In the Spring of 2015 the Miami Dolphins looked around the unrestricted free agency market and decided to go big. Way big. House-sized man big.
The team lured and caught perhaps the biggest fish in the ocean of available defensive players in Ndamukong Suh.
After everyone within the organization with any significant say, including owner Stephen Ross, applauded the move, even as we learned it came at a very steep price. The Dolphins made Suh the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. The Dolphins signed him to such a whopping deal that it competed with the game’s better quarterbacks -- you know, the foundational playmakers who throw TD passes for a living.
The Suh deal, worth $114,375,000 over six years, was so huge it had immediate financial implications. And now, two years later, it continues to weigh heavily on the Dolphins salary cap considerations as Suh in 2017 will carry the second-highest cap cost on the team at $19.1 million, behind only quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s $20.3 million cap cost.
And this brief recount of history matters today -- as the Dolphins join 31 other NFL teams reaching out and trying to convince the 2017 crop of free agents to sign with them -- because the philosophy that drove the team to sign Suh 24 months ago is officially dead in Miami.
The philosophy is not even gasping and wheezing, hoping to be ventilated.
Because between 2015 and 2017, the organization, under a new coach, and new general manager and new approach from executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, has come to the realization that their roster is not one player away from winning a championship. It is not one head-turning move in free agency from turning the franchise’s fortunes.
Indeed, if you stop and think, the Dolphins may have more holes to fill this year than last season or maybe even the season before.
So rather than paying perhaps the most expensive available free agent the highest contract possible and grabbing headlines, the Dolphins are saying publicly and privately they’re going to take a much more measured approach in free agency.
They probably will not sign the king of free agency this spring. But they hope to land a couple of dukes and maybe two or three earls and other esteemed noblemen. (Yeah, I’m on a Victoria kick recently).
“...I don't think spending to the cap every year is what you have to do to be successful,” Grier said last week. “I mean, you look at some of the teams that are winning, they're not spending (to the cap). Here, for so long, we always, you know, (signed) the big fish, go out and spend all the money on everybody and for us, we're just trying to build the team the right way and trying to spread it out now with us.
“I don't think ... We have no set plan in terms of how much we're going to spend but we're just working right now on our plan of who we're going to target in free agency.”
The shift away from the mega-deal signing was apparent last year. This year the pendulum is expected to continue swinging away from using the big-money-for-big-name approach -- again, if what the team is saying privately and publicly is to be believed.
And, no disrespect to Suh, but he is the case study for why the philosophy shift is happening.
In the past two seasons Suh has, by practically every standard, been a good addition for the Dolphins. He’s played hard. He’s stayed healthy. He has done his job and been among the better players at his position in the league.
And what was the tangible result of that?
Well, for one, the Dolphins run defense -- which the investment in Suh was supposed to address -- got worse.
The run defense allowed 121.1 yards per game and was ranked No. 24 in 2014 before Suh arrived. It deteriorated to 126.3 rush yards allowed per game and 28th in the NFL in 2015, and last year was an unacceptable 140.4 rush yards allowed per game and 30th in the NFL.
Now, that is not solely Suh’s fault. Indeed, he seemed to be doing his part to avert the crisis on most game days. But the idea of paying (overpaying?) one individual to address a community problem clearly is misguided.
The idea has sprung as many leaks as the Miami run defense.
Maybe, just maybe, signing three solid players instead of one star to address as big a problem as run defense would have been the wiser approach. We’ll never know. But obviously the Dolphins think so because they are changing course on their 2015 approach.
And this: While the Dolphins expended enormous resources to put Suh on their line and wreak havoc on the rest of the NFL, it was common that he did not factor in the outcome of games. Indeed, there were multiple games where the opposition used minimum salary, or low salary, or even rookie undrafted free agents to double team Suh and practically erase him from plays, series, and even games.
So Miami’s huge investment was negated by a team dedicating much fewer resources at the point of attack to do so.
And that is another part of Miami’s evolving free agency philosophy this offseason:
I’ve been told when/if the Dolphins do spend big dollars on players, it will go to players who impact games.
The Dolphins want people who score touchdowns and change the direction of games on defense heading their salary cap structure. They don’t want defensive tackles or offensive linemen as their highest paid players.
Those are the players the Dolphins want to pay top dollar to if it comes to that.
Not guards. Not defensive tackles -- beyond Suh, which is a contract Miami currently cannot escape.
So forget the big salaried grunts.
Quality players at those grunt positions will be rewarded, too. But they cannot continue to head the Miami salary cap structure as if they are the ones that determine outcome of games.
This, by the way, is solid logic. I agree with this logic. Good for the Dolphins.
And now you have crossed the line in this column from the news gathering and explanatory phase to my opinion. (Please remember I don’t know anything).
Extremely fake GM Mando understands the Dolphins’ evolving philosophy and generally approves. But ...
I’m wondering exactly how the Dolphins are going to apply their thinking. To wit:
The Dolphins need linebackers. Everyone knows that. Everyone also knows perhaps the best linebacker in free agency is Dont’a Hightower.
And I believe he’s a playmaker despite the fact he doesn’t catch or throw TD passes and isn’t likely to be returning an interception for a TD, either.
He makes plays that gets the defense off the field and he does this consistently. If you don’t believe me, watch a replay of Super Bowl 51.
So does he qualify as a playmaker in the Dolphins new thinking?
I don’t know.
He certainly does in my mind. I really like this player. A lot.
I wish the Dolphins would get him in free agency. I prefer to have him -- a three-down linebacker on defense over a one-dimensional Kenny Stills on offense. If it comes down to paying one or the other, I pick Hightower because I want a tougher team, a bigger team, a team with players who know how to win.
But I’ve been told that is not likely the direction the Dolphins are headed.
The Dolphins love Kenny Stills and are going to continue working the problem of his cost to get him to remain in Miami. And that likely means no splurges like, you know, a great linebacker addition to a depleted linebacker corps.
So Hightower to the Dolphins is unlikely unless something significant happens -- such as the player’s price point or Miami’s approach changing radically in the coming days
The chances of this happening are so small it makes me weep.
Apparently the Dolphins do not believe they are one player away from competing for a championship (and they are not). And if they sign Hightower, they cannot sign two or three other guys.
The new Miami philosophy is to sign two or three moderately priced singles hitters rather than Hank Aaron.
(Except it will cost a chance at Dont’a Hightower).
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero