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Cap-onomics, Part 2: Breaking Down the Dolphins’ Defensive Salary Cap Situation

The Miami Dolphins have several questions to answer on defense before the offseason kicks into gear, many of which pertain to the salary cap. Can they afford to keep Olivier Vernon? Will they cut veterans like Brent Grimes and Cameron Wake? How will these decisions affect the team's draft strategy? We tackle those questions here.

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If you read part one of the "Cap-onomics" series, you might have been instilled with a sense of optimism regarding the team’s performance in 2016.

On the offensive side of the ball, you’re justified in this sentiment. They are surely not as far away from success as most people would believe, based on the end result of 2015.

There should be no warm and fuzzy feeling about how the defense could look in 2016.

The Miami Dolphins’ offense will be limited in its ability to make changes this offseason, almost exclusively because the defensive unit is such a mess. The team will need new cornerbacks, linebackers, and defensive linemen. There are far more needs than there are resources with which to fill them. This means that some very difficult decisions will have to be made.

The Biggest Hits:

Ndamukong Suh will carry the largest cap hit of any defensive player in the NFL next season. His salary cap number of $28,600,000 is the second highest in the league among all players, only behind Drew Brees ($30,000,000).

Even outside of Suh, the defense is costing Miami far more money against the cap than the offense is. While four of the team’s five biggest cap hits are on offense, that side of the ball features a litany of cheap options. The defense is full of expensive players.

The Dolphins have five players on defense carrying a salary cap hit of at least $6 million; Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake ($9.8 million), Brent Grimes ($9.5 million), Reshad Jones ($8.2 million), Quinton Coples ($7.7 million), and Dion Jordan ($6.2 million).

A large problem for Miami will also be the medium-priced players. Earl Mitchell ($3.5 million), Koa Misi ($4.878 million), and Brice McCain ($3.5 million) are all players who have underperformed, and probably cannot even be justified at their current prices.

The Biggest Bargains:

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, bargains on defense are few and far between.

In 2015, Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby were their two major bargain players. However, they will be free agents before next season begins. Brent Grimes was also considered somewhat of a bargain before his drop in performance this season (and towards the end of 2014).

There are only two players on the Dolphins’ defense that should be considered bargains. While Reshad Jones carries a large $8.2 million cap hit, he can still be considered a cheap player considering his ability. The team is lucky to have secured him at his current price before his breakout 2015 season.

Jones’ cap hit ranks 5th among safeties. He will count for less money against the salary cap than Jarius Byrd, Earl Thomas, Donte Whitner, and Michael Griffin.

The other bargain for the Dolphins’ defense is Jelani Jenkins. The team’s only positive performance at linebacker in 2016 came from Jenkins, who outperformed the rest of the unit in terms of consistency and big play ability. Jenkins will count for just over $790,000 against the salary cap next season, and could very well be the only starter from the 2015 linebacker corps returning in 2016.

Moves to Clear Cap Space:

The No-Brainers:

Quinton Coples will be cut to clear cap space before the 2016 season. Coples is a very clear cap casualty, as he is set to count for over $7.7 million against the salary cap. There will be no dead money carried for cutting Coples, making the decision that much easier.

Brice McCain will also be cut in all likelihood. He was highly inconsistent in 2015, and was in and out of games frequently with injuries. The team could save $2.5 million against the cap by cutting him, alleviating a $3.5 million cap hit and absorbing $1 million of dead money.

It should also be a no brainer for Koa Misi to receive the call to Mike Tannenbaum’s office. He has a cap hit of almost $5 million, and would only cost Miami around $1.1 million in dead money. That being said, he represents a valuable way that the Dolphins can trim money off of the cap this season.

Cutting Dion Jordan:

The Dolphins’ first round draft pick from 2013 will also be in the discussion as a player who could be cut to clear cap space. The only argument for keeping Dion Jordan would be the possibility that he (for some reason) finally lives up to the potential.

However, that seems highly unlikely given his history of underperforming on and off of the football field. The only possible argument for keeping Jordan is that they might not be able to find better replacements at linebacker or defensive end. It is unclear where Vance Joseph would even play Dion Jordan if he did return, but the team could use more bodies at either linebacker or defensive end.

Jordan carries a $6.2 million cap hit, and would cost almost $3 million in dead money. The only question remains whether or not they can use that $3 million of free space to replace Jordan more effectively with another player.

Dion Jordan has been nothing but a headache for the Dolphins’ organization since his arrival, so it seems to make sense that Miami would cut ties with the embattled player out of Oregon, and seek other help with the $3 million they save against the salary cap.

Letting Olivier Vernon Walk:

The Miami Dolphins cannot afford to retain Cameron Wake and resign Olivier Vernon. There are also some serious question marks around Wake’s health following a torn Achilles given his age.

However, the Dolphins cannot afford to let Wake go. He is a leader in the locker room, and is one of the only defensive ends under contract for the 2016 season. One major reason that they cannot let Wake go is that they are almost certainly not going to retain Oliver Vernon.

Vernon stands to receive an enormously inflated contract given his free agent status. He will most likely receive an enhanced version of the contract given to Broncos’ defensive end Derek Wolfe, who signed a deal with a cap hit that escalates by about $2 million each year. In 2016, he will count for $6.8 million against the cap. By 2019, he will be making $11.425 million against the salary cap.

Free agency inflates every contract. Look back on signings that the Miami Dolphins have made, from Branden Albert to Ndamukong Suh. Regardless of the player’s ability, their value will be inflated on the open market. Even if you do not "overpay" for a player, you still pay more than you would by resigning existing talent early on; Suh is a perfect example of this. Yes, Miami paid a hefty price for the All Pro defensive tackle. However, they were justified in paying him, as he is a top player at his position.

This would mean that the Dolphins are actually better off keeping Wake, from a price perspective. They also are justified in keeping Wake based on his impact when paired with Ndamukong Suh during the stretch of time in which both players were healthy.

It also should be noted that Cameron Wake has publicly expressed his willingness to discuss restructuring his contract to help the Dolphins.

As a whole, it makes too much sense for Miami to retain Wake and let Vernon walk. By allowing Olivier Vernon to hit the free agent market, they will be saving themselves some serious money against the salary cap. It is very likely that Miami will not even offer Vernon a contract before free agency opens in March.

The Brent Grimes Question:

The Miami Dolphins’ handling of Brent Grimes this offseason will tell fans plenty about what they hope to do in this April’s draft.

The Dolphins will in all likelihood not try to replace Grimes in free agency. There are several depth players who will be available at the position, but very few high level starters. The only options that could be argued as true improvements over Grimes on the field are Janoris Jenkins, Leon Hall, and obviously Josh Norman. However, free agent cornerbacks are a very pricey proposition. The Dolphins would in all likelihood get more bang for their buck at that point by sticking with Grimes.

There are, however, two factors that could lead to Grimes being released. One is that it would save the Dolphins $6.5 million against the salary cap. Another is that there will be a series of high level cornerbacks at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft. Jalen Ramsey and Vernon Hargreaves are both top tier prospects, and chances are that one will be available at the 8th overall pick, where the Dolphins currently sit.

If Miami decides to cut Brent Grimes, they will almost certainly target a cornerback at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft.

The Master Plan:

The Dolphins will most likely need to take two seasons to rebuild their defense. This offseason, the main question asked by the front office and coaches will be one of want versus need.

The salary cap will play a large role in these decisions. For example, the team might want Olivier Vernon, but they certainly do not "need" him. No football team has 22 elite players on the field at all times. It is a balancing act. Teams must decide where they will be weak, and where they will fortify their group. So for the Dolphins, based on their salary cap, one example of a necessary decision would be to cut Brent Grimes or resign Olivier Vernon. By cutting Grimes, they would be required to draft a cornerback in the first round to play against number one receivers. However, they then would not be able to fortify the linebacker position, and would most likely have to keep Koa Misi and his multi million-dollar cap hit.

That is why it makes sense to cut Vernon. Decide what you truly need, and maximize the talent that you currently have.

You could argue that the Miami Dolphins have a desperate need for a player at almost every position. However, you can boil it down to a few key needs.

They will need to replace Olivier Vernon (with a cheaper option). They will need a cornerback to play opposite Brent Grimes. They will need at least one, but probably two more linebackers to help bolster that unit. It could also be argued that they need a safety to play opposite Reshad Jones.

That being said, the Miami Dolphins cannot afford to resign Olivier Vernon. They also cannot afford to cut Brent Grimes or Cameron Wake, due to the expense and difficulty of finding replacements.

The Skinny:

There really is no right answer for how the Miami Dolphins will rebuild the defense this offseason. They are caught in a very difficult place, as they have an extremely polarized level of talent. On one hand, they possess players like Reshad Jones and Ndamukong Suh, who can contribute to a winning defense. On the other hand, they are devoid of talent in many other spots on the defensive side of the ball.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this unit. It is simply a matter of choosing what is easier to improve in now, and push back other needs until the 2017 offseason. Ndamukong Suh makes life much easier for linebackers, which is why I advocate rebuilding that unit now.

Rebuilding the linebacking corps now would likely mean waiting until next offseason to make any major changes to the secondary. With Brent Grimes under contract for one more season, this move makes sense. The Miami Dolphins can make due with what they have at the position now, and focus on a long-term solution once the list of needs has dwindled down.

There is no shortcut for reconstructing a Dolphins’ defense that has disappointed for several seasons. The team made a series of poor offseason decisions that have set them back greatly, and now they are paying the price. However, strides can be made this offseason. If the Miami Dolphins can clear cap space, and use that available money to add players at linebacker, and possibly improve their group of cornerbacks, then there is room for improvement.

The Dolphins’ front office, most notably Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier, will surely have their hands full this offseason. They will attempt to sort through a defense that is simultaneously too expensive and severely lacking in skill. Fans should not expect a full rebuild, but the team can start removing previous mistakes from the roster, and acquiring talent to help gradually rebuild the Dolphins’ once proud defensive unit.