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The curious case of Dannell Ellerbe's contract restructuring

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The Miami Dolphins ate an additional $3.6 million in dead money by re-signing Dannell Ellerbe before trading him.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins found a way to trade away a bad contract while getting a young wide receiver in return when they shipped Dannell Ellerbe to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Kenny Stills. The compromise came with the addition of a third round pick heading from Miami to New Orleans, making the deal more palatable for the Saints, who assumed Ellerbe's contract. Or, at least so we thought.

Ellerbe, because of the trade, was supposed to account for $4.2 million in dead money for Miami. Except, Miami reworked Ellerbe's contract, dropping his salary to $1.1 million for this upcoming season, and transferring $3.6 million into bonuses which the Dolphins will cover. That means, instead of a $5.7 million in salary cap savings for Miami this year, the Dolphins only see a $2.1 million savings by trading away Ellerbe.

What could make this more interesting is, there is the potential for Miami to actually get some of this money back for 2016. As Jason Fitzgerlad at OverTheCap.com has written, he contract is structured with $1.5 million in a signing bonus and $2.1 million in a roster bonus, which will be paid in April. The Dolphins are on the hook for those numbers as guaranteed money. At the end of the year, however, when the league tallies money actually spent, there is a possibility that the $2.1 million will be credited back to the Dolphins for 2016, and adjusted off of the Saints' 2016 cap.

The Dolphins did not pick up as much cap space as expected this offseason from the Ellerbe trade, which is unfortunate, but managable. If the $2.1 million is given back to them, they are essentially loaning 2015 space against the cap to the Saints in exchange for that space back in the 2016 cap. That could be huge for the Dolphins, when the largest cap hit of Ndamukong Suh's contract hits at the same time as Miami needs to sign players like quarterback Ryan Tannehill, center Mike Pouncey, and defensive end Olivier Vernon to contract extensions.

Restructuring the contract and taking some more of the guaranteed money into the losing team's salary cap is not unusual around the NFL, but it is also not a common thing. Taking an additional $3.6 million is probably a little surprising, however, as the Dolphins ultimately made the decision to pay Ellerbe to go away. If Stills is able to break out and become a special wide receiver, maybe the deal was worth it in the end. Whatever happens, the Dolphins are currently carrying nearly $22.3 million in dead money this year, and have just under $10 million in salary cap space this year, with an additional $3 million coming in June when the post-June 1 designation of linebacker Philip Wheeler is complete. Miami also has $7.071 million already accounted for in the salary cap for tight end Charles Clay, which, if they do no match the Buffalo Bills' offer sheet Clay signed on Tuesday, would come back to the club as cap space as well.