Miami Dolphins

March 16, 2014

Miami Dolphins put down payment on future, but did they upgrade?

The Dolphins spent freely during the first week of free agency. Branden Albert is a clear improvement at left tackle, but questions surround the other newcomers.

The Dolphins were expected to spend big this spring.

Through the first week of free agency, they haven’t disappointed.

Since the start of March, the Dolphins have signed seven players to contracts worth roughly $115 million, with more than $50 million guaranteed.

And yet, some in league circles privately wonder whether they are noticeably better than they were when the 2013 season ended.

Left tackle Branden Albert is an improvement over any offensive lineman on last season’s roster, with the possible exception of Mike Pouncey. Remember, last season’s offensive line gave up 58 sacks.

But in other key areas — particularly the secondary — there are as many questions as answers. Does Cortland Finnegan still have it? Can Louis Delmas stay healthy? Will Earl Mitchell make people forget about Paul Soliai?

Of course, the initial wave of free agency is just the first step. There are still bargains to be found (the Dolphins didn’t sign Brent Grimes until the third week of the league year in 2012), and this is expected to be one of the strongest drafts in the past decade.

“We are confident we are going to build and are in the process of building a championship team,” general manager Dennis Hickey said last week. “We are going to keep adding pieces and keep developing the pieces that are already here. We feel like we have a quality team, and we will keep adding to that again trying to get the best 53-man roster and building it that way.”

Here’s how the Dolphins have done so far:

Offensive line

Gained: Albert, Shelley Smith, conditional 2015 draft pick via trade.

Lost: Jonathan Martin, Tyson Clabo, Bryant McKinnie, Richie Incognito, John Jerry.

Albert was the best tackle on the market, and his contract (five years, $47 million with $26 million guaranteed) proved it. He is much stronger in pass protection than Martin (traded) and McKinnie (not re-signed), who allowed a combined 14 sacks at left tackle with the Dolphins in 2013.

Plus, concerns over Albert’s back are overblown, according to a league source. He had back spasms in Kansas City, but has been fine for more than a year.

“Albert is a major upgrade,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said.

Smith is a bit of unknown. He was used sparingly in St. Louis last season, but was solid in run blocking when he played. At two years, $5.5 million, Smith is a bargain.

Furthermore, this might be a case of addition by subtraction. Smith visited the Patriots and Dolphins in the first week. No one is exactly burning up the phone lines for Incognito or Jerry, two of the Dolphins’ three accused bullies.

Miami still needs a right tackle, but with Zach Strief likely returning to New Orleans, perhaps they won’t find one until the draft.

Cornerback

Gained: Finnegan.

Re-signed: Brent Grimes.

Lost: Nolan Carroll, Dimitri Patterson, R.J. Stanford.

Keeping Grimes was a must. He was their best and most consistent defensive player in 2013, and was rewarded with a trip to Hawaii and a fat new contract.

But keeping your own isn’t exactly upgrading, particularly when two players who started games in 2013 — Carroll and Patterson — were shown the door. Carroll signed with the Eagles; Patterson was cut for financial reasons, although he could return at the right price.

The real wild card: Finnegan, who in the span of two years went from one of the league’s best starting corners to one regularly picked on in coverage. He said Friday that he’s past his injury issues and is eager to prove his worth.

“A hungry Cortland Finnegan is very intriguing due to the fact that he is opposite Grimes, so they will go at him,” former Dolphins linebacker-turned-radio host Channing Crowder said. “They will go at him. Hopefully he is humbled by the release [from the Rams] and wants to prove something.”

Safety

Gained: Delmas.

Lost: Chris Clemons.

Another gamble, but this time because of health issues. Clemons was an ironman for the Dolphins, often playing more than 90 snaps in a game (defense and special teams).

Delmas has dealt with knee issues for some time, and missed 13 total games from 2011 through 2012. However, he appeared in every game a season ago, and played well.

In fact, their metrics from 2013 are surprisingly similar.

Clemons, who remains a free agent, allowed 52.4 percent of passes thrown against him to be completed for two touchdowns and a passer rating of 82.8. Delmas: 43.8 percent, four touchdowns and 79.8.

Defensive tackle

Gained: Mitchell.

Re-signed: Randy Starks.

Lost: Soliai.

The Dolphins were never going to match the five-year, $32 million contract Soliai got from Atlanta.

Instead, they used that money to re-sign Starks — which Jeremiah called important — and bring in Mitchell.

Starks was a surprise value retention; he had hoped for more money elsewhere. But he quickly found the market just wasn’t there, which was surprising, considering Pro Football Focus called him the seventh-best defensive tackle in football a season ago.

Losing Soliai presumably would further weaken a run defense that last season allowed 1,998 yards, which ranked 24th in the league.

But Mitchell was hailed by ESPN’s Bill Polian as the best defensive tackle on the market this year, and is younger (26) and more athletic than Soliai. Plus, he played out of position with the Texans, so some expect his sack total to spike in Miami.

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