The Miami Dolphins severely under-utilized running back Lamar Miller over the past couple of seasons, meaning a running back, in his prime, with relatively few miles on his body is about to hit free agency. Reports have indicated the Dolphins consider Miller their top priority in trying to find a way to re-sign him, but then new yesterday seemed to change that. Ian Rapoport from NFL Media reported that the Dolphins have begun negotiations with defensive end Cameron Wake, a deal that would likely lower Wake's $9.8 million salary cap number for 2016 while providing Wake stability for years after 2016, when his current contract is set to expire.
The Dolphins would appear to be opening up salary cap space that could help them keep some of their impending free agents, like Miller, Except, all of the speculation yesterday indicated Miami could turn around and use the space generated (along with some other salary cap saving moves) to re-sign or franchise tag defensive end Olivier Vernon.
What happened to Miller being the top priority?
A move to keep Vernon does not mean the team will not keep Miller as the two moves are not mutually exclusive. The Dolphins could re-sign Vernon, then use the franchise tag on Miller. They could franchise Vernon and re-sign Miller. They could simply re-sign both. Or, they could choose to keep one and let one leave, possibly even letting both leave and using the money elsewhere.
Miller is going to be in demand this offseason, because he is a younger running back who has shown, when he is given the chance, he can break open a game. The Dolphins continually turned into a pass-only team last year, especially in the second half of contests, and Miller could be looking to leave the team, despite a coaching staff change, to find a place where he feels his talents will be better utilized.
The new coaching staff in Miami could believe they can get production out of Jay Ajayi, or they could sign another running back out of free agency (Matt Forte?). The Dolphins could be looking to not over-spend on Miller, believing he will price himself out of South Florida.
What does Wake's extension mean for Miller? Obviously, no one knows for sure, but it does feel like the move with Wake, and all the smoke surrounding the idea that Vernon will be back with the Dolphins in 2016, does make it feel like Miller may be headed elsewhere for the next season. The NFL's Around the NFL podcast selected Miller as one of the top four players likely to change teams this offseason, and that may prove to be true.
An extension for Wake simply gives the Dolphins some salary cap space, money they can use in any way they choose. Wake being extended does not have any real correlation to the future of Miller in Miami. There does seem to be some momentum toward the team bringing back Vernon over Miller right now, however.
In today's NFL, there is a common belief that running backs are interchangeable, while pass rushers are a premium. The Dolphins have a star, albeit an aging star, in Wake who is getting closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it. They may have another star in the making if Vernon can continue to perform like he did in the second half of the season, a second half that saw him fully recovered from an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1.
Miller likely wants to make sure the current coaching regime plans to use him in a manner that meets his expectations. He realizes the team did not use him nearly enough over the past few years, and it could turn him off from returning. Has he expressed those concerns to the team, and they are now looking at Vernon instead of Miller? The team should find a way to keep Miller, a running back in his prime with plenty of miles left to run, and that may start with head coach Adam Gase explaining his vision of the team's 2016 offense.
Miami could find a way to keep both Miller and Vernon, and that may be the ultimate plan, but right now, it appears, from outside the organization, Vernon may have taken over the top priority position over Miller. Wake's contract extension, which may have been the plan all along, seems to have signaled a move by the Dolphins to find the space for Vernon. The Dolphins have until March 1 to decide if they want to use the franchise tag on either player, and they have until March 9 to work out new contracts, if they do not use the tag, before the players can officially starting signing with other teams.