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Miami Dolphins 2014 Offseason In Review: Part One - Free Agency

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Here's a look back at the 2014 offseason for Miami Dolphins

This guy is off to a good start.
This guy is off to a good start.
Joel Auerbach

In just a few days, the Miami Dolphins will begin training camp for the upcoming season. New general manager Dennis Hickey has attempted to place his signature on the team by his dealings, and soon, fans will get to see it all come to fruition. Much as already been written and said about the moves Miami has made this year, but with minicamps and OTAs in the books, we have a better, albeit still incomplete idea of what this team has to offer. We will first look at the free agency period and I will give a grade on how I thought Miami did navigating this portion of the offseason.

FREE AGENTS SIGNED

Brent Grimes

4 year/$32,025,000 with $16,950,000 guaranteed

Grade: A-

Grimes was a revelation for the Dolphins in 2013. He became a lockdown corner the Dolphins needed. He graded out as the 2nd best CB on profootballfocus.com. He picked off 4 passes, one of which he returned for a TD. He had 17 passes defensed and gave up exactly zero TDs in coverage. He signed a 1 year deal in 2013 due to him coming off of a season ending injury in 2012. His play in 2013 earned him a lucrative deal with the Dolphins, who needed to retain their top corner given the uncertainty at the position on the roster. The only reason this gets a minus is due to the fact Grimes is turning 31 this month. He is a small corner that excels due to instincts and athleticism. He has injury concerns. That can be troublesome, but the team can get out of the deal in 2016 when Grimes could be starting to regress.

Louis Delmas

1 year/$2.5M with $1M guaranteed

Grade: B

Delmas was the first new addition for the Dolphins. The Dolphins felt they needed an upgrade over Chris Clemons who was very dependable, but not a playmaker at the free safety position. Delmas has a knack for making plays, but can make mistakes at times too. He has injury concerns and plays with an aggressive style that opens him up for injuries. In my opinion, this was a lateral move, and possibly a downgrade if he misses significant time. I was in favor of the Dolphins resigning Clemons, but this move is not too bad because of the deal. It's a one year tryout basically that really doesn't hurt the cap. Miami also has a potential replacement in Jimmy Wilson should Delmas get hurt. That could make the nickel corner spot weaker however.

Branden Albert

5 year/$47M with $26M guaranteed

Grade: A

If you have NFL Rewind, and I recommend getting it if you can, go back and watch the big time 4th down pass from Tannehill to Brandon Gibson at the end of the game against the Ravens. Particularly, watch Jonathan Martin on that play. Watch that play and you will understand why the Dolphins made this move to get Albert. Obtaining a starting caliber left tackle was a major need that needed to be filled. Albert is a top tier pass protector and decent in run blocking, and is definitely an upgrade over the incumbents. The biggest issues with this deal were his injury history and the money involved. But most Miami fans weren't complaining when they had another highly paid left tackle with injury concerns in Jake Long. In fact, after last season, most fans would have rather Ireland resigned Long last offseason instead of letting him go to the Rams. And as is typical with most contracts the Dolphins offer, the team can get out of the deal with positive cap repercussions after two years if they need to.

Earl Mitchell

4 year/$16M with $9M guaranteed

Grade: B

The Dolphins had a formidable defensive front with Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, and Jared Odrick. But Soliai and Starks were free agents and Soliai left the Dolphins to take a bigger deal with the Falcons. The Dolphins had a plan however and signed away former Texans nose tackle Earl Mitchell. Mitchell was miscast as a true 3-4 nose tackle in Houston's defense, and stated that he desired to play in a 4-3 scheme. That switch should suit his skillset better and the Dolphins hope he be more dynamic in that role. Mitchell should be a defensive tackle that will use his athleticism to get into the backfield more and make plays. The contract isn't bad and it would have been more expensive to resign Soliai. Reports from minicamp are that Mitchell has taken to this scheme change well. Overall, not a bad move.

Randy Starks

2 year/$10M with $5M guaranteed

Grade: A++

Miami signed their 2 time Pro Bowl, and recently franchise tagged defensive tackle, for what amounts to a 1 year/$5M? Get outta here. Starks will be here this season for sure, but if the Dolphins want/need him out in 2015, they can let him go and save $5M in cap space in the process. Unbelievable deal for a pretty darn good defensive tackle. Retaining Starks keeps the defensive line a strength for the team.

Shelley Smith

2 year/$5.5M with $1.5M guaranteed.

Grade: C

Miami needed major upgrades on the offensive line, but after signing Albert, sat back and waited on the guard position. Several higher profile candidates signed with other teams and the Dolphins finally made a move and signed former Texans and Rams backup Shelley Smith. He doesn't have much starting experience, but does have ties with current OL coach John Benton from his days in Houston. Smith has experience in Benton's zone blocking scheme and has the necessary athleticism to play well in that scheme. Smith graded out positively on PFF, ranking 25th out of 144 guards, with a +7.2 grade, tied with former Dolphin Richie Incognito. He graded out poorly as a pass blocker, but graded 7th best as a run blocker. He will be needed in this regard as Miami's O-line last season was awful in run blocking (only Jaguars and Jets were graded lower in run blocking last season by PFF). Smith was getting first team reps at right guard during minicamp and OTAs, but also was getting reps at center. With Pouncey set to miss some games, Smith may move over to starting center. He will be in competition with Nate Garner, Sam Brenner, and perhaps undrafted rookie Tyler Larsen for the starting center spot. I give this signing a C grade because even though the contract is good, he is very unproven. While he graded well, it was a limited sample size. So while it appears to be an upgrade, it may turn out to be a depth signing at best.

Cortland Finnegan

2 years/$11M with $5.5M guaranteed

Grade: D+

Finnegan was once a top tier corner in the league. The Rams signed him in 2012 to be the top tier corner they needed. He did not perform anywhere close to that level and was released this offseason. After some fairly shrewd maneuvering on Hickey's part, he gave the above listed contract to a player that seemed to be in rapid decline. That would typically warrant a grade of F from me. However, there are a couple of factors here that work in the Dolphins' favor. First of all, the guaranteed portion of the contract isn't terribly high and only really affects the Dolphins this season. Finnegan's cap hit for 2014 is $4,525,000M which is acceptable. If Finnegan can't play at a high enough level, the Dolphins can release him in 2015 with only $1M in dead money, clearing up $5,475,000 off the 2015 cap. So it essentially becomes a 1 year deal worth $5.5M. That's still high, but not as bad as it originally sounded. Secondly, Finnegan himself said that he did not fit the scheme that the Rams' defensive coordinator used. He was not a comfortable fit there. He also said that he fits much better in the scheme Coyle uses. Now that could all be fluff to spout off to the media. But most reports from OTAs and minicamp never mention Finnegan playing badly. So perhaps he is due to rebound from a couple of bad seasons in St. Louis that could have been due to poor scheme fit. Finally, despite his reputation on the field, he seems to be a genuinely good locker room presence. Not only that, but he is supposedly a gym rat and a film junkie and has expressed a desire to help the young CBs develop. The young guys have already stated that Finnegan has helped them and photos from OTAs show Finnegan staying late after practice with sophomore CB Jamar Taylor to hone their craft. I've heard/read all the "if that's all we signed him for, why not make him a coach?" arguments, but sometimes it helps to hear stuff from a veteran player that a coach, who has to focus on the group as a whole, may not be able to relay individually. And the Dolphins are hoping he can play a significant role in the secondary, perhaps even starting, at a high level. If so, then the tutelage is an added bonus. If not, then Miami overpaid for some veteran teaching and locker room presence and can get out of the deal next season with little cap consequence... D+.

Knowshon Moreno

1 year/$3M with $1.25M guaranteed

Grade: C

At the time, Moreno was a great signing, having come off of a career season in Denver. He broke the 1000 yard mark with 1038 yards, scored 10 TDs, and contributed heavily in the passing game with 60 receptions, 548 yards, and 3 TDs. He was surely an upgrade over Miami's deplorable running back situation. But looking back, the signing doesn't look as great. He showed up to OTAs and minicamp overweight and appeared to be in the coaches' doghouse (either for the weight or some other reason). Moreno worked mostly with the third and fourth team during those practices, though he was nursing a knee issue that eventually required minor surgery. The purpose of signing him was to provide a back that could pass protect and catch passes out of the backfield, something the previous backs struggled with. As for receiving, he should be an upgrade over Miller, though Daniel Thomas can be proficient in that role. As a blocker, he doesn't grade out much higher than Thomas per PFF (0.0 for Moreno vs. -0.7 for Thomas). For their rushing grade, Thomas rated higher overall (4.2, tied for 14th) than Moreno (3.0, 23rd). As surprising as that sounds, there may be some logic behind it. Denver's run blocking grade was 6th best while Miami's was 3rd worst. So it may be that while Moreno graded lower than Thomas in the rushing category, his stats were aided by a better O-line. You can also factor in the fact his quarterback had perhaps the best season in NFL history. The point here is not to say that Thomas is somehow better than Moreno based on PFF grades, but that those grades suggest Moreno's season may have been a byproduct of other factors and not solely on him. There are still questions regarding whether or not Moreno's presence will be enough to get Miami's rushing attack at least back to league average, and some even questioning if he'll make the final roster. If not, despite a cheap contract, was it really worth it? My guess is that Miami will be looking at running backs very heavily in the 2015 draft anyway, so I won't really complain about them picking him up.

Jason Fox

1 year/$765K with $65K guaranteed

Grade: B

I like this signing. Fox played limited snaps with Detroit and has had injury concerns over his career. But he hasn't been a terrible player when he's on the field. Miami needs some depth at the tackle position and Fox should be a good reserve that comes with a very cheap contract.

Daryn Colledge

1 year/$2M with $250K guaranteed

Grade: B

With Mike Pouncey set to miss some games, this was just a depth signing. Colledge is a guard so this signing may mean that Miami likes the choices it has for center currently on the roster. My guess is that Miami will move Shelley Smith to center and let Colledge compete with Nate Garner for right guard. If Colledge wins the spot, it will be interesting what will happen with Smith once Pouncey returns. Dallas Thomas appears to have the left guard spot sewn up for the time being, but if he or Billy Turner can't hold it down, then Colledge could move to the left side. The contract is cheap and there is no guarantee Colledge will make the roster. If not, the team isn't out much cap space.

Damian Williams

1 year/$760K with $30K guaranteed

Grade: B

This is an underrated signing by the Dolphins. Williams was a highly touted receiving prospect in the 2010 draft. His NFL career never got off the ground however and after a few underwhelming seasons with the Titans, he'll look to revitalize his career in Miami. He started 13 games in 2011, with 45 receptions, 592 yards, and 5 TDs. But he couldn't build off of that season. Williams is a good route runner with solid hands and has some return experience. He won't push the starters but is clearly in the running for the 4th through 6th WR spots. If he outperforms Marcus Thigpen as a returner during preseason, he could win that job. This was likely just a depth/training camp fodder signing, but could turn into more. His contract is negligible, so his cap hit doesn't matter whether he makes the team or not.

No Major Losses

Grade: A+

Only time will really tell if Miami's roster moves were good or bad, but on the surface, the Dolphins didn't lose anything they would worry about losing. In 2012, they traded elite wide receiver Brandon Marshall, failing to truly replace him (word ‘round the campfire is that Ireland tried to obtain Vincent Jackson, but whiffed on the price). In 2013, they lost top tier left tackle Jake Long and tried to replace him with the Jonathan Martin/past-his-prime Bryant McKinnie combo. They swapped the decent linebacker duo of Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett for the less than great duo of Danelle Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. The Dolphins front office would address one need, but create another. That didn't really happen this offseason. The biggest loss in 2014, literally and figuratively, was Paul Soliai. While he was a Pro Bowl player, he played less than half of the defensive snaps (1100+). Starks (742) and Odrick (874) each played over 200+ snaps more than Soliai (526). So while Soliai started, he acted more as a reserve based on snap count. It would have been nice to keep Soliai, but you have to assume that in order for that to happen, Miami would have had to offer at the very least, the same contract as Atlanta offered. Based on snap count, would Soliai have been worth it? I doubt it. Earl Mitchell may not be as good as Soliai, but will he be so bad that the Dolphins will truly miss Soliai on those snaps? I doubt it. The other key players that Miami may miss are Chris Clemons, Dimitri Patterson, and Nolan Carroll. As mentioned above, the Delmas-for-Clemons swap was essentially a lateral move - nothing gained, nothing lost. Patterson was a pretty good corner last season when he was on the field, but he couldn't stay on the field. How can he help the team when he's sitting on the bench? Carroll improved last season but wasn't a world-beater by any means. Jamar Taylor graded higher than Carroll in pass coverage on PFF, though it was in limited snaps. Was Carroll so good that Taylor can't replace him? The only other players leaving that logged significant playing time were all offensive linemen that weren't coming back anyway. In my opinion, even if the Dolphins experience a drop-off in play from the replacements, it's doubtful it would be so significant that it would make a huge difference.

Overview

Overall, I really liked what Miami did in free agency this year. They didn't really make big time splashes as they did in 2013, but used their resources wisely adding pieces they needed or wanted to make the team better. They appear to have started the reconstruction of the offensive line. They kept Grimes and Starks which maintained areas of strength. They took a chance on some risky, but potential upgrades at a couple of positions. They kept the contracts reasonable with only one bad contract (Finnegan) and still maintained a significant amount of cap space. Most importantly, they appear to have improved areas without creating new issues elsewhere. It was a pretty solid initial free agency period for Hickey and crew.

Grade: B