The Dolphins enter the 2014 season as a team on the cusp of becoming a contender. Not all fans will share that sentiment, but I believe there is much to build on from this point on. Last season, fans viewed the offseason as extremely critical for the success of GM Jeff Ireland, HC Joe Philbin, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. An 8-8 record didn't fulfill expectations and after a 6 year ride, Jeff Ireland is no longer the GM of the Dolphins. In my opinion, this offseason is critical as well, though not in the same sense. The Dolphins appear to have found their franchise QB in Tannehill. New GM Dennis Hickey will be in charge of putting a winning team around him and this offseason is the first step in that process.
I cannot speak for Hickey, but I know how I would handle this offseason if I were in charge. There are three phases of the offseason for me: re-sign/release/trade current Dolphins, sign new Dolphins, and draft new Dolphins. Let start with phase one.
PHASE ONE: RE-SIGN/RELEASE/TRADE CURRENT DOLPHINS
The Dolphins have several free agents heading into this offseason, but only a few warrant bringing back. There are also several that are still under contract, but need to be traded or released for various reasons. Let's start with those. Here are six players that will (should) not be back with the Dolphins in 2014:
Patterson was very good when he was on the field. Problem was he couldn't stay on the field. He has a $5M+ cap hit with NO dead money. That equals prime target for getting released. Some have suggested a restructuring of his deal might be a better idea, but I disagree. Patterson will be a 31 year old, injury prone cornerback when the season begins. Why give a player like that any real (a.k.a. guaranteed) money? Release him and if he wants to come back, he can sign a very team friendly one year deal. Otherwise, let him walk.
Moore is a decent backup QB that you feel comfortable with in spot duty as a starter. He is also making over $5M this season to hold a clipboard. While some fans question whether Tannehill is the future of this team, most all can agree that Moore is definitely not. Even if the new GM doesn't believe in Tannehill, why would he stick with someone else's choice for backup? Moore should be shopped around to see if a team will offer a pick for him. If not, release him, save $4M and then draft a backup.
I was not a fan of the Gibson signing whatsoever, even after he became a somewhat reliable target. I'm still a fan of Rishard Matthews and I would argue that Tannehill is as well. Fans love the idea of getting lots of receivers, but there are only so many available passes to catch. If you get more receivers, someone gets left out of the mix. Wallace and Hartline are the starters and will remain so in 2014. I think Miami can add a better receiver in the draft than what they have in Gibson, so why keep him? Gibson can be traded/released with a gain in cap space, so I'd move on from him.
Thomas has had a few bright moments and several more lackluster moments in his career in Miami. Even though the offensive line wasn't very good in 2013, Thomas has proven that he just isn't reliable or consistent. Miami will most certainly look for a running back in free agency and/or the draft. Miller has speed and upside on his side, whereas Thomas does not. It's time to move on from Thomas.
Wheeler was part of a new linebacker duo that along with Dannell Ellerbe, was meant to be the younger/faster/better replacements for Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Well they weren't. Wheeler was rated as the worst 4-3 OLB by profootballfocus.com and made few impact plays. He just wasn't very good. Ellerbe wasn't a great deal better, but did make more impact plays. Wheeler cannot be cut outright however as his overall cap hit would be negative. The ideal solution here is to trade Wheeler. The Dolphins would have to agree to pay a portion of Wheeler's salary in order to make the trade palatable for both parties involved, but that's not out of the question. Wheeler is looking more and more like a free agent bust and the Dolphins should move on from him.
RE-SIGN CURRENT PLAYERS
I'm now going to move on the players I'd re-sign. I'm going to put in the caveat that while average annual salary looks worse against the cap, Dawn Aponte is very good at making contracts work. In other words, looking at just annual salaries makes it difficult to imagine re-signing both Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Aponte can make it work under the cap. So if I say I'm re-signing a player, it's with the assumption that Aponte can work her cap magic on the contracts.
This is pretty simple: Grimes is a talented player at an impact position. He was one of the best in the league at that position. Grimes wants to be here. Miami could attempt to sign another player in free agency, but may swing and miss in that department. They could draft a first round rookie to replace Grimes, but all rookie corners struggle and who knows if that rookie will ever amount to anything. Grimes was the best player on the defense last season. Re-signing him makes the secondary one less problem area for the Dolphins.
It has been reported that Soliai wants to stay in Miami. I want Soliai to stay in Miami. Soliai is a good run stuffing defensive tackle and losing him hurts the defense. The defensive line is a strength and I want to keep it that way.
Again, this falls under the Aponte cap magic umbrella, but I think both defensive tackles can be re-signed. A three man rotation of Starks, Soliai, and Odrick makes for a pretty formidable defensive line. Miami has the cap space to make this happen.
I've been on the fence regarding re-signing Clemons. On one hand, he's not a very dynamic or exciting player. On the other, he's a very safe player that you can trust to do his job. Clemons had a good year in 2013 and I've decided that with the improved play of the cornerbacks (thanks to Grimes), I'd rather be safe than take a chance on a player who may or may not be an improvement. Since Jairus Byrd will likely stay in Buffalo, this is an easy choice for me.
Carroll is almost as vilified as Daniel Thomas amongst fans. Carroll is much better at his job than Thomas overall though. He's not a great corner, but he's not as big of a concern as some would make him out to be. He played solid last year for the most part and unless he feels he can break the bank somewhere else, he should be re-signed at a reasonable price. He'll make an excellent backup and spot starter.
There are a few RFAs and ERFAs that Miami should tender and keep around, such as Danny Watkins and Armon Binns. None of these players will be a significant hit against the cap however.
PHASE TWO: SIGN NEW DOLPHINS
While a sizable chunk of cap space will be used to re-sign critical players, Miami should still have enough money to go after a few free agents on the market. With the expectations that the 2014 draft is deep at several positions, Miami could conceivably fill most needs with that route. However, drafting for need can be a dangerous idea. That's why I'd prefer going into a deep draft with most needs addressed in free agency. That way I can take the best player available regardless of position.
The offensive line is the biggest area of need, specifically at the tackle positions. Therefore, that is the area I'll target most.
Monroe and Branden Albert will be the top free agent tackles on the market. Monroe was traded to the Ravens last season and I'm sure they'd like to keep him. If they cannot reach a deal and he hits the open market, Miami should be first in line to sign him. He will be 27 years old at the start of the season as opposed to 30 for Albert. And he is a better player than Albert. Monroe will be expensive, but he would be worth it to lock up the left tackle position for the next 5 years or so. The only issue is that Baltimore may work out a deal with him. For Miami's sake, I hope he does not.
Miami needs 4 or 5 new offensive linemen this season. A few spots may be taken by a current player like Garner or Thomas. But no one can be sure of that. Asamoah is a good offensive guard who could immediately start at RG and would be an upgrade over Jerry.
I've thought about this and I've reached the conclusion that MJD is the best option for Miami to pursue. He's a good all-around back and he shouldn't be that expensive. He will likely get starting duty in Miami, but won't be asked to be the workhorse back he has been in Jacksonville. With an improving O-line and a better QB at the helm, MJD could be a catalyst for a better offense and a playoff spot for the Dolphins.
That's it for free agency as far as big names go. There will be other minor signings, but nothing overly significant.
PHASE THREE: DRAFT NEW DOLPHINS
With the left tackle position addressed in free agency, Miami is free to swing for the fences in the draft. I created trades with earlier with Wheeler, Moore and possibly Martin. I'm going to have some fun with this and say that Moore and Wheeler will fetch fifth round picks and Martin will fetch a sixth round pick. I think that is a fair assessment and while those players could conceivably have a higher return, it would be too easy to get carried away. I'll take later round picks in this scenario. Here we go:
Round 1, Pick 1: C. J. Mosley
I've said Mosley is a dark horse candidate for the Dolphins draft, simply because everyone assumes they will take an offensive lineman. But with Monroe in the fold, a first round left tackle isn't a need. Mosley has the skill set to be a complete middle linebacker. He's effective in run defense and even better in coverage - areas of weakness in the current group of linebackers. Drafting Mosley allows Ellerbe to move to OLB and the defense just became stronger. He has the chance to be a playmaking middle linebacker that Miami has lacked since Zach Thomas.
Round 2, Pick 1: Donte Moncrief
I like the group of receivers that Miami has, sans Gibson of course. But it never hurts to add talent to the group. Moncrief is an overlooked prospect right now, but he has all the tools to be a great receiver. He has good hands, runs good routes and is quick in and out of breaks. The biggest concern with him was long speed, but he responded by running a 4.40 at the Combine. He could be another weapon at Tannehill's disposal.
Round 3, Pick 1: JuWuan James
Fans might be skeptical of drafting another offensive lineman from Tennessee since Dallas Thomas couldn't get on the field last season. However, I don't think there is as much of an issue here. Most people considered Thomas a guard, yet the Dolphins insisted upon making him into a tackle. Thomas played exclusively at tackle during the 2013 preseason. I believe Lazor will correct this and put Thomas at guard full time, where I believe he can excel. James is without question a tackle. He can fill the need at right tackle, giving Tannehill good protection from edge rushers.
Round 4, Pick 1: Brandon Thomas
Thomas had a good combine and may rise up draft boards, but for now, he is slated to go somewhere around the fourth round. Thomas has good size and athleticism for the zone blocking scheme and would offer immediate competition for all other guards on the team.
Round 5, Pick 1: Aaron Murray
This might be a little low for Murray, but he is coming off of an injury and that could drop his stock enough for Miami to swoop in and pick up an intriguing backup quarterback prospect. Murray is undersized at 6'0", but has the tools to be an effective quarterback in the league.
Round 5, Pick 2: James Hurst
Hurst was a potential first round prospect until he got hurt in his bowl game. He measured in shorter, lighter, and with shorter arms than expected at the combine. Add that up and you have a falling tackle prospect that may have to move inside to guard. In my opinion, the worst case scenario for Hurst is a versatile do-it-all lineman similar to Nate Garner.
Round 5, Pick 3: Jerick McKinnon
As much as I hate to wish success on any player from Georgia Southern, McKinnon has a chance to be a sleeper running back in this draft. He played quarterback in a triple option offense in college so he's accustomed to running the ball. He has decent size (5'9" 209) and excellent speed (4.41). McKinnon may not make it to this round, but if so, it's worth taking a chance here.
Round 6, Pick 1: Tevin Reese
Reese is a third day wide receiver prospect who has game breaking speed. He can be a developmental player who can work from the slot and perhaps give the Dolphins another speed threat.
Round 7, Pick 1: Colt Lyerla
I know the team wants high character players and the Dolphins my take Lyerla off the board completely. I see that as a mistake however, at least at this juncture. Lyerla has first round talent, but his character issues may scare teams away. But in my opinion, the later rounds are where you take chances on players like this. No, you wouldn't draft Lyerla in the first or second round given his list of issues. But in the seventh round... why not? There is little to risk and much to gain. The financial aspect is minimal and his contract wouldn't even count against the top 51. If he gets into trouble, the team can release him without much of a loss. As a late round pick, his spot on the roster is by no means guaranteed. Since most seventh round picks are long shots anyway, if he doesn't work out, it's not like the team made a huge mistake. If he stays clean, he has the ability to be an impact tight end who along with Charles Clay, gives Miami some weapons at that position.
I believe the offseason that I have described above would set the Dolphins in the right direction for years to come. Regardless of whether it ends up like this or not, the Dolphins have another big offseason ahead of them.