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Free agency grades from ESPN crush Dolphins re-signing Stills, Branch

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San Francisco 49ers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

I know this will shock you all, but ESPN does not like something that the Miami Dolphins did. Last year, they were panned for allowing players like Olivier Vernon, Lamar Miller, and Reshard Matthews to leave via free agency. This year, it is time to criticize the team for keeping their own free agents. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is “grading” the free-agent deals as they are announced.

In other words, it is time to throw out the hot takes as quickly as possible.

For the Dolphins’ two re-signings, keeping defensive end Andre Branch and wide receiver Kenny Stills, Barnwell gives both moves “D+” grades. Essentially, he takes issue with the amount of money - without actually knowing the details of one contract and just the basic layout of the other - Miami was willing to spend to keep their own players in house.

Of the Branch signing, Barnwell writes:

“Let's review: The Dolphins have one of the league's most expensive defensive lines, anchored by two elite players in Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake...You would think that the Dolphins would figure that most players are going to look effective playing next to two Hall of Fame-caliber defenders and allow Branch to leave while signing the next buy-low opportunity to play alongside Suh and Wake. Instead, the Dolphins paid a hefty premium to keep Branch around, giving him $27 million over three years. Much depends on the structure of this deal, but in a draft exceedingly deep in pass-rushers, Miami likely overpaid to hold onto a player whom it could have replaced at a fraction of the cost.”

There is no guaranteed money known in Branch’s contract yet, so even trying to criticize the deal is a little premature. Miami has proven in recent years that they can structure contracts to provide guaranteed money early in the deal, keep salary cap numbers low, then give the team an escape if needed later in the contract. Assuming that the Dolphins somehow overpaid for Branch without a way out of the contract is not knowing anything about the way Miami has worked out their recent contracts.

In 2015, Vernon recorded 7.5 sacks for the Dolphins, then signed a contract averaging $17 million with the New York Giants. In 2016, Branch recorded 5.5 sacks for the Dolphins, then signed a contract averaging $9 million per season. I guess those two sacks were worth the extra $8 million per season.

The Stills write up from Barnwell was much longer, so we will only pull some excerpts. He writes of Miami agreeing to a four-year, $32 million contract, with $20 million guaranteed, with Stills:

Although Stills didn't get the $12 million per year his agents were trying to set as a baseline in the media, the former Saints receiver won't be too upset about the offer he's taking home. Miami shelled out $20 million in guarantees as part of a four-year, $32 million deal to bring its third wideout back to South Florida...The Dolphins are bringing back a player coming off a nine-touchdown season, one that isn't supported by his usage rate and is almost guaranteed to regress toward the mean...Unless the Dolphins target Stills more, he isn't going to offer much of a return on this deal. Where are those targets coming from? Jarvis Landry probably isn't going anywhere. DeVante Parker has at least two years left on his rookie deal and has looked brilliant when healthy. The Dolphins committed to a run-heavy approach once Jay Ajayi got the starting job last season...Mike Tannenbaum is paying for the player the Dolphins want Stills to be, which is something approximating DeSean Jackson. At 24, Stills could develop into that sort of player, but he hasn't been that guy yet in his career...That's a guy worth taking a shot on, but even in this inflated market, $20 million in guarantees is an exorbitant sum. The Dolphins are spending hand-over-fist to bring back players such as Andre Branch and Stills, under the logic that they're talented, young, core pieces on what was a playoff team last season...This isn't a budding contender that needs to be kept together at all costs. It's a team that could have used the compensatory pick that would have come from letting Stills leave while signing somebody such as Torrey Smith to stretch the field at a fraction of the cost.

Barnwell seems to believe that it is more prudent to just keep getting one- or two-year rental players rather than keeping your own player in your system and letting the team grow. Miami should have let Branch leave and just found a cheaper defensive end as a replacement, and they should have let Stills leave and found a cheaper wide receiver. Never mind Miami needing to place themselves in position to have a pass rusher for whenever Cameron Wake retires and they still likely need to address another defensive end this offseason. Never mind that quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Stills have worked together for two years and the fruit of that work was just starting to bloom last year. It is much better to go out and get the cheaper players that will need time to develop rather than continuing to develop and build on success from last year.

Coming up with grades for free agent signings immediately after they happen - without even knowing the details of the contract in some cases - is odd. Giving the Miami Dolphins D+ grades for both the Branch and the Stills re-signings is just trashing the team for no apparent reason.