When the Miami Dolphins signed accomplished veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons as an unrestricted free agent last offseason, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Timmons, 31, was obviously old enough to have a decade of NFL experience behind him, but he wasn’t so old as to seem beyond reclamation. The Dolphins liked how Timmons showed up on tape. They liked his toughness. They liked his history with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which included a good outing against Miami in last season’s playoffs.
The Dolphins liked Timmons so much they outbid the Steelers for him. They gave him a two-year contract that would average $6 million per season with $11 million fully guaranteed, but they convinced themselves it was a bargain because the deal didn’t approach Dont’a Hightower money.
Hightower, the younger, better New England Patriots linebacker, was also a free agent and he wanted a $10 million to $11 million-a-year deal. Eventually Hightower re-signed with the Patriots for $8.375 million per year on a four-year, $33.5 million contract.
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So signing Timmons, which sources within the team admitted at the time was a stopgap move (and an expensive one), didn’t seem wrong.
Now we’re seeing Timmons playing less at a time the Dolphins defense has been struggling and needs him most. Now we’re seeing Timmons blowing run plays way more often than coaches are willing to excuse. Now we’re seeing Timmons hurt the overall defense because other players see him out of position and run to cover for him, thus getting themselves out of position.
None of this even gets into the whole season-opening AWOL thing. You remember that, right?
The Dolphins have moved on from that, but I haven’t because it mattered. It set a tone. It added to this season’s drama and not in a good way.
It also hurt the Dolphins’ brand and reputation, making them look like something of a clown show.
How else to describe it when a signature free agent addition leaves without telling anyone the day before the regular-season opener and is found late at night at an airport trying to catch a flight back home to, wait for it, Pittsburgh?
And then we find out he had earlier been hanging out with his Pittsburgh people and telling former teammates he made a mistake coming to Miami.
The Dolphins suspended Timmons for one game so he missed a total two to start the season. The suspension was short because coaches really like and respect (how?) Timmons.
Those same coaches, by the way, have lately cut playing time for Timmons.
Timmons two games ago went from playing 100 percent of the downs to 83 percent against Tampa Bay and 76 percent against New England. The reason is the Dolphins believe Timmons has worn down as the season has worn on.
The guy has played two fewer games than every other starter on defense but he’s wearing down to the point it’s evident in his play. And that’s when he lines up right.
Which is another thing.
Timmons, obviously quite familiar and comfortable with the Steelers system he played in for a decade, has struggled to learn all his assignments in Miami. Last week against New England, for example, he lined up wrong before the play even began on what turned out to be a 22-yard run by Patriots running back Dion Lewis.
Timmons was responsible for a couple of mental mistakes in that New England loss.
That doesn’t mean the Dolphins hate Timmons. They might release him next offseason but they don’t hate the guy.
What this Timmons episode should do, however, is serve as a cautionary tale the Dolphins should carry into next offseason.
Here’s what the team should learn from this: Signing stopgap players is not wrong. The Dolphins have way too many needs to address all of them in the next draft, so more stopgap players might be necessary. Frankly, some stopgap players pay dividends.
But signing a 31-year-old, well-worn free agent, who has played all his life in one system and isn’t the greatest practice player, and then paying him significant money, should give the team pause next time the temptation strikes.
Look, the Dolphins continue to rebuild while trying to be competitive. That’s their philosophy. It has never led anyone to an NFL championship, but that’s their philosophy.
The problem is the pressure of trying to stay competitive while everyone understands the roster’s foundation is still shaky leads to teams reaching in free agency.
They reach for Adrian Peterson after he’s cut from Minnesota. They reach for Anquan Boldin at 36 years old. They sign Vince Wilfork after the Patriots have used him up.
There should be two fundamental free agency rules that Fake GM Mando has won many Super Bowls using that the Dolphins should adopt:
Your free agent signees should be getting paid for the first time. In other words, they should be 24-, 25-, 26-year-olds coming out of their rookie contracts. Those are the players, assuming they’re really good, that you pay handsomely in free agency.
Free agents that are looking for a third contract — the 30, 31, 32-year-olds — can also be signed. They still have value. But only if they don’t get paid. Those guys should get cheap deals, prove-it deals, stopgap deals.
The Dolphins broke both rules with Timmons.
They signed a 31-year-old stopgap free agent. And they gave him a significant contract on top of that.
And now the Dolphins have a run-down linebacker they paid to be a three-down linebacker who busts assignments, missed his old team early in the season, is wearing down late in the season and may or may not be on the team next season.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero