The Miami Dolphins are facing a tough offseason, especially when it comes to the 2024 NFL free agency period. The Dolphins are projected to be around $50-$55 million over the salary cap, before they begin adding any additional players to their roster. With little room to maneuver right now, the team could be facing an offseason in which some of their key players walk away in free agency. According to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, the Dolphins are slated to have two of the top 15 free agents on the market this year, and with another ranking in the top 50.
Bowen released on Tuesday his ranking of the top 50 players who will be free agents when the new league year begins on March 13. While things can change over the next six weeks, with teams able to negotiate contract extensions and the franchise tag period still looming, Miami’s salary cap situation is a tough one this year. Moves could be made to create space, but the Dolphins would be kicking the can down the road, knowing they will eventually have to pay whatever guaranteed money they move around. The team has to figure out a way to create salary cap flexibility while preventing huge pieces of their roster from walking out the door.
The first of those is Bowen’s fifth-ranked free agent this year, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Of Wilkins, Bowen writes, “Wilkins has the position versatility to produce in multiple NFL fronts; he can align as a 3-technique, play nose tackle or even slide to the edge. He’s an explosive mover off the ball with the lateral juice to impact both the run and pass defense. Wilkins recorded 9 sacks, 35 pressures and 63 tackles this season.”
Wilkins and the Dolphins could not agree on a contract before the 2023 season, with the player choosing to bet on himself to get a higher value on his next contract. He won that bet and could be demanding elite-level defensive tackle money this offseason. Can Miami afford to keep Wilkins with their salary cap issues? Can they afford to let him leave, knowing how big a piece of the defense he represents?
The Dolphins could look to use the franchise tag on Wilkins, ensuring he is with the team in 2024, but that would result in nearly $20 million allocated for Wilkins, an allocation that would immediately hit the cap and would be fully guaranteed. Miami’s $55 million salary cap problem would become a $75 million issue, and the Dolphins would still not have the space to sign anyone else.
Would placing the franchise tag on Wilkins create a worse negotiating situation in trying to find a long-term contract for the defensive lineman, one that keeps him in Miami while also bringing down his salary cap impact for 2024?
All those questions surrounding Wilkins, but he is not the only top-tier player who could find a new home. According to Bowen’s rankings, Dolphins guard Robert Hunt will be the 14th-best free agent on the market this year. He explains, “At 6-foot-6 and 322 pounds, Hunt has the movement ability to mirror and win in pass pro, where he registered an 89.6% pass block win rate this season. He’s a fit for multiple run schemes, too; he can reach and climb as a zone blocker or displace defenders on gap concepts.”
Miami’s offensive line was an issue all season, largely because they never had one set offensive line. Injuries forced a constant rotation of players, and, while they were solid for the most part, the changes still had an impact on the offense, especially with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s comfort with the pass protection. Hunt was limited to 11 games this season and his absence was immediately noticed when he was not on the field. The Dolphins have to solve their offensive line issues and losing Hunt would not be a step in the right direction.
Hunt is not the only offensive lineman for the Dolphins to appear on Bowen’s list. He lists center Connor Williams as the 43rd-ranked free agent scheduled to be available this season - and admits Williams would be higher if not for an injury. Bowen writes, “A December torn ACL drops Williams here, but he was stellar for the Dolphins with a 93.9% pass block win rate before the injury. He counters his lack of power and anchor with the movement skills to play as a positional blocker. Williams is also very good in space, creating positive angles to cut off defenders.”
Miami originally signed Williams as a free agent ahead of the 2022 season, moving him from the left guard position he played with the Dallas Cowboys to center. As he has grown into the position, he has become one of the top centers in the league. His injury is a factor in his free agency, however, and if the Dolphins were to re-sign him, they likely would still need a center to start the season while Williams continues to rehabilitate his knee. The injury could bring the market down on Williams, suppressing his salary some.
Both Hunt and Williams would appear to be key pieces to the offensive line, and could be for several years to come. Hunt will be 28 when the season opens in September, while Williams will be 27. They are both young enough that the Dolphins could look to build the offensive line around them - assuming they are healthy. Miami may have to find the space to retain both Hunt and Williams, but any space they take is more space the Dolphins do not have to sign other players.
The Dolphins need to bolster a roster that qualified for the playoffs in 2023-2024 but ended the season with a three-game losing streak including their Wild Card loss to the Super Bowl-bound Kansas City Chiefs. The team appears to be all-in on trying to win now, but they have to find the balance between using more salary cap space in retaining their own players and providing space to add new players.
Whatever the do this offseason, keeping top talent and building around it would be the best option. Wilkins, Hunt, and Williams would all seem to be top talents they should be trying to keep.