Last night, conflicting reports were made as to whether Mitchell had signed a deal or was visiting with a deal "nearly" agreed upon." For those who were nervous about Dennis Hickey's ability to close this deal, there's no need to worry. Both NFL Network and the Miami Herald are reporting that 3-4 NT Earl Mitchell officially signed a deal with the Dolphins after flying into South Florida last night. The deal is for the originally reported 4 years, $16 million total, with $9 million guaranteed. That's very low end starter's money or very high end backup's money at the DT position for free agents (meaning players not on their rookie deals).
Mitchell is a former third round pick in 2010 of the Houston Texans who has generally been graded as "average" for the Texans the past couple of years. Battle Red Blog's own "Big Fat Drunk" gave a scouting report that seemed to match the consensus on Mitchell. Mitchell has a ton of experience after playing in 63 games and was a 14-game starter last year, but his production has never quite matched his athletic potential while in Houston. However, Adam Beasley of The Miami Herald reports that the Dolphins are very high on that potential, believing they can turn Mitchell into an 8+ sack per year defensive tackle (Pro Bowl caliber). Their contention is that the issue for Mitchell was scheme fit, and he's a more natural 1-technique or 3-technique in the 4-3 the Dolphins run.
(Here is an excellent primer on defensive line gap techniques for those who don't know about the differences).
In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the Randy Starks signing back in 2008.
(And incidentally, Starks is reportedly considering an offer for around $5 million per year to remain a Miami Dolphin this morning)
Back in 2008, Starks was a former third round pick and "sometime starter" for the Titans, starting on average 9 out of 16 games per season for 4 seasons, with a high of 16 starts in 2005 and a low of just 4 starts out of 14 games played in 2007, his final season as a Titan. After joining the Dolphins, he was a part time starter in 2008 who went on to start nearly every game from 2009 to 2013 (77 starts out of 80 games over that stretch). He began playing much better under long-time Dolphins defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers' tutelage and made 2 Pro Bowls, one as a 3-4 DE and one as a 4-3 DT.
The Dolphins are apparently hoping Rodgers can repeat history by taking another underachieving third round pick and turning him into a Pro Bowler. All I have to say is that this is how teams can avoid overpaying in free agency. Rather than pursue "ready-made" players like Jairius Byrd or Branden Albert who have hit their peaks, teams that trust their scouting and coaching look for guys who haven't quite lived up to their potential, sign them for low-ball deals, and then try to improve their performance. We'll see how successful (or unsuccessful) the project turns to out to be in the coming years, but Rodgers has enough of a track record of success to make fans optimistic. Even if Mitchell doesn't develop into a Pro Bowler, $4 million per year isn't a tough salary for a defensive tackle to outproduce.