Earlier this offseason, the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars (both losing teams with enormous amounts of salary cap space) decided to get in a massive bidding war for the services of restricted free agent center Alex Mack. In the end, the Browns managed to keep Mack by matching the Jaguars' offer of a five-year, $42 million deal ($8.4 million per year), with $26 million fully guaranteed at signing plus a no-trade clause, because as a restricted free agent, Mack was obligated to remain with his current team if they matched the highest competing offer.
That made Mack the highest paid center in the NFL. For comparison, the Miami Dolphins just signed unrestricted free agent left tackle Branden Albert, coming off a Pro Bowl year with the Kansas City Chiefs, to a 5-year, $46 million deal ($9.2 million per year), with $25 million guaranteed (less than Mack), and historically, centers have been paid significantly less than left tackles. However, if you were to pick a center that could deserve "left tackle" money, Alex Mack isn't a bad choice. He's a former 1st round pick, 2-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All Pro, who not only had never missed a start in his career, but had never missed a single snap in his career. In addition, he had been rated a top-10 center every single year of his career by Pro Football Focus, and he had no history of character issues/arrests. So, Mack was a player with a 5-year history of extreme durability, consistently high play, and no character red flags who happened to draw interest from two franchises flush with cap space that decided to get into a bidding war. The question then became, would other centers would be able to use Mack's deal a benchmark in their own negotiations?
The answer appears to be, "Yes." The Pittsburgh Steelers just awarded their young center Maurkice Pouncey a contract that is even more generous than Mack's despite the fact that Maurkice still had a full year left under his current rookie deal and is rehabbing from a season-ending torn ACL injury. Per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio and verified by ESPN's Adam Schefter, Maurkice Pouncey just signed a 5-year extension worth over $44 million (paying an average of over $8.8 million per year). The total guaranteed hasn't been released yet, but his signing bonus has been confirmed to be $13 million, and if his first 2 base salaries are guaranteed (which is common for these types of contracts), his likely payday in the first 2 years of this deal could fall in the neighborhood of $23 million unless the Steelers cut him, which is very unlikely unless his injury problems worsen.
Again - that's $8.8 million per year, potentially $23+ million paid in the first 2 years (assuming reasonably good health) for a player who was still a year away from hitting restricted free agency AND is rehabbing from a torn ACL and therefore might not even be 100% for this upcoming season. That's a sizable deal to award a player with very limited leverage at the moment. Unlike Mack, Maurkice has been ranked as consistently "merely around average" by PFF, never once breaking into the top-10. Unlike Mack, Maurkice has missed 2 games as a sophomore, 1 game as a third year player, and 15 games as a fourth year player, so Maurkice has missed a combined 18 games the past 3 seasons and yet still got a market-setting contract.
So this is relevant to the Dolphins because starting center Mike Pouncey has been asking for a new contract and is represented by the same agent as his twin brother. With this new deal for Mike's brother, the top-8 centers in the NFL are averaging $7.3 million per year, and the trend is pointing up. Mike Pouncey last year finally made the Pro Bowl despite the negative PR from the Jon Martin scandal, and Pouncey could have a career year next year with more offensive line talent around him and without the distractions of the Martin scandal and a gallbladder infection that hospitalized him for several days during last season. If that happens, it's completely reasonable to predict that the Dolphins could be required to offer him at least $9 million per year to keep him long-term. After all, Mike Pouncey has only missed 2 games the past 3 seasons, and he has arguably outplayed his brother by PFF's rankings (which NFL agents are allegedly using in negotiations with teams).
More and more teams are looking for interior defensive linemen like the Bengals' Geno Atkins and the Titans' Jurrell Casey who produce sack totals like edge rushers, which has therefore led to teams placing a premium on good pass protecting interior offensive linemen to stop them. With NFL franchises apparently more than happy to award record-setting deals even to centers who aren't unrestricted free agents, allowing Mike Pouncey to hit either restricted or unrestricted free agency could lead to another team stealing him away by making an enormous offer.