Armando Salguero: Miami Dolphins’ quest to not overpay could slow rebuilding process

03/16/2014 12:00 AM

03/16/2014 12:08 AM

The first week of free agency has come and gone and so have the stars. NFL teams shop for the best and most expensive players early, as if they’re buying a Rolls-Royce the second it drives onto the lot.

What’s left in the free agency market is the rough equivalent of shopping for a used Chevy Impala … while trying to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.

That seems fine to the Dolphins.

New general manager Dennis Hickey, coach Joe Philbin and contract negotiator Dawn Aponte are apparently working off a strategy Hickey gave voice to the day the team introduced signature free agent signing Branden Albert:

“We always look at value,” Hickey said. “That’s what we’ve done so far, and that’s what we will continue to do. Putting a number on those things, again, we are just trying to get the best 53-man roster.”

And I close my eyes and can hear Rick Spielman or Jeff Ireland his first three years on the job before his aggressive free agency spree last March.

The Dolphins, in desperate need of an offensive line upgrade, lacking great options but replete with salary-cap space and trying to break free from the mire of mediocrity, are being very careful not to overpay.

They are watching every penny and making certain it matches up with every ounce of talent they get in return.

That sounds good and works well sometimes.

But not all the time.

Shopping for value is code for building slowly, methodically, carefully. It avoids disastrous mistakes but offers only rare home runs. And shopping for value assumes the shopper knows and judges the market correctly more often than not.

The Dolphins did that in getting Randy Starks back for what seems like a bargain two-year, $10 million deal that has an extra $2 million in incentive clauses to make the team-friendly deal seem evenhanded.

In getting this deal done, the Dolphins determined their two-time Pro Bowl player would go into free agency and find his $7.5 million-per-year initial asking price was a turn-off to other teams. And they were right. They were exactly right.

So Starks found himself returning to the Dolphins and saying this: “It could be worse. I could be out on the street, but for the most part I’m glad to be back.”

Advantage: Hickey, Philbin and Aponte.

The flip side of the value-shopping equation, however, is a picture of Miami’s offensive line.

The Dolphins’ 2013 offensive line was the worst and most disastrous unit ever fielded in team history. That’s saying a lot because Miami was once an expansion franchise and the latter day offensive line problems date back nearly a decade.

And yet after starting fast and strong, signing Albert about three seconds after agreements were allowed, the Dolphins seemingly stopped to consider value and as a result have not fixed their most outstanding problem.

The team liked Denver guard Zane Beadles. But whereas the Dolphins were seeking a value contract for the player, the more eager (and desperate) Jacksonville Jaguars swooped in and signed Beadles for $6 million per season.

That’s a lot of money. It’s right tackle money. But that was the Beadles market and the Dolphins didn’t see value in it. So the Jaguars filled their need with a very good player whereas the Dolphins chased but didn’t catch the prize.

The Dolphins instead shopped for value at guard by getting project player and sometimes Rams starter Shelley Smith for $5.5 million over two years ($2.75 million-per-year average). He might be good. He might not. He offers no certainty.

Meanwhile, Geoff Schwartz ($4.2 million average) definitely will be a starting guard for the Giants and Jon Asamoah ($4.5 million) definitely will be a starting guard for the Falcons.

Miami also has not addressed the right tackle position. Austin Howard got $6 million per year from the Raiders to play right tackle.

Miami’s inability to land a right tackle forced Hickey to plead with New Orleans tackle Zach Strief to visit the Dolphins as a lead-up to a contract. Strief is 30 years old and doesn’t have a contract. He wants to return to the Saints but they have limited salary-cap space now.

Strief declined the invite anyway.

Me? I would have paid — and, yes, overpaid — for Beadles and Howard to go along with Albert. The left side of my line would today be very expensive but also be set for the next half-decade while center Mike Pouncey and Howard at right tackle could insulate a coming rookie at right guard.

I saw the Dolphins give up a league-high 58 sacks and last season. I saw precious few holes for the running game. I would have fixed that line by signing the three best available free agents the first week of free agency before other teams scooped them up.

And I would have gladly paid for it.

But that’s not the Miami way. The Dolphins didn’t want to overspend. They wanted value.

So now Hickey either has to spend two draft picks — for a guard and right tackle — or find a stopgap player such as Tyson Clabo, Eric Winston or someone of that ilk to play right tackle. If the GM invests a draft pick on a right tackle, it probably would have to be an early pick (rounds 1-3) because not many right tackles drafted in the fourth through seventh rounds are good enough fast enough to start as rookies.

So how’s that value strategy looking through that prism?

Going for value, the Dolphins also let known quantity Nolan Carroll hit free agency — without a contract offer, the player told me. Carroll had four teams interested and wound up signing with the Eagles for two years and $3.65 million.

So the player who started 22 games for Miami over the past two years — more than any other corner during that time — wasn’t worth $1.85 million a year?

I’m not saying Carroll should be paid as a starter. He shouldn’t be a starter. He’s a 27-year-old, No. 3 cornerback who can start occasionally in a pinch. That’s not worth $1.85 million per year?

Instead, the Dolphins signed 30-year-old Cortland Finnegan after he was cut by Jeff Fisher — who knows him better than anyone in the NFL — for perhaps twice as much as Carroll got.

It could be argued Finnegan at his best was a much better cornerback than Carroll. Except Finnegan hasn’t been at his best since 2011. The past two years, Carroll has played better.

So where is the value?

I would have re-signed Carroll, passed on Finnegan, saved the sum difference and drafted a cornerback

None of this says the Dolphins are being cheap. It’s impossible to say they’re cheap when they gave Albert $20 million in guaranteed money. But in declining to extend themselves to address the offensive line, they are sending their fans a message.

That message is they’re going to take a thoughtful, careful approach in judging value. And fans in return should take a thoughtful, careful approach in judging the value of buying a game ticket.

About Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero

@ArmandoSalguero

Armando Salguero has covered South Florida sports since 1982. He's covered the Dolphins since 1990. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and annually votes on the Associated Press All-Pro team. He has worked nationally for ESPN and also writes general sports columns for the Miami Herald.

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