With everybody (including myself) playing the role of armchair GM the past few days, a summary of Miami's salary cap situation should be useful.
For people unfamiliar with how the salary cap works and how contracts are structured, check out Hollywood Dolfan's FanPost for background. Another nifty read is an article by Grantland's Bill Barnwell that goes over what type of contracts are notorious for ruining teams, found here (Hint: A giant photo of Mark Sanchez is featured in the article).
Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post Tweeted an article about the Dolphins cap situation - with the disclaimer that it's from a NY Jets blog. The bias shows at times - for example, the author writes, "Karlos Dansby has never came close to matching Bart Scott’s production ."
As an aside: I've been critical of Karlos Dansby, arguing that he's overpaid, that he disgraced himself by coming in 20 pounds overweight last season, and that as a veteran he should know better than to openly question the decisions of his new head coach. That being said, look at Bart Scott's stats here, and look at Dansby stats here since he came to Miami 2 years ago. In every statistic, Dansby outproduced Bart Scott (more sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions, tackles, and pass deflections in the past 2 years). ProFootball Focus rates Dansby as above average stopping the run, rushing the passer, and in pass coverage, while Bart Scott is good against the run...and that's it. Unsurprisingly, the Jets strongly considered dumping Scott this offseason, so not even the Jets feel Bart Scott is producing as much as he used to.
Jets-homerism aside, the numbers the author provides are solid, so the article is worth a read, especially for those of you looking for an evidence-based article pointing out Ireland's mistakes from the perspective of a non-Dolphins fan. In addition to offering you that link (definitely give it a read), I wanted to provide my own thoughts, especially since I disagree with some of the personal commentary in the article.
Check out this graph from the article
Our top 5 cap commitments are offensive line (21%), linebacker (18%), defensive line (15%), Dead money (12%), and QB (8%). Our offense takes up 44.6%, while the defense is allocated a surprisingly low 38.7% given its relative dominance - but I'll explain that.
I'd like to go through our resource allocation for each group on our team, starting with..
Quarterbacks (8%): We're hardly breaking the bank at QB, which is one of the benefits of having a young rookie QB under the new rookie wage scale. Tannehill, drafted #8 overall, has a rookie four-year contract with the Dolphins worth approximately $12.688 million, with a fifth year option. By comparison, Mark Sanchez, drafted #5 overall, signed a five-year, $50 million contract, with $28 million guaranteed - ouch.
We currently have 4 QBs on the roster, and there are two schools of thought on how to handle the situation.
1 - Get down to 3 QBs by releasing Garrard if he's still injured or trading Moore because of his better value before the game against the Texans. The veterans' salaries become fully guaranteed then, and with cap savings rolling over into the next year, there's a benefit to offloading their $2+ million salaries early. I'd prefer a trade ASAP, but that doesn't seem to be happening.
2- Keep both veterans (and send UDFA Pat Devlin to the practice squad) and wait until another team suffers a serious QB injury and offers us a better deal for Matt Moore. Right now, there are several backup QBs hitting the market as free agents, so teams are unwilling to offer us more than a late draft pick when they can sign a backup QB off the street without losing a draft pick. Also, Matt Moore didn't exactly increase his trade value in pre-season. If a team in the playoff hunt like Green Bay loses their starter for a couple of games, the price for Moore goes up. Plus, keeping Moore gives Garrard more time to heal as a QB3. The team seems to prefer this route.
Summary: QBs won't take up much of our cap given Tannehill's and Devlin's deals, even if we keep a veteran as a QB2.
Running backs/Full back (7%): The author of the article muses that one of the reasons why Reggie is kept despite his cap hit ($4.8 million) is because he is a known name and Miami needs those players on the team. I think there are multiple reasons.
1 - Reggie outproduced his contract last year, with almost 1400 yards of combined offense, and the new coaching staff plans on utilizing him even more in the passing game, especially as a safety valve for our rookie QB (which I'm sure Tannehill will appreciate).
2 - Behind Bush is Daniel Thomas, a promising second year former second round pick who dealt with injuries throughout his rookie season, rookie 4th round pick Lamar Miller, and rookie CFL import (UDFA) Marcus Thigpen. I could see a Thomas-Miller tandem in our future, but this year, it'd be tough to ask Mike Sherman to run an offense with a rookie QB, 2nd year RB as a primary tailback, and rookie as backup RB.
3 - The new coaching regime loves his leadership, with Reggie drawing praise on Hard Knocks for inspiring his teammates with his work ethic. He fits into the mould of what this coaching staff wants in players - hardworking and versatile.
Our fullback is UDFA Jorvorskie Lane, who may soon become a fan favorite if he keeps demolishing defenders.
Summary: We have talent with relatively low cost at RB/FB due to recent investments in the draft and savvy free agent pickups.
Tight ends (~4%): Anthony Fasano is on the last year of a reasonable deal (three-year, $8.776 million) to play as our complete (blocking + pass catching) starting tight end. We have two young guys who will hopefully develop into a dynamic pass-catching duo in former 6th round pick Charles Clay and rookie 3rd round pick Michael Egnew....plus Jeron Mastrud. Egnew and to a lesser extent Clay both have struggled at times during pre-season, but that's part of building through the draft. Guys don't enter the NFL as All-Pros - Jermichael Finley as a rookie third-round pick only contributed 6 catches. The normally reliable Fasano will have to lead the group until the young guys step up.
Signing Cooley or Winslow would help Tannehill this year, but the downside is that it would hamper the development of the young TEs.
Summary: At TE, we have 1 established veteran and a bunch of young guys, hence the limited impact on our cap. Clay's and Egnew's development will determine if our TE rotation is "cheap and productive" or just "cheap" this year.
Wide receivers (~6%): Consider our current WR corps.
Legedu Naanee - former 5th round pick acquired in free agency (on a 1-year deal, terms undisclosed)
Brian Hartline - former 4th round pick on the final year of his rookie four-year, $2.255 million contract
Davone Bess - former UDFA, currently in the third year of a four-year, $9.350 million contract.
Anthony Armstrong - former UDFA acquired on waivers earning $540,000
Marlon Moore - former UDFA earning $490,000
Rishard Matthews - rookie 7th round pick
In terms of money or draft picks, we haven't invested much in our wide receiving corps. Even Green Bay saw fit to invest several 2nd and 3rd round picks in their wide receiving corps. Wide receiving corps in the NFL don't come much cheaper or less touted than ours.
Fact - Jake Long this year out-earns all 6 of our wide receivers combined, and none were drafted earlier than the fourth round.
Summary: I'm holding out hope Ireland pulls off a fair trade for a receiver, but unless a couple of our guys have a Victor Cruz/Jordy Nelson-like breakout season, suffice to say wide receiver is a position that could use some attention in the draft next year...
Offensive Line (21%): If you want to know why we didn't sign right tackle Eric Winston in free agency (who got a four-year, $22 million contract.with the Chiefs), just look at how much we've already invested in the offensive line - 1/5 of our cap.
The article refers to our failure to sign Jake Long long-term as "bizarre," but I disagree. I've seen some "trade Jake Long" comments here but again - his trade value has never been lower, with Long recently having an off-year in which he dealt with a chronic knee injury and had his season ended with a torn biceps. Also, he just suffered a fresh knee "tweak" in the past week that may or may not keep him out of game 1 this year. For those exact same reasons (health concerns), it makes sense to not sign a guy to a 7 year, $84 million deal like the new contract of Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns right now. Long is not injury-prone, but he's looked less-than-invincible lately.
I believe that if Long is healthy this entire year and is willing to accept a similar deal as Thomas, we should sign him long-term. Look at our QB situation - bargain-bin pricing, unlike teams paying their franchise QB $12-20 million a year. When Tannehill is due for a new contract in 5 years - and hopefully it's a big contract after 3 Pro-Bowl appearances - we can then consider down-grading Tannehill's blindside protection. Until then, we have our center of the future and right tackle of the future on rookie deals, and we have affordable guards (Incognito $3 million, Hicks $2 million). Quality tackles are hard to find (ask the Jets how easy it's been to replace the awful Wayne Hunter), and a great left tackle in particular helps a young QB's development by protecting his blindside as he learns how to make pre-snap reads and adjusts to the speed of the game.
However, if Long wants more than Joe Thomas or suffers more injuries, he can go ahead and leave.
Ireland traded 3rd string center Ryan Cook (and his $1+ million salary) to the Cowboys for a 7th round pick and cut the often-injured Lydon Murtha ($1.927 million salary). We have a nice mix of veterans and youth on our offensive line, with Martin and Pouncey hopefully getting better with time, and Hicks being a placeholder until John Jerry re-earns the starting job or a replacement is drafted. Josh Samuda (rookie UDFA) looks good as a backup center, Will Yeatman (second-year UDFA) is our developmental backup tackle, and Nate Garner is our versatile backup G/T.
Summary: If we keep Long as Tannehil's blindside protector, we're one right guard away from having long-term stability on the offensive line. If we decide not to retain Jake Long, we enter the 2013 draft with concerns at tackle and guard - just like this year.
Front 7 (Defensive Line + Linebackers) (15% + 18%): As the article notes, our extension given to Cameron Wake is very fair - if Wake slows down dramatically, we can get rid of him in two years, but if he's still productive, we have him locked-down long-term. Dansby's cap hit probably outweighs his contributions - with the huge caveat that Dansby will be a middle-linebacker in a 4-3 now for the first time, and he could turn into a Zach Thomas-esque playmaker from that position...or he could look horrible playing in a new position. I predict Dansby will do well, but we'll see.
Our remaining starting linebackers include Kevin Burnett (2nd year of a reasonable four-year, $21 million contract) and Koa Misi (rookie deal), with cheap backups Austin Spitler (former 7th round pick), Jason Trusnik (UDFA), and UDFA Sammy Brown (waiver pickup).
The author refers to the fact that the Dolphins "inexplicably franchised DT Paul Soliai ... and allowed him to play on the tag before turning around and signing him to a 2 year contract that was essentially what they paid him for one the year before."
Actually, Soliai was hoping to cash in on a breakout season at nose tackle after being an enormous (literally and figuratively) disappointment for his first few years in the league, forcing us to use the franchise tag to keep him as negotiations continued. Now, Soliai is on a very fair deal for a Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle (which he is - hence his invitation to the Pro Bowl last year). The deal for Soliai is so fair (2 years, $12 million) that he could be a tradeable asset since he reportedly drew interest from 6 teams before we signed him.
Other starters include Randy Starks (on the last year of his deal) and Jared Odrick (on his rookie deal). Backups at DT include Tony McDaniels (overpaid at $3 million but on the last year of his deal) and rookie 7th round pick Kheeston Randall, while backup DE's are Derrick Shelby (rookie UDFA) and Olivier Vernon (rookie third round pick).
Summary: Except for Dansby and perhaps McDaniels, we have a talented front-7 getting paid in line with their production.
Secondary (~6%): Richard Marshall was signed to a fair deal for a nickel CB (three-year, $16 million contract) but an excellent deal for a #1 CB - as long as he plays well enough to earn that #1 CB status. He's physical and excellent in run support, which is one of the reasons why he thrived as a free safety for the Cardinals last year, but he has struggled at times in coverage in the past. Sean Smith is on the last year of his rookie deal and appears poised for a breakout year (hopefully). We traded away CB Vontae Davis for a high second round pick and a conditional 6th round pick in part because of the strong training camp performance of Nolan Carroll (former fifth round pick on his rookie deal).
We also recently claimed RJ Stanford (former 7th round pick) off the waiver wire, whom I predict will serve as a backup dime CB, behind a veteran (not yet signed) who we would use as a dime CB. Jimmy Wilson (former 7th round pick) would as a hybrid backup safety/6th CB.
Speaking of safeties, we're relying on 2 former fifth round picks (Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones) on their rookie deals, along with waiver-wire pickup Troy Nolan (former 7th round pick) and Wilson at safety. Our safety rotation is 2 former fifth round picks backed up by two former 7th round picks. However, I like the Nolan pickup a lot since he makes plays in limited opportunities - something we desperately need.
Summary: So the story of why our solid defense seems to be at a bargain is twofold - we have a great front-7 with only a couple of overpaid players, and we have a secondary that looks very thin, relying on late round draft picks and waiver wire pickups at CB and safety.
Special Teams (4%): Brandon Fields, Dan Carpenter, and John Denney are past/borderline Pro-Bowlers, and given how often we punt and kick field goals, these guys earn their money. Last year's special teams unit was solid. I have no complaints about this group.
Dead money (12%): I agree with the article that Joe Philbin seems to be stuck with an awful lot of late round draft picks and UDFAs, with "dead money" playing a large role in that. However, Philbin reportedly signed off on the trades of Vontae Davis (solid CB) and Brandon Marshall (a Pro-Bowl WR). The team is carrying $14 million in dead money in part because the team (with Philbin's approval) decided to go young at WR and safety to test the talent we had - Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle will have to make the most out of our discount-priced secondary.
As a reward for purging veterans and being disciplined this year in free agency, the Dolphins will have around $40 million in cap space next year. Jeff Ireland and the coaches could completely build the roster as they see fit, retaining veterans like Sean Smith, Randy Starks, Brian Hartline, and Anthony Fasano, or letting them walk in favor of outside free agents and drafted players. Until then...let's hope the rookies step up.
Edit 1: Shoutout to Phinsider community member Strange's Fanshot of the article - he must follow Volin too.
Edit 2: With David Garrard's release today (9/4/2012)
Ben Volin (@BenVolinPBP): "Garrard will still count $1 million against the cap this year in dead money"
So add $1 million to the dead-money total.