The NFL salary cap is expetced to be set around $140 million per team for the 2015 season. Teams can then rollover any unspent portion of the 2014 salary cap, giving them a little more space this season. For the Miami Dolphins, who will rollover around $7.7 million, the team should have a salary cap of around $147.7 million to spent in 2015.
The team currently has $145.8 million in obligated funds for next year, along with $280,000 in dead money, meaning there is just $1.7 million to re-sign expiring contracts, sign free agents, and add the 2015 draft class (which should cost around $5 million in 2015). Where can the Dolphins find some money?
It is probably easier than a lot of people realize, though it is going to take some hard business decisions.
June 1 designations
Each team can release two players under the "June 1 designation" rule, meaning they are released prior to June 1, but they are treated, salary cap wise, as if they were released after the first of June. That helps a team by allowing them to spread guaranteed money remaining on a contract over two years, rather than having it all accelerated into the current year's salary cap. It helps the player by allowing them to ht free agency in March, rather than waiting until June when most teams have completed their free agent signings.
Everything sounds good, except there is one issue that does not get discussed a lot. The salary cap space a June 1 designation provides does not actually happen until June 1. So, should the Dolphins use the June 1 cut designation to release two players in March, the team will carry those players' contracts on their books as if they were still members of the team until June 1.
If you think back to the 2013 offseason, when Miami used the June 1 designation on linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Both players signed with new teams in March, but the Dolphins also carried them on their own salary cap until June, when they fell off and gave Miami the salary cap space. Basically, the team does not see any space gained by releasig a player with the June 1 designation until June (and then, techically, not until June 2, because the collective bargaining agreement says "after" June 1).
The Dolphins will likely use the June 1 designation to get rid of a couple of biggger contracts this year, but they will not see that money during the free agency period. Those dollars will likely be used for the draft class, signing other teams' actual-June 1 cuts, or re-signing Dolphins players entering the final year of their contracts.
Potential June 1 cut-targets for Miami
Dannell Ellerbe, linebacker - Ellerbe could make up the Dolphins' draft class cap space all on his own. He could be released without the June 1 designation, which would open up up $5.65 million on the books this year, with $4.2 million in dead money, which is a nice chunk to get back if the Dolphins want that money right away. If they do make him a June 1 cut, however, he would drop to just $1.4 million in dead money this year, giving the team $8.45 million in cap space for 2015. Again, the Dolphins would not see that space until June 2.
Brian Hartline, wide receiver - This could be a tough business decision for Miami. Hartline is going to cost the team a lot of money if he stays on his current contract, which is why the team could look to make him a June 1 designated cut (or just wait until June 1 to release him). Hartline would save the Dolphins $3.15 million in cap space if they cut him, and $5.95 million if they make him a June 1 release.
Philip Wheeler, linebacker - If the Dolphins designate both Ellerbe and Hartline, do not be surprised when Wheeler is on the roster in April and May. It makes no sense for the Dolphins to cut Wheeler prior to June 1, unless they use the designation on him. A pre-June release of Wheeler would only give the Dolphins $200,000 in cap space. If he is cut with either the designation or after June 1, he becomes a $3 million savings.
June 1 cut savings
With just three players released, either through the June 1 designation or actually after June 1, the Dolphins can add $17.4 million to their salary cap space. Of course, all of that money would not be available until June 2, which will come after the majority of free agency is complete. That money would go towards signing the draft picks, restructuring contracts, and providing the team with the in-season operating budget it will need in case of injuries or other signings that has to happen throughout a 16 game schedule.
Salary Cap Cuts
The Dolphins will likely have several salary cap cuts over the next few weeks as they prepare for free agency in March. Most of these players will likely add some dead money, but will give the team some savings as well. That savings will be immediate, instead of having to wait until June for the money to become available.
Potential salary cap cuts:
Cortland Finnegan, cornerback - Finnegan may retire this year, which could aid the Dolphins against the salary cap if he makes that decision quickly. If he does not, Miami could be forced to cut him, which would add $5.475 million to the team's available cap space.
Randy Starks, defensive tackle - This is clearly a business decision, but Starks would provide $5 million in relief for the Dolphins. That number does not change with a post-June 1 release, so, unless he is willing to restructure his contract in the next few weeks, Starks could be a salary cap causalty.
Earl Mitchell, defensive tackle - Mitchell was the third defensive tackle in the starting rotation for Miami, and he provided good depth at the position. The problem is, he is going to count for $4.5 million against the cap this year, with no dead money. The Dolphins might keep him, but he is expensive and the team needs the space.
Brandon Gibson, wide receiver - In the 2013 offseason, the Dolphins signed Mike Wallace and the "other" receiver - Gibson. Heading into the 2015 offseason, Gibson's role with the Dolphins may have been usurped by Jarvis Landry, making $3.26 million salary cap savings very enticing.
Shelley Smith, guard - The Dolphins are still trying to find answers for their offensive line, especially at the guard position. Those answers, however, do not seem to be Smith, who would give the Dolphins back $2.75 million in space.
Salary Cap savings
With these five cuts, the Dolphins would add back $20.985 million in salary cap space.
The Dolphins will likely look to restructure the contracts of some players, particularly players who are still producing at high levels, but who are going to eat a large portion of the salary cap just based on being near the end of their current deals.
Potential restructuring targets
Cameron Wake, defensive end - Wake has two years left on his current deal, and will count for $10.45 million this season then $9.8 million next season. The Dolphins could look to extend him, give him a larger signing bonus, which would then be spread over several seasons, and bring his total cap number these next two years down.
Brent Grimes, cornerback - The 2015 season will be the largest cap hit ($10 million) for Grimes during his current four-year extension. He would be a little more difficult to restructure than Wake, simply because Grimes' deal goes through 2017, so it would require more years to be re-worked.
Reshad Jones, safety - Very similar to Grimes, the number of years (through 2017) makes it difficult to see a restructure coming, but Jones will count for $7.76 million against the cap in 2015, followed by $8.25 and $8.085 over the final two years of his deal.
Mike Pouncey, center - Pouncey's salary cap number jumps from $2.9 million last year for $7.4 this year, as he enters the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The money is fully guaranteed, so there is not a lot of incentive for Pouncey to re-do his contract for less money this year, which would mean a lot of it would have to become a signing bonus if the Dolphins were to workout a deal giving them any cap space.
Brandon Fields, punter - Fields had a down year last year, but a lot of that seemed to be based on his comfort level as the protection around him suffered through injury. Once the Dolphins started changing up the protection schemes, Fields seemed to respond. He is entering the penultimate year of his contract, where he will be a $3.9 million salary camp hit this year, then a $4 million next year. If the Dolphins can work to bring those number down even a little, it could be a big help for the franchise.
The three June 1 moves would give the Dolphins $17.4 million, but that is only good after June 1. Before that date, the team could add nearly $21 million just based on some business decision salary cap cuts. There are options to add more, depending on how the team re-works some deals this offseason. In total, the team has the ability to add just shy of $40 million for the year.
Note: All salary cap numbers via OverTheCap.com