities.

He’s slightly leaner than last year, checking in at 6-foot-3 and somewhere between 235 and 240 pounds (as opposed to 245), but the most important thing is he’s far more familiar the Dolphins’ scheme than when he arrived.

Miami needed a linebacker when Lawrence Timmons deserted the team early last season and found an eager trading partner in the Saints, who had lost interest in Anthony when he wasn’t producing in their new defensive scheme. After opening with 112 tackles, two defensive scores and an all-rookie selection, he started three games in 2016 and was inactive last year while New Orleans looked to deal him.

Anthony played eight games off the bench for the Dolphins and totaled 15 tackles, plus some special teams work. He showed promise at times, but not nearly enough for the organization to exercise a 2019 option on him last month that would have paid him around $9 million.

General manager Chris Grier and vice president Mike Tannenbaum didn’t explain that decision to Anthony, but they didn’t need to.

“It was kind of what I expected,” he said. “I needed more snaps and there’s a lot that goes into it. But that’s not my job to worry about. My job is going to be to put my best foot forward.”

He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next spring, which heightens the importance of the upcoming season. A good year will put him in position for a long-term deal with Miami or somewhere else. Otherwise, he’ll probably be looking at single-year, prove-it contracts until he shows he’s worth more than that.

One factor working in his favor this season is stability. Having done his best to catch up on the Dolphins’ defense last year, he’s now had a full nine months with the team. He’s been around for all of OTAs and minicamp, plus he’ll work through training camp and the preseason. He had none of those benefits last year.

“The biggest difference is the amount of time I have and the time I’ve spent trying to learn the system and getting myself comfortable with it,” Anthony said.

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke sees that as the only barrier to Anthony being a significant contributor. He said last week, “It’s always difficult to come in the middle of the season, come from a different scheme and pick things up… But he works really hard. He works really, really hard.”

Everything’s more routine for Anthony now, including his living situation. He took up residence in a local hotel for almost a month after being traded to the Dolphins last season, but now he’s settled. That makes life easier.

It helps to have perspective, too. Going from first-round pick to castoff and now trying to climb his way back to the top hasn’t been fun, but he’s learned throughout that journey.

“I think it’s just growth, honestly,” Anthony said. “I think it’s just being in the league, going into my fourth year, understanding the game, how this game is played from the college game and just honing in and packing that information in.”

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Dolphins coach Adam Gase learns hard lessons from crazy 2017 season

The Dolphins’ 2017 season was exhausting for pretty much everyone involved. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

ORLANDO—It turns out there is no chapter in the instruction manual for coaching an NFL team that explains how to handle a hurricane turning your season upside down before it even starts.

There’s no section on proper procedure for moving past an assistant coach getting fired for sending a video of himself doing cocaine to a Las Vegas entertainer.

And what’s the protocol for those times when a starting linebacker disappears the night before a game and the team is on edge as it fears the absolute worst?

If he has time during what’s left of this offseason, maybe Adam Gase can write some helpful additions to that handbook now that he’s survived coaching the 2017 Miami Dolphins. The insanity of that season was such that losing the starting quarterback and middle linebacker to preseason knee injuries barely register.

“I think we had a lot of,” he said, stopping to think of the right way to put it.

“There were a lot of little,” he said before starting over again.

This isn’t such an easy thing to explain.

Gase avoided these kinds of questions during the season because he didn’t want to set a tone of excuse making in his locker room. He’s more willing to discuss it now, but it’s still difficult to be totally open without scapegoating certain players.

“There were some big things and some little things that came up last year,” Gase said. “A lot of us had to deal with a lot of adversity. I think it was a learning lesson for a lot of us.

“There were some tough spots to get put in, but I thought some guys did well. Some guys didn’t handle it as well. We probably learned a lot about a lot of guys. It was one of those things that at the time you’re going through it, it’s not really a fun thing to do, but it’s a great learning experience moving forward.”

With that backdrop, it’s easy to understand why a Dolphins official said last week one of the team’s goals in 2018 is to “hopefully just have a normal season.” It’s also understandable that Gase keeps harping on the maturity and dependability he thinks Miami added to its locker room this offseason.

Whether that’s really the chief cause for some of the Dolphins’ moves and whether it translates to anything meaningful on the field is unclear, but it’s a reasonably safe bet Gase will have fewer headaches this year.

Jarvis Landry, who had two very noticeable eruptions late in the season, was traded to Cleveland. Unfortunately for the Dolphins and their quarterbacks, he took his 1,000 yards per season with him. They replaced Landry with a hungry 25-year-old bent on proving himself (Albert Wilson) and a two-time Super Bowl champion (Danny Amendola).

Mike Pouncey’s hips required a choppy practice schedule that seemed disruptive to the offensive line as a whole, and Miami cut him in favor of trading for San Francisco’s Daniel Kilgore. Any frustrations with Pouncey were worth it considering how well he played, but Gase won’t miss the routine that kept him off the practice field so often.

Another annoyance, Jay Ajayi, was already cleared out five months ago in a deal that appears to have worked out fine for everyone involved. Ajayi won a Super Bowl with the Eagles, and Gase swapped out a noncompatible personality with a running back he’s been grooming since drafting him in Kenyan Drake.

Drake’s a player whose professionalism has teetered during his two years with the Dolphins, and the team felt Ajayi was influencing him the wrong way. Ajayi almost certainly would dispute that.

Gase has declined to specify which players gave him trouble last year, but it was an unnecessary stress considering everything else that was working against him. Collectively, the team couldn’t live up to all the rallying cries—one of them was, “Anywhere. Anytime.”—they printed on t-shirts.

“You wish you could say it didn’t have any impact,” he said “I think a lot of guys would say—Just talking to them after the season, some guys got distracted by it, by certain things… I think everybody was a little bit different, but I think we kind of fell apart to that a little bit.”

Bringing in Jay Cutler for Tannehill required wide-ranging adjustments from the offensive players.

The o-line had to be reshuffled multiple times and surely suffered from what happened with coach Chris Foerster.

Think about this: Rey Maualuga being arrested at a bar in Miami just an hour before a Saturday morning walk-through looks fairly pedestrian next to what Lawrence Timmons did.

Hurricane Irma wiped out the season opener and set the team up to begin the year with a three-week run through Los Angeles, New York and London. It also eliminated the bye week, forcing Gase to give up practice days at various points in the season to get his players rest.

On the field, the offense got off to a miserable start under Cutler, and even after the Dolphins leveled themselves out at, they endured a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

Despite that, Miami managed to put itself on the fringe of the playoff race in December by routing the Broncos and stunning New England in a memorable Monday Night Football game. There was some satisfaction for Gase in that modest resurgence.

“I mean, it was either adapt or die,” he said. “You had no choice. That’s the way I saw it.

“You had to figure out a way to deal with the situation and still get ready for the game, work to get our coaching staff ready and make sure our coaching staff was getting our players ready. It was interesting. It was interesting to go through a lot of the things last year that we went through.”

Of course, the Dolphins saw very little, if any, of that adversity coming this time last year, so any thought now that they’re positioned for a stable, stress-free 2018 season is overly optimistic.

There are no guarantees on Tannehill’s health or that he’s going to be anything better than league-average even if he does hold up well. They brought in winners and serious veterans this spring, but Timmons was regarded as both of those for 10 years right up until the moment he went AWOL. There’s no certainty that this newfound philosophy of this year’s whole being greater than the sum of last year’s parts will be successful.

And after what he went through last year, Gase wouldn’t be foolish enough to count on everything going according to plan. He’ll probably never think that way again.

“Expect anything,” he said. “You just never know what it could be.”

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Miami Dolphins’ Landry, Suh, Timmons moves about cost, not culture

Adam Gase faces a big challenge this season after some significant departures. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Teams always feel the need to justify getting rid of a player, especially when they’re unloading them one after another like the Dolphins have been, and few explanations are more popular than the old “didn’t fit our culture” line.


These are cost-cutting moves—and they’re necessary. An intelligent fan base understands that.

The problem for the organization is that it’s hard to cut Ndamukong Suh, for example, and admit that he was a reckless signing in the first place.

It’s tough for the Dolphins to come out and say they badly misjudged what Lawrence Timmons had left in the tank when they handed him a two-year contract that was almost fully guaranteed.

It’s much, much easier to say those players were sent packing because they weren’t what Miami wants in its locker room. They didn’t fit the culture.

Jarvis Landry, a former second-round pick who did nothing but improve his stock and bail out his quarterbacks over four seasons, was dealt for a fourth- and seventh-round pick. That alone doesn’t look good on paper. They can soften it a little by claiming personality friction.

What culture is this, exactly? The culture was supposedly really good in 2016 when the Dolphins went 10-6 and made the playoffs. Landry and Suh were both part of that team. The roster didn’t change a ton going into last year.

With the exception of his inexplicable desertion of the team before the season opener, Timmons embodied everything the Dolphins wanted in their locker room. Coaches and teammates praised how hard he worked in preseason practices, some of them sounding surprised that a 10-year veteran would still go that hard.

He was serious, he was smart and he worked. Those things were true of Timmons every minute before he went AWOL and every minute afterward.

“He works every day at practice—everything he has,” coach Adam Gase said near the end of the season. “He’s been a model citizen since he’s returned. For a veteran player, I haven’t been around too many guys that don’t miss snaps in practice. He is going game-speed every day. He’s been very impressive to watch. I understand why his career has been what it’s been over time.”

It sure doesn’t sound like culture was the issue with Timmons.

When he did break the code by ditching the team, by the way, the Dolphins’ upholding of their culture was dictated by how badly they needed him back. He was suspended one week, then thrust immediately back into the starting lineup.

The truth about him is that he was old, slow and wasn’t a smart signing at $12 million over two years (almost all of it was guaranteed until the AWOL situation presented the Dolphins with a way out). But that’s not something any team is eager to say.

Suh wasn’t a fiscally responsible addition, either, and that’s not something vice president Mike Tannenbaum is likely to acknowledge publicly, particularly since he was around when the Dolphins signed him.

But that’s the start and end of the conversation about why he’s gone. The coaches couldn’t stop gushing about how dominant he was, and teammates credited him for growing as a leader. Members of the organization and local media voted him team MVP just three months ago.

When Gase was asked about Suh’s alleged improvising, he stated flatly that Suh had the license to do so because he’s so good that whatever decision he makes almost always works out. He’s so elite that they wanted him to call his own shots. That’s what they said.

Suh was only a cultural misfit if the Dolphins are rewriting their history books.

“I just think back to the spring when he came back before OTAs, of how he took the young guys and helped those guys develop and get better every day,” Gase said in December. “He had an overall goal to help those guys be factors in the season because he knew for him to be as effective as he needed to be, he has to have multiple guys that are playing well with him. He took a lot of pride in making sure those guys were up to speed.

“Every game it’s double-team and triple-team, and he still finds ways to make plays. He still finds ways to create pressure on the quarterback, especially in critical situations… He did everything he could this year to try to help us.”

Good riddance, right?

Regarding Landry, no one questioned his grit. His quarterbacks always talked about the great security he provided as a low-risk, high-reward target who had a knack for turning up when they needed an emergency option on a pass play gone haywire. Gase talked that way, too, especially in his first season as a head coach.

Landry leaves the Dolphins holding the top three spots in their record books for catches in a single season, including a league-high 112 in 2017. He averaged more than 1,000 yards per year. He led the team with nine touchdowns when the offense managed just 28 for the entire season.

But he doesn’t always run the right route. He doesn’t keep his locker tidy. He’s not great at keeping his composure.

Remember when he blew up at Gase on the sideline during the late-season loss to Kansas City? It was right after Gase called a bubble screen for Jakeem Grant on 3rd-and-24 late in the game.

Landry yelled at the coach, and he yelled back. Both of them dismissed it as a non-issue afterward. Gase implied that he thinks those kinds of confrontations are healthy and chided the media for trying to turn nothing into something.

“That (stuff) happens all the time and it’s overblown big-time,” Gase said. “(Stuff) like that happens, and unless the TV cameras catch it, nobody notices… Whether it’s players or coaches, both sides are trying not to cross a line to attack somebody, but yeah, there’s going to be some discussion and argument.

“You move on. To me, it’s never a big deal.”

Really it’s just that the Dolphins don’t think Landry’s as good as he thinks he is, evidenced by how far apart they were in contract talks, but that’s a risky thing to say. That explanation won’t age well if Landry puts together a Hall of Fame career.

It’s much safer, much easier, to pin it on something nebulous like culture.

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Dolphins’ cuts of Julius Thomas, Lawrence Timmons show good planning, good luck

Lawrence Timmons goes down as a lucky break for the Dolphins. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Sometimes a team knows exactly what it’s doing and executes it exactly right. Other times, it’s just about catching a break.

In the case of the Dolphins’ one year with tight end Julius Thomas and linebacker Lawrence Timmons, it was some of each. They cut Timmons today and will let Thomas go shortly, saving around $10 million in salary cap space for the upcoming season. That’s important with free agency starting this week.

Both underachieved, but with Thomas the Dolphins were well-prepared for it. Jacksonville was prepared to cut him a year ago, when Miami was simultaneously about to do the same with left tackle Branden Albert, so the teams came up with the brilliant idea of trading them for each other. It’s worth keeping in mind that they gave up next to nothing to bring him aboard.

Thomas restructured his contract in a way that allowed the Dolphins to let him go after one year if things didn’t work out. Both sides hoped he’d rekindle the prolific production he had with Adam Gase in Denver. He never came close to the numbers he posted as a back-to-back Pro Bowler in 2013 and ’14: 152 catches, 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns.

He went almost the whole first half of last season without catching more than three passes in a game, and Gase constantly lamented that he wasn’t getting favorable coverages. That explanation was an obvious tip that Thomas wasn’t what he’d hoped Miami was getting. Dynamic pass-catching tight ends don’t care about favorable coverages.

His best day was against Oakland when he had six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown. He failed to top 60 yards in any other game.

Thomas had a good second half of the season and finished with 41 catches (out of 62 targets) for 388 yards and three touchdowns. On the plus side, that’s more production than Miami got out of any tight end the previous year. The position remains major issue that needs to be addressed in free agency or the draft.

Thomas, 29, will be a free agent now after averaging 39 receptions, 374.7 yards and four touchdowns per season since leaving Denver. It’s possible he could return to the Dolphins if he’s willing to come back for significantly less than what he would’ve made, but quite frankly, the team badly needs someone better and younger.

With regard to Timmons, one of the weirdest, most frustrating things to happen to the Dolphins in their recent history turned out to be one of their luckiest breaks.

Remember when Timmons shockingly went AWOL the night before the season opener against the Chargers? Not only did he desert, he did it at a point in time that prevented the Dolphins from adding a practice squad player to replace him.

That seemed like one of the dirtiest things a player could do to his team, but the truth is Timmons did them an incredible favor. As part of his reinstatement to the Dolphins, they were able to make the second season of his contract nonguaranteed, a league source confirmed.

He’d almost certainly still be on the team this season if it wasn’t for that, and a 32-year-old linebacker who ran out of gas late last year is something Miami decidedly doesn’t need.

His original two-year, $12 million deal was guaranteed for all but $1 million and almost certainly would’ve forced the Dolphins to keep him this year at an $8.2 million cap hit. That contract was a mistake in hindsight, but Timmons let them off the hook.

Did he do much else for them? Yes. Timmons wasn’t nearly the letdown Thomas was. He put up 84 tackles and three pass breakups in his lone season with the Dolphins after a decade in Pittsburgh. Pro Football Focus ranked him the No. 67 linebacker in the NFL last year. Considering some of the alternatives, Miami could’ve done worse than Timmons.

Going forward, the team is counting on a resurgent season by Kiko Alonso and an impressive talent in Raekwon McMillan, the 2017 second-round draft pick who would’ve been a starter last year had he not torn his ACL in the first preseason game.

Miami still has other cost-cutting moves to consider. The next big question is whether to rescind right tackle Ja’Wuan James’ $9.3 million team option, followed by navigating the complexities of free agency.

Regardless of those decisions, the Dolphins are better off without Timmons and Thomas on the field, and markedly better off financially. Some of it was savvy and some of it was silver lining, but both exits clear the way for them to fix two highly problematic spots on their roster.

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Grading the Miami Dolphins’ 2017 free agent class after Year 1

Kenny Stills’ contract looks like a good one . (Andres Leiva/The Post)

Free agency’s had ups and downs for the Dolphins, and their most recent batch of deals didn’t work out particularly well in 2017.

Vice president Mike Tannenbaum didn’t want to get into specifics at the team’s season ending press conference, but it was clear he didn’t feel great about at least a couple of those acquisitions.

“We were 6-10; we’ve got to look at everything,” he said. “The decisions we made, did they live up to the value of what we paid? Why or why not? … As we sat here a year ago and talked about the guys we wanted to keep… we all felt that that was the right message to send to the locker room coming off of the season we did, how hard they worked, how much they were pushed by the coaches and how they responded.

“Building a long-term program, that was a key building block for us, to try to reward our own as much as possible and then move forward from there. With that said, not every decision maybe worked out perfectly, and we’re going to look at that, but we’re always going to try to lean towards taking care of our own before we look outward.”

Sometimes free agency is as much about players a team bypasses as the ones it signs, and the Dolphins let some problematic players leave last year. They also headed off some future contract concerns by extending Kiko Alonso and Reshad Jones early.

As far as players who were on the open market, here’s a look at how each deal went in Year 1:

WR Kenny Stills
Stills is one of the best bullet points on Tannenbaum’s time with the Dolphins. He got him cheap from New Orleans and re-signed him to a fair four-year, $32 million deal. Stills was second on the team with 58 catches, 847 yards and six touchdowns, and he goes into next season at 26. This one looks smart.

DE Andre Branch
Branch believed he found a home with the Dolphins, and a season of 5.5 sacks and 49 tackles got him a three-year, $24 million contract. He had a tough year due to injuries, but this one’s still a prudent deal for Miami. He had a $5 million cap hit this year and will count for $10 million next season. If he rebounds, the Dolphins have him for $9 million in 2019. If not, they can get out of it for $2 million.

LB Lawrence Timmons
Bad, bad, bad. Miami thought Timmons was a solution to its linebacker problem and locked him up for two years, $12 million ($11 million guaranteed). He was OK. The season started terribly with him going AWOL before the opener, but now that actually looks good for the Dolphins because it enabled them to make the second year of his deal nonguaranteed. They’ll escape this mistake by good luck.

QB Jay Cutler
The Cutler signing is unique because the Dolphins, and the rest of the league, passed on him when he was available in March. He went off to retirement and a broadcasting job and likely would’ve remained in that mode if not for a frantic phone call from Adam Gase when Ryan Tannehill went down for the year. This was a logical move at the time, but it didn’t prove profitable. The $10 million payment for what Cutler did this year wasn’t worth it.

G Ted Larsen
The verdict on Larsen will wait another year because it seems highly unfair to judge his play in 2017 when he missed the first half of the year with a torn biceps and likely wasn’t ever back to full strength. He’s bounced around to four teams in his nine seasons, but the Dolphins saw him as a building block and secured him with a three-year, $5.7 million contract. They can get out of that for less than $1 million this offseason, but Larsen looks like he’s part of the 2018 plan.

S Nate Allen
There weren’t huge expectations for Allen considering T.J. McDonald was penciled in to take over once his eight-game suspension ended, but Miami got just seven games, 20 tackles and one pass breakup from Allen for $3.4 million. That’s not a jarring number by any means, but it’s still one of the top 15 salary cap hits on the team.

G Jermon Bushrod
It’d be interesting to hear Bushrod give an honest answer about whether he regrets delaying retirement to play for the Dolphins this season. The $3 million he earned might make him feel a little better about how things went. Even if he’d made it back from the foot injury that ultimately ended his season, it’s unlikely he would’ve supplanted Jesse Davis or Larsen in the starting lineup.

TE Julius Thomas*
This one gets an asterisk because it technically wasn’t a free agent deal, but realistically that’s how the Dolphins got Thomas. They were going to cut Branden Albert, and the Jaguars were going to cut Thomas after two nondescript seasons, and the teams decided to work out a pair of trades to swap them. Thomas played for $5.6 million last season and turned in 41 catches, 388 yards and three touchdowns. Miami needs to spend a high draft pick on a tight end.

TE Anthony Fasano
Picking up Fasano for $2.8 million as a contingency for Thomas proved wise. He’s a very good run blocker and would be worth bringing back if he’ll come cheaply. Fasano said at the end of the season he didn’t know whether he would continue playing.

LB Rey Maualuga
This was fun until it wasn’t. Everybody laughed when Maualuga talked about trying to lose a bunch of weight to get himself back in shape and wanting to play offense, but the jokes became less funny as he tested the organization’s patience. He was cut the day before a game after an altercation at a nightclub. He came aboard for a little under $1 million.

S T.J. McDonald
This was an excellent signing and an example of the Dolphins doing a good job mining the free agent class for undervalued talent. They got him on a one-year, $2.3 million deal, then after months of taking of stock of who he is as a player and a person, extended him through 2021. McDonald and Jones look like a good safety tandem for the next few seasons.

CB Alterraun Verner
Verner had a cap hit of $695,000 and played well enough in training camp to put himself in contention with Byron Maxwell for a starting job going into the opener. Ultimately, Verner proved to be more of a special teams asset than anything else and played just 14.9 percent of the defensive snaps. It’d be surprising if he’s back next season.

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Miami Dolphins’ 5 worst salary cap values of 2017 season

Whatever this was, the Dolphins sure could’ve used more of it from Julius Thomas. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The Dolphins had some excellent values on their roster this season, led by Jarvis Landry putting up a Pro Bowl year for about $1 million. It’s hard to beat that.

But they also did their fair share of overspending. Some of last spring’s free agent deals didn’t look so great once the season came around, and part of Miami’s road ahead will be mitigating those expenses as much as possible.

With the Dolphins pondering how to fix a 6-10 team over the next several months, here are their five worst values from this season:

5. LT Laremy Tunsil
This one wasn’t a killer by any means at a $2.8 salary cap hit, but nobody in Davie would claim that Laremy Tunsil lived up to expectations in his first year at left tackle. He was solid at left guard in 2016, and all sides agreed it’d be an easy transition for him back to the position he’s played all his life. Adam Gase and Tunsil said during the season his practice habits needed to improve, and the Dolphins want him to play with far more tenacity next year. He has two seasons left on a rookie deal that makes him a $3.4 million cap hit next year, and that’ll be a tremendous value if he plays up to his potential.

4. DE Andre Branch
Andre Branch impressed the Dolphins with 5.5 sacks and 49 tackles last season, and they were sold enough to sign him to a three-year, $24 million contract in March. This season came with a $5 million cap number, which eases the pain of a tough year for him. To Branch’s credit, this has more to do with his health than anything else. He pushed through multiple injuries for at least half the season and finished with 4.5 sacks and 23 tackles while playing 53.6 percent of the defensive snaps. He’ll be back for a $10 million salary cap hit next season and there’s nothing crazy about that if he’s healthy. If not, the Dolphins can get out of Year 3 for a minimal penalty.

3. LB Lawrence Timmons
Any amount of money for Lawrence Timmons seemed too high when the team was scrambling to locate him the night before its season opener. Desperate for linebacker help, the Dolphins gave him a two-year, $12 million deal last spring with nearly all of it guaranteed. The silver lining of his AWOL incident, though, is that it allowed them to make the second season of his contract nonguaranteed. After taking a $3.7 million cap hit for a guy who Pro Football Focus ranked the 68th-best linebacker in the NFL, Miami can move on from him this offseason.

2. TE Julius Thomas
This is another certain one-and-done for the Dolphins. They gave up a seventh-round pick to Jacksonville for Julius Thomas and renegotiated his contract to make it a two-year deal they can escape after the first season. They’ll surely want to do so. Thomas had three catches or fewer in all but three games. For a $5.6 million cap hit this year, they got 41 catches, 388 yards and three touchdowns out of Thomas. While those totals are more than what Miami got out of its dreadful tight end corps the year before, it wasn’t the answer and they must draft a tight end high this year.

1. QB Jay Cutler
It’s not crazy to pay $10 million for a starting quarterback, but that amount stings after watching what Jay Cutler did this season. One-year rentals Josh McCown ($6.5 million) and Ryan Fitzpatrick ($3 million), just for starters, looked at least as good as Smokin’ Jay. Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor earned slightly less than him this year, and the Dolphins could have just rolled with Matt Moore at a $2.2 million cap hit. The reason Cutler’s contract matters so much is that the Dolphins are extremely tight on cap space and could’ve rolled over that $10 million for next season.

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2018 NFL free agents: 5 Miami Dolphins least likely to return

Lawrence Timmons is one guy who doesn’t look like he’ll be in the Dolphins’ plans for 2018. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The Dolphins will be looking at next season earlier than they expected. While coach Adam Gase and his players might tout the importance of playing for pride in Sunday’s finale against the Bills, there are no stakes for Miami—not for this season, anyway.

As the team moves into an offseason that will require it to do significant remodeling, here are five players who seem unlikely to be back next year:

1. QB Jay Cutler
Moving on makes sense for both sides here. Cutler is too old and expensive to bring back, even as a backup to Ryan Tannehill, and he hasn’t been good this season. For $10 million, Miami got a guy who has the eighth-worst passer rating in the NFL. For Cutler’s part, he took a physical beating this year. He has over $120 million in career earnings and should be able to step straight into a broadcasting job, leaving little reason for him to come back at 35.

2. QB Matt Moore
It’s hard to imagine Moore not being here. Only John Denney, Cameron Wake and Reshad Jones have been with the Dolphins longer, and he’s stayed on through two coaching changes. But Moore and Gase don’t always seem to be in sync, and there’s no way it sat well with Moore when Gase brought in Cutler the moment Tannehill got hurt. The Dolphins also need to get younger at this position. Imagine how much more interesting Sunday’s game would be if they had an up-and-coming prospect they could debut against the Bills. Moore is an unrestricted free agent.

3. LB Lawrence Timmons
This acquisition looked shaky almost immediately, with Timmons deserting the team on the eve of the season opener. The Dolphins suspended him for a week, but ultimately needed linebacker help too much—among other reasons, perhaps—to banish him altogether. The one significant consequence for Timmons was that they were able to make the second year of his $12 million contract non-guaranteed, a league source confirmed. Miami can now cut him with no salary cap ramifications. He’s having a productive year with 88 tackles, but he’ll be 32 next season and the Dolphins have Raekwon McMillan coming back from injury.

4. TE Julius Thomas
This never went the way Gase envisioned it. He was thinking back to when Thomas was a monster for him in Denver, but he was unable to recapture that at 29. There were times when he looked viable, and he was better (41 catches, 388 yards, three touchdowns) than any tight ends Miami had in 2016. The Dolphins can keep him for $6.6 million next season, or accept a $2 million cap hit by releasing him (or they can save all of it if they can find a trade partner). This is a position the Dolphins should address in the second or third round of the upcoming draft.

5. RT Ja’Wuan James
This one comes down to money, and the Dolphins wouldn’t be so tight financially if not for the money they gave Cutler, which could’ve rolled over into their 2018 cap space. James is a good right tackle, he’s 25 and there will be suitors for him if he hits free agency, but Miami can save almost $9 million by going with Jesse Davis instead. Davis, who is under contract for $555,000 next season, has been a brilliant find by the scouting department. While he’s mostly played guard, he’s 6-foot-6, 321 pounds and started two games at right tackle this season. Furthermore, the team might not be in love with how James has played. Gase was asked if he was better this season than last and said, “I think he’s had some games that were head and shoulders better than any games that he had last year. There were probably about three games that I can say that were really, really outstanding.”

[Dolphins’ nightmare season finally ends with loss at Kansas City]

[Five takeaways from Dolphins’ loss to Chiefs]

[Grading the Dolphins after losing to Kansas City]

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Miami Dolphins’ “grandpas and uncles” help them now, in long run

The endless Cameron Wake. (Getty Images)

BUFFALO, N.Y.—There aren’t many places where 30 is considered old, but that’s absolutely the case in the NFL. Teams treat the number like an expiration date for running backs, and it’s a badge of honor for anyone else at the collision-heavy positions to keep going past that age.

Players can race around and take the hits when they’re young, but it takes meticulous work to make it in this arena once their hairline starts to retreat. The Dolphins have 10 active players who are 30 and up, and almost all of them will have a significant role as the team tries to keep its playoff hopes alive at Buffalo on Sunday.

“Chill out, bro,” Lawrence Timmons admonished. “I don’t think it’s that old. I try to do a lot of extra stuff to stay out there, but don’t say 30 like it’s like that.”

Timmons, 31, wouldn’t even be in the prime of his career yet in most professions, but he was getting hit with “How much do you have left?” questions when the Dolphins signed him. He’ll be asked some version of that the rest of his playing days.

This is his 11th season, which means he’s probably played around 10,000 snaps at linebacker and withstood the impact of more than 1,000 tackles—not to mention whatever he’s endured in practices. He’s still good enough to start every game for the Dolphins, who play him over backups who range from 24 to 26.

It’s not insulting to point out that he’s high-mileage; it’s a compliment.

“That’s true,” he said, slowly coming around.

He paused for a moment.

“Right,” he said. “It’s a blessing. Thanks for saying that.”

There’s an inherent respect among those who make it this long. There’s a look of recognition when Cameron Wake or Jermon Bushrod sees another guy in their age group still getting it done. It’s a club.

They know the secrets, like Wake’s aversion to pizza or Timmons double-layering all his clothes for practice to help him sweat off some weight.

They use terms like “pre-hab,” a favorite of 33-year-old tight end Anthony Fasano. They still get treatment on injuries they sustained years ago. Therapeutic massages are a must, usually every other day. Most are rigid in their weekly routines.

“The young guys need to pay attention to what they’re doing,” said Bushrod, an 11th-year pro who delayed retirement to play at 33 this season. “You don’t get to play 10-plus years in this league if you’re not doing something right on a daily basis.”

Of being an elder on the team, he said, “I embrace it. I think it’s something every player should want to get to. It’s a beast to get back out there every week and get through practice, but you do it and that’s something I’m proud to hang my hat on.”

Hear that, Timmons? You chill out, bro.

According to Pro Football Reference, 84 percent of the players who have appeared in an NFL game this year are under 30. There are 41 players in the NFL this season who are old enough to run for president. Sift out the kickers, punters and quarterbacks, and that number drops to 20 men playing the more grueling positions.

The gold standard among that group is a sculpted, 6-foot-2, 236-pound man who looks like he could be a new Avengers character. That would be Wake, and he knows better than anyone what it takes to survive in a league full of players a decade or more younger than him.

For Wake, there are countless small decisions that keep him in this shape. He’s on top of everything he eats, for starters, and the overall maintenance of his body started years ago.

“I’ve obviously been around the league long enough to see guys who (are) treating today like it won’t affect them 10 years in the future,” he said. “If you’re eating a bunch of (garbage) and you’re partying and you’re staying up late and all of those things, that might be fun now, but there’s nothing free.

“In Year 6, when you feel like a bag of dog crap—when you probably could have been OK and played a few more years—maybe that was based on those early years where you didn’t really do what you were supposed to. This locker room, for the most part, guys have taken notice of some of the older guys who we have who do things to continue to play.”

Mentioning pizza—hot, cheesy, delicious, grease-soaked, carbohydrate-filled, sweet, beautiful pizza—around Wake is sure to prompt a lecture.

“It’s a very simple risk-reward or cost-benefit,” Wake said. “The pizza is great for 10 minutes, then you finish eating the pizza. Once it gets in your body, you feel like crap for two days. Ten minutes for two days, what kind of return on investment is that? Now if I give you a salad, it tastes like ‘crap’–I think salads taste great—for 10 minutes, but you feel great for two days.”

Anyone who’s in their 30s knows that wasn’t true for them in college. A 20-year-old can guzzle or devour just about anything and wake up the next morning for the best day of their life.

Athletes can, too, at that age. It’s no surprise to walk into a locker room in any sport and see the younger players chomping wings and fries. That won’t work for “the grandpas and uncles,” as Bushrod affectionately calls his crew.

Not only has Wake preserved himself well enough to still be fearsome at almost 36, he powered through the rehab on a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2015 to come back with 11.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl selection last season. He’s got eight sacks this year. That’s more than just good genetics.

“It’s super impressive,” Fasano said. “Because he’s super old.”

In his own corner of the Dolphins’ locker room, Wake sits kitty corner from defensive end Charles Harris. He’s the first-round pick Miami chose with the thought that he’d eventually replace Wake, and at 22 he’s young enough that he could’ve worn Wake’s jersey to class in middle school.

Wake didn’t flinch when the Dolphins drafted Harris. He didn’t take it as a threat. He’s built to outlast anybody, no matter how fresh their legs.

Heck, he even said he’d be happy to help mentor him. The best thing for Harris—and the organization—would be for him to immediately start implementing what he sees from Wake. He says he’s learned a lot from him already.

That’s where old guys provide added value. They’re still good enough to be major factors on the field right now, plus they offer a roadmap for the Dolphins’ promising batch of young talent.

They have 18 players on the active roster who are 25 or younger, plus four other rookies on Injured Reserve. What they pick up from players like Wake will go a long way toward making Miami’s future as bright as it hopes to be.

“I speak to the rookies every year and I tell them the hardest thing won’t be your opponent; it will be you,” Wake said. “We’re all big, we’re all fast, we’re strong… Either you want to be great or you want to be just a guy.

“The guys that play video games, that have got all of the numbers and all of the promoters on South Beach, they’ve got pizza on speed dial–They play for two or three years and nobody ever hears from them. If you want to be great, you eat a salad with no dressing.”

[When Adam Gase gets upset with Jakeem Grant, he threatens to call his mom]

[Ndamukong Suh played every single snap in the win over New England]

[Dolphins’ Michael Thomas remains a special teams hero]

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Exclusive: Miami Dolphins’ Lawrence Timmons, on ex-teammate Ryan Shazier’s injury: ‘It killed me’

Ryan Shazier of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts as he is carted off the field after being injured against the Bengals. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

DAVIE — Lawrence Timmons isn’t a Steeler anymore.

Ryan Shazier no longer is a teammate.

It does not matter.

When Timmons saw the horrific play in which Shazier, a Steelers linebacker, suffered a severe spinal injury while making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 4, the shockwaves traveled all the way back to South Florida.

Support for Ryan Shazier has crossed team lines. Here, a Baltimore Ravens fan holds up a sign honoring him. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

“It killed me,” Timmons told The Post on Friday afternoon in his first public comments on Shazier.

For three seasons, Timmons lined up alongside Shazier. So like many, Timmons immediately feared this was no ordinary injury by the way Shazier rolled over and sent a distress signal for help.

“Everything was self-explanatory, especially with somebody you played with,” Timmons said. “Anytime you play a football season with someone — everybody knows. There’s extra sentiment there.”

Timmons texted Shazier, hoping to raise his spirits. Shazier had spinal surgery but remains at UPMC Hospital in Pittsburgh and is beginning physical rehabilitation.

“I texted him a few times but I haven’t really talked to him,” Timmons said. “But he’ll do better to be with family right now.

“But the love is definitely there.”

Timmons overlapped with Shazier for three seasons in Pittsburgh before joining the Dolphins as a free agent for this season.

Shazier played high school ball 6 1/2 miles from the Dolphins’ training facility, at Plantation High, and was the Steelers’ first-round draft choice in 2014. He started five games as a rookie, then became a starter, making 55 tackles two years in a row alongside Timmons. Shazier had 68 tackles this season.

‘I wish all the love and care and health in the world to him.’ — Lawrence Timmons, on former teammate Ryan Shazier

Timmons said he knew from the start that the Steelers had drafted somebody special.

“You could tell,” Timmons said. “He was always gifted, 4.3 speed. I mean, the kid had it all.”

That includes a veteran linebacker to show him the way.

“We were close,” Timmons said. “I talk to him all the time. I always tried to help him because I was the older guy. But he bloomed to such a great athlete. He had a very strong will, coming from a Christian family. I have nothing but good things to say about him. It just sucks it happened to a guy like that.”

Neither Shazier nor the Steelers have addressed whether he can eventually resume playing, although, of course, that’s secondary at the moment.

“I wish all the love and care and health in the world to him,” Timmons said.

In happier times: Then-Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (right) combines with Ryan Shazier to tackle running back Terrance West of the Baltimore Ravens in November 2016. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Miami Dolphins’ Jay Cutler shows he’s more comfortable, on and off the field

Miami Dolphins: How Adam Gase crushed play design and calls vs. Pats

Why the Miami Dolphins played more press and man coverage

Michael Thomas had an instant to make a key decision vs. Pats. He got it right

Sunday’s Bills game a reminder that Miami’s schedule didn’t have to be this way

[When Adam Gase gets upset with Jakeem Grant, he threatens to call his mom]

[Ndamukong Suh played every single snap in the win over New England]

[Dolphins’ Michael Thomas remains a special teams hero]

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What Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said today

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke has overseen a big turnaround. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE–One of the biggest surprises of this NFL season has been the Dolphins‘ development into a top-10 defense.

Miami was near the bottom last year and set a franchise record for most rushing yards allowed. That prompted a substantial rebuild in the offseason, and it’s clearly that project was successful. Acquisitions like Lawrence Timmons, William Hayes, Charles Harris and Davon Godchaux have already paid off, and the Dolphins expect even more help as linebacker Rey Maualuga continues to acclimate and safety T.J. McDonald comes off suspension in the ninth game.

With Miami facing a tremendous test from the Falcons’ offense Sunday, here are Burke’s thoughts on where his defense stands:

–Burke said holding defensive tackle Jordan Phillips out last week was a preference toward playing a healthy Vincent Taylor over a questionable Phillips. Phillips is likely to play this week.

–Cornerback Byron Maxwell was inactive last week, which appeared to be performance-based. Burke said he’s dealing with a nagging injury as well.

–Burke called Atlanta “the best offense, top to bottom,” that the Dolphins have faced this year.

–Burke’s been impressed by Timmons’ effort overall. Not only in games, but he’s constantly running full speed in practice.

–Opponents are completing 73 percent of their passes against the Dolphins. Burke said cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley are getting better, which will help bring that number down.

[Adam Gase unwilling to explain why he isn’t allowing players to kneel for national anthem]

[Miami Dolphins can be one of NFL’s elite defenses]

[Grading the Dolphins after a 16-10 beating of the Titans]

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