The Miami Dolphins are currently contemplating whether or not they should, or can, match a five-year offer sheet from the Buffalo Bills for tight end Charles Clay. The Dolphins have stated they want Clay back, and Clay has said he would like to return to Miami. At the end of the day, however, the Bills are offering Clay $38 million and it is really hard to fault a player for taking that much money. Will the Dolphins match the offer? They should.
That's right, despite all the talk about how expensive Clay becomes with the Bills offer, especially as they constructed the contract to balloon in the second year, right as Miami has the balloon-effect in Ndamukong Suh's contract as well as new deals needed for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, defensive end Olivier Vernon, and center Mike Pouncey, the Dolphins should match the offer for Clay. Why? Matching the offer gives Miami flexibility.
The Dolphins receive nothing in return for Clay if they do not match. He simply joins the Bills under the contract they just offered him. Miami would receive back the $7 million in salary cap space Clay currently fills under the transition tag, but, unlike a franchise tag, there is no draft pick compensation owed by the Bills. Losing your starting tight end, and a player who is clearly respected around the league for the talent he has, with no compensation, would hurt.
Matching the offer would keep Clay in Miami for this season. Unless, the Dolphins were to trade Clay after matching the offer. As soon as they match it, they could offer Clay to the Bills - on the exact same contract they offered him - for some form of compensation. If Buffalo balked at the deal, Miami could look to move Clay out of the division, finding a trade partner somewhere else in the league. There is an obvious risk in this idea, with the Dolphins stuck with Clay's contract if they cannot trade him.
Which brings in the second part of the flexibility. Miami can restructure Clay's contract next offseason. Yes, the Bills made Clay have a huge salary cap number in the second year of the deal. That does not mean he has to keep that cap number. The Dolphins and Clay can work out a new contract next offseason, one that pays Clay the money he would have received under the Bills' offer sheet, but more of the money is placed into a signing bonus that allows for it to be spread over several years for salary cap purposes.
Assuming another $10 million increase in the 2016 salary cap, the Dolphins are currently about $30 million under the cap, not accounting for any rollover from this season. That includes the $28.6 million Suh will account for against the cap. While the Tannehill, Pouncey, and Vernon contracts will also have to be added into the mix, if we have learned anything from this year, Dolphins Executive Vice President for Football Administration Dawn Aponte, General Manager Dennis Hickey, and Executive Vice President for Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum can be very creative in how they structure a contract against the salary cap.
Next year's offseason will also feature more moves from the Dolphins to make salary cap space. Recently signed tight end Jordan Cameron will see his salary cap number jump to $9.5 million in 2016, with a potential $7.5 million in cap savings if he were to be released. Cornerback Brent Grimes will likewise be a $9.5 million cap hit, while defensive end Cameron Wake will be $9.8 million and left tackle Branden Albert will reach $10.15 million. All of those could be restructured, lowering their cap numbers. You can add in safety Reshad Jones ($8.25 million) and Dion Jordan ($6.545 million) into that potential restructuring.
The Dolphins could even eat Clay's offer from the Bills for a year, then restructure it and consider trading him after that, if it were to make it more palatable for another team. They ate $3.6 million in salary cap space this year to trade Dannell Ellerbe, they could do something similar to make it easier to trade Clay next offseason if they needed to do it.
There are a lot of reasons why matching the Clay offer from the Bills could make sense. Will the Dolphins do it, or are they ready to proceed with Jordan Cameron, Dion Sims, and Arthur Lynch at tight end? Either answer makes sense, and either answer could be the right one. It all just comes down to however the Dolphins want to proceed. We will have an answer by Sunday.