The Deep Dive – Dethroning The Patriots

The Ultimate Dolfans Guide to Dethroning the Patriots – Step 1: All About The Benjamins

By Lazaro Montecruz

The Miami Dolphins have a monumental task ahead of them in 2017. Their goal, more so than that of any other team in the National Football League, is to take on and defeat the juggernauts that are the New England Patriots, the reigning Super Bowl Champions, and the most dominant team in football since the turn of the century.

For better or worse, the Dolphins have no choice in this matter. Unlike other top AFC teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs or the Houston Texans, who could conceivably win the Lombardi Trophy without ever facing Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company, in order for the Dolphins to become world champions again, they will have to play the Patriots at least twice, if not three times. So, head coach Adam Gase and his staff have one goal above all others……to continue what they started in 2016…..building a team perfectly suited, position by position, to defeat the Patriots.

To many long suffering Miami fans, the prospect of unseating the Patriots may sound like a genuine David versus Goliath scenario. Yet, when we examine the facts from a calm and dispassionate perspective, a different picture begins to emerge. One in which David’s sling is well armed with a dangerous array of rocks, while Goliath is not nearly as unbeatable as he appears to be.

The first sign of this very real shift in power occurred in 2016, when, after years of draft misses, free agency fails and embarrassing debacles that ended up as lead stories on national news broadcasts, the Dolphins’ front office finally put together a solid foundation upon which to build a new dynasty of their own. Better yet, the team’s upper management appears determined to continue on that same trajectory, keenly aware that much remains to be done.

“Look, I’m really happy we made the playoffs and won 10 games. That’s a great accomplishment and again, Adam and the players deserve the credit for that,” enthused Mike Tannenbaum, the team’s president of football operations, at a recent press conference, before striking a more sober chord. “With that said, we’re going to be 0-0, and all we can control is us….not the Patriots, the Jets or the Bills. I’m really excited about the future, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Tannenbaum is right, of course. Before Gase and his coaches can even begin to formulate a game plan to beat the Patriots on the field, the organization must make sure they can provide him all the necessary weapons to win that war. Fortunately, as we shall see, thanks to some shrewd maneuvering by the front office, the organization has the money in place to do just that.

Show Me The Money

The projected salary cap for 2017 is expected to be somewhere between $168 and 170 million, and while these numbers can change on a day-to-day basis, that means the Dolphins went into the offseason with $21.5 to 23.5 million in cap space available to them from the start. It is also important to keep in mind that final salary cap numbers usually exceed the projected figures. Yet, even if the projections are accurate, when we add in the $8.3 million cap carry over from 2016, Miami could be looking at upwards of $31.8 million in cap space.

Still, it doesn’t end there. The purge has already begun, and by the time it is over, the Dolphins will be rid of Mario Williams (8.5 million), Koa Misi ($4.2 million), Earl Mitchell ($4 million) and Dion Jordan ($3.2 million). Those moves would add an additional $19.9 million.

Then there is the matter of Branden Albert. Regardless of whether Albert is cut or traded, he will not be a Dolphin in 2017. If he is cut, the team would add another $7.2 million back into the pot, sending their final tally skyrocketing to a towering $58.9 million in available cash. If Albert is traded, that number, if only for a moment, could rise as high as $62.3 million, if not more, depending on other possible moves. However, that is not to suggest that the Dolphins should use it all. In fact, Miami’s front office will likely use as little of it as possible with an eye on remaining fiscally healthy, and being able to roll even more over into 2018.

Balance Of Power

Given the Dolphins tremendous turnaround in 2016, one would assume Adam Gase would have a significant say in how the team’s war chest is allocated moving forward. Well, according to Tannenbaum, the 2nd year head coach does wield considerable power when it comes to building the roster, however, given the importance of remaining flexible from year-to-year, final roster decisions are made by a committee made up of himself, Gase and Grier, with built in checks and balances designed to get the most out of every decision. This group approach is particularly important when it comes to letting homegrown players walk in free agency and deciding how to go about replacing them.

“We’ve got to get the right players at the right price. Because in a salary cap system, we have finite resources and we can’t screw that up,” Tannenbaum told WQAM’s Orlando Alzugaray. “We lost some good players, be it Lamar Miller, Derrick Shelby, Rishard Matthews, Olivier Vernon. Those are good players. If you pay them certain prices, it’s going to prohibit you from doing certain things. We were disciplined and yet opportunistic.”

Striking that balance proved crucial in 2016, when the Dolphins lost running back Lamar Miller, who signed with the Houston Texans for $6 million in free agency, yet, were able to replace him with Jay Ajayi, who proved even more effective at around just one tenth the price. With over a dozen members of last year’s roster now free agents, the need to make accurate player assessments remains as vital as ever.

“Some of those guys are going to leave, so that’s why we need to sustain productive drafts on top of each other. That’s the only way to make the economics work,” Tannenbaum proclaimed at a recent presser. “Pro football is a very humbling sport. We have a lot of work to do. We’re going to try to keep a couple of our guys, knowing we’re probably going to lose a few.”

tannenbaum
Mike Tannenbaum discussing Mike Tannenbaum things

The couple of guys Tannenbaum is referring to are wide receiver Kenny Stills and defensive end Andre Branch. The Dolphins have made no secret of their desire to have both contributors back in 2017. Beyond that is where things get very interesting from a financial point of view.

While many fans will be clamoring for the team to immediately extend Pro Bowlers Jarvis Landry, the best slot receiver in the game, and Reshad Jones, the finest strong safety in the league, it would be surprising if the front office were in any rush. Tannenbaum and General Manager Chris Grier know that if they play their cards right, they will have both time and money on their side. Neither player is going anywhere is 2017, and that buys the Dolphins some time to weigh several important factors before setting a final value on their prized players.

In the case of Jones, by holding off until at least midseason, the Dolphins will have the opportunity to evaluate their star safety’s recovery from the shoulder injury that ended his 2016 campaign after a mere six games. It would be the wise move. After all, Miami shouldn’t hand Jones, who turns 29 years old in a few days, a new eight figure contract without first making sure he can return to his game-changing form and remain relatively healthy. That said, if he does bounce back as the team hopes, they will no doubt extend him to the tune of $10 million plus starting in 2018, where they will have additional cap space to ease the burden.

While a wait-and-see approach seems less likely with a healthy Jarvis Landry, that same strategy would give the Dolphins’ coaching staff a chance to see how several key determiners play out.

  1. How quickly Leonte Carroo develops, if at all, following a very disappointing rookie season.
  2. Does DeVante Parker finally evolve into the all-around weapon Miami envisioned when they drafted him. If Parker doesn’t live up to expectations in his 3rd season, the team could decide to use some of the money they are setting aside for him on Landry instead.
  3. From a game plan standpoint, Gase might look to further wean the Dolphins’ from the overdependence on Landry that plagued the offense in 2014-2015. Landry’s targets and receptions decreased in 2016, as I predicted, and for the sake of a more diverse attack, that could happen again in 2017.
  4. Lastly, holding off for a bit would give the team time to further evaluate Landry himself. After all, a lot of things can go wrong in the high impact world of the NFL. Chief among them, devastating injuries.

While many Dolphins fans might perceive such an approach as sheer madness, given the previously mentioned losses of homegrown talents like Vernon, Miller, Shelby and Matthews, all of the factors listed above would help the team set a more realistic value, be it higher or lower, on Landry’s services, while still leaving them plenty of time to extend his contract before the 2017 season ends.

Would it be a risk if Landry feels slighted? No doubt. Still, it is the kind of tightrope walk the Patriots’ front office has been successfully pulling off for nearly two decades. So it can and must be done if the Dolphins hope to rise to their rival’s level and beyond.

Spreading The Money Around

Position Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
Overall Offense 61.0 23 Dallas Cowboys 116.0
Overall Defense 82.5 2 New York Jets 92.8

 

The Dolphins have a bit of a conundrum. On the bright side, their offense is young at an average of 24 years old, relatively inexpensive offense, and clearly on the rise. Yet, their defense was old, averaging 29 years in age, overpaid, and highly ineffective, especially at the most crucial times of the season. Now, the team must somehow find a way to resolve this problem in a single season if at all possible without leveraging their future for years to come.

Sound impossible? Well, it isn’t. In fact, what follows is a unit by unit breakdown of where the Dolphins stand financially, how they compare to the team with the most allocated money for each unit, and a simple overview of the steps Miami will likely take to significantly improve the roster while ensuring their financial health.

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
QB 22.9 6 Kansas City Chiefs 28.9

 

tannehill-huge-dvp-coaches

Barring a major disaster, there will be absolutely no change here. Ryan Tannehill is the team’s franchise QB, while Matt Moore did more than enough to ensure he remains a valued backup.

hot-when-hot

To put it simply, this is one investment that has finally started to pay off, and the Dolphins aren’t about to tinker with it.

Final Projection: No Change

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
RB 2.6 24 Minnesota Vikings 20.0

 

The only question here is whether the Dolphins will resign Damien Williams or replace him with an experienced veteran in free agency. Either way, the overall financial impact will be minimal.

Final Projection: Increase of $1.5 million

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
WR 5.9 32 Green Bay Packers 27.3

 

This is simple enough. The Dolphins will do everything possible to resign Kenny Stills and, at some point during the season, extend Jarvis Landry. If they do, DeVante Parker will need to step up and play to his full potential to ensure his long term position with the Dolphins.

good-td

If he doesn’t, expect to see more and more of Leonte Carroo as the season wears on. If Miami gets what they want and manage to keep both Landry and Stills, they will be paying a lot more for this unit, but that has always been considered an undisputed eventuality.

Final Projection: Increase $7 Million (So long as Landry’s extension is put off a bit)

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
TE $0.6 31 Dallas Cowboys 16.9

 

With the strong possibility of Julius Thomas becoming a Dolphin as part of a Branden Albert trade to Jacksonville, look for Miami to resign Dion Sims and keep an eye out for additional bargains in free agency.

julius-thomas
New Dolphins Tight End, Julius Thomas

The big positive here is that it would eliminate the need to search for a tight end in the draft, freeing up an additional picks for defense.

Final Projection: Increase $10 Million (Assuming Sims is resigned at a reasonable price and Thomas’ restructured contract is favorable to the Dolphins)

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
OL 29.0 11 Dallas Cowboys 44.4

 

Brendan Albert will be gone. That is a given. In the wake of that change, the Dolphins will pursue a top tier guard in free agency, and at least another lineman or two in the draft.

Final Projection: Increase of $2 million (Assuming Albert is cut as opposed to being traded)

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
DL 47.7 1 Jacksonville Jaguars #2*  43.2*

 

The Dolphins spend more money on their defensive line than any other team in the league, and the simple truth is, they aren’t getting their money’s worth. In order to correct this, as mentioned previously, they will rid themselves of Mario Williams, Earl Mitchell and Dion Jordan. Miami may resign Andre Branch, but that will depend on his asking price and whether or not other, more cost effective options present themselves on the free agency market, especially if those options are better against the run. Most importantly, Miami will look to the draft for Cameron Wake’s eventual heir, as well as to bolster depth. Any way you slice it, the Dolphins need to bring the cost of this unit down in order to reallocate funds to more vulnerable areas of their defense, but it won’t be easy given Ndamukong Suh’s titanic contract.

Final Projection: Decrease of $7.5 million

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
LB 7.7 29 Kansas City Chiefs 45.6

 

The Dolphins only have two linebackers, Kiko Alonso (who is a restricted free agent) and Spencer Paysinger, capable of holding their own in coverage.

kiko

 

Beyond that, no one is safe, least of all, Koa Misi. Yet, even if the Dolphins cut Misi to the tune of $4.2 million, and they most surely will at any moment, there is no way they can spend as much money as is needed to completely rebuild this unit in a single year, not with a sound long term plan in mind. Fortunately, they can still field a much improved unit by picking up one or two quality contributors in free agency, while shooting for starters in the draft.

Final Projection: Increase of $11-13 million

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
S 14.4 9 New Orleans Saints 19.4

 

Even if the Dolphins decide to extend Reshad Jones this season, this unit is not likely to accrue many additional expenses. Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus are a formidable starting duo, so, aside from a possible raise for Michael Thomas due to his additional value as a special teams player, any other moves will almost surely be geared towards bolstering depth.

Final Projection: Increase of $1.5 million, unless Reshad Jones is extended this season.    

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
CB 12.7 20 New York Giants 28.4

 

Given this squad’s surprising success, there is no reason to expect additional expenditures, especially since it is Miami’s youngest defensive unit. Thus, in spite of recent rumors concerning a blockbuster trade, look for the Dolphins’ coaching staff to focus on player development as a means to improve overall play.

Final Projection: No Significant Change

Unit Dolphins Expenditure in Approximate Millions NFL Rank #1 Ranked Team #1 Ranked Team Expenditure in Approximate Millions
Special Teams 1.2 Unavailable Unavailable

 

Andrew Franks and Matt Darr are not locks, but if they are replaced, it won’t be at a great cost disadvantage to Miami. John Denney, currently an unrestricted free agent, is the team’s longest tenured player and a solid contributor despite his advanced age. As such, he will likely be resigned.

Final Projection: Increase of about 2 million at most

While these numbers can’t be viewed as anything beyond general figures and are subject to change due to various factors, the Dolphins could shore up their offense for $20.5 million increase. The defense, thanks to the purging that is currently under way, can take a monumental leap forward for a minimal increase of $7 million, and their special team will add no more than another $2 million in expenditures. This would again leave the team with somewhere around $2-4 million in unused cap space to carry over into 2018. This is far less than they would like, but that could be made up by cutting dead weight next year, just as they are doing now.

How much the Dolphins improve this coming season will depend a great deal on how they allocate their funds in a few key areas:

  1. Player Development & Retaining Homegrown Players
  2. Free Agency
  3. Trades like the brilliant stroke that brought Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell over from the Philadelphia Eagles

As important as those areas will prove to be, the most crucial and long lasting effect will come down to the team’s scouting department and how well they size up the draft.

Drafting A Winning Plan

The 2017 draft is uniquely crucial for the Dolphins, particularly considering the failure of numerous drafts under the Jeff Ireland/Joe Philbin regime. Consider that of Miami’s 26 draft selections from 2012-2014, only the following seven remain under contract, and of those, just three are locks to make the team this coming season.

Player Round Year Status
Ryan Tannehill 1st 2012 Lock to make the team
Dion Jordan 1st 2013 Likely offseason cut
Jelani Jenkins 4th 2013 Likely cut
Ja’Wuan James 1st 2014 Lock to make the team
Jarvis Landry 2nd 2014 Lock to make the team
Walt Aikens 4th 2014 Likely cut
Terence Fede 7th 2014 On the bubble

 

That is not to imply that almost all of the Dolphins draft picks from that period were bust. As mentioned previously, a few others were good players whom Miami lost via free agency. Regardless, the Dolphins have very little to show from that period. That has to change moving forward if team hopes to, not just overtake New England, but remain atop the division from that point on.

Unfortunately, mock drafts, particularly this early in the offseason, are usually an absolute waste of time. Nevertheless, based on the team’s needs, it is possible to create a general overview of how the team may approach the draft.

Round Pick Overall Pick Likely Targets
1 22nd 22nd LB/DE
2 22nd 54th OL
3 The Dolphins will likely receive a compensatory pick at the end of the 3rd round due to the loss of Olivier Vernon in free agency. DE/LB
4 22nd 117th – Will be transferred to the Minnesota unless Miami is awarded a compensatory pick at the end of the 4th round. If the Dolphins are given a compensatory pick, then that pick would go to the Vikings instead. LB/DT
5 22nd 148th

In addition to this pick, the Dolphins will likely receive a 5th round compensatory pick due to the loss of Lamar Miller in free agency.

OL/TE
6 22nd 180th DB/LB
7 22nd 211th DT/LB

 

Miami’s overriding needs at defensive end and linebacker will drive this draft, but it should come as no surprise if the team also targets offensive linemen and/or a tight end, especially since word has recently leaked that the remain in the market for more playmakers on offense. While linebacker is the greater need, the Dolphins may opt to go with a defensive end in the first round given that the 2017 draft is deeper at linebacker and there will still be several solid options available in later rounds.

Beyond that, the Dolphins’ front office has already made it clear that they are looking to make deals to better position themselves in the draft. That, of course, raises an interesting question. Are the Dolphins considering trading away proven veterans for draft picks? If so, it is difficult to imagine what unit they feel could absorb such a loss.

However things play out, the Dolphins’ front office must be shrewd in their approach to both this year’s free agency and draft. The team can’t afford another FA bust like Mario Williams, or less still, another wasted draft pick, as occurred with Dion Jordan under the previous regime.

kenyan-drake-run-vs-bills

The 2016 draft class produced two starters in Laremy Tunsil and Xavien Howard, a part time contributor in Kenyan Drake, and the occasional flash from Jakeeem Grant. 2017’s class will need to be even better if the Dolphins hope to fill some of their most glaring holes without breaking the bank.

 The Last Word

Regardless of how one views the numerous rules violations that have marred the Belichick era, the Patriots are a daunting opponent. They are led by the most successful coach/quarterback combo in NFL history. They have a future Hall-of-Famer at tight end. They are unmatched in their ability to change game plans and adjust to a given opponent. They run a system capable of succeeding regardless of who they put on the field. Even so, it could be argued that the ultimate credit for their success can be traced back to how well their front office has managed the team’s fiscal wellbeing over the years and thus, consistently kept them in a position to win.

If there is any truth to that viewpoint, Dolfans should take heart in the knowledge that Miami’s front office is, at long last, following suit. The importance of that shift in culture cannot be overstated because, when combined with a brilliant young coach like Adam Gase at the helm, that new mindset might just be enough to finally tip the scales in Dolphins’ favor, giving them a realistic shot at seizing power atop the AFC East for years to come.

Coming Soon – Step 2: The Offensive Line

All .gifs courtesy of The Deep End

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1 Comment

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  1. Let it be known that it takes a good salary cap to get good and productive players and not just there to collect a million dollar pay check ; and not to perform to the best of there ability . It’s to clean house an get the right chemistry of players to build a new house to conquer a dynasty. An with a new leader who shows promising Adam Gase is like history repeating itself with a young coach once dealt with none other the great one Don Shula.

    Liked by 1 person

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