The Dolphins are going to make significant offensive changes this offseason – and might need to make defensive changes if this four-week regression continues - and that means evaluating all possible avenues to increase the team’s $17 million in current 2018 cap space.
And that means decisions loom on most of the team’s best and highest paid players.
Where these players stand heading into the final seven weeks:
• Ndamukong Suh. Barring something unforeseen, the Dolphins want him back next season but likely will explore lowering his $26.1 million cap hit. The Dolphins could save $12 million in 2018 space by converting that amount into a signing bonus, which would lower his hit to $14 million but come with future cap consequences. A smaller restructuring is also a possibility.
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• Jarvis Landry. From my understanding, I believe no decision has been made on his future, with the team valuing his skills but also aware that a possession receiver who’s averaging 7.7 yards per catch probably can be procured on the second day of the draft for a fraction of the $16 million Landry would cost next season with a franchise tag. That’s why the team never made a contract offer to him beyond 2017.
Landry is expected to seek something in the range of five years and more than $65 million. How the season ends – both for Miami and Landry – will determine a decision that at this point could go either way, according to a source.
• Ja’Wuan James. He has a $9.3 million 2018 cap hit if he’s on the team, nothing if he’s not. It was telling that Adam Gase declined to answer when asked if he wants James – who’s out for the rest of the season – will be back on the team next season. It was also telling that Gase mentioned James’ lack of consistency and that only three of his eight games were very good.
If new right tackle Jesse Davis plays like he did against Carolina, Miami could give the job to Davis and dump James. If Davis flops, the Dolphins likely would consider a multiyear contract offer to James with a lower base salary.
• Mike Pouncey. Has a $7.9 million base salary for 2018 and a $9 million 2018 hit if he’s on the team, but just a $2 million hit if he’s not.
At this point, he appears very likely to return barring hip problems or a major regression over the final seven games. The Dolphins believe he has been much better than Pro Football Focus’ poor run-blocking grades for him and do not want to lose the player they believe is their best lineman.
• Ryan Tannehill. Has a $19.8 million cap number for 2018 and is fully expected to return as the starter, though Gase declined to say that in an ESPN production meeting last weekend, according to Sean McDonough.
• Reshad Jones. Has an $11.5 million cap hit for 2018 but the hit would be $17 million if cut. He’s not in jeopardy, but restructuring is an option likely to be considered.
• Andre Branch. Hasn’t fully played up to the level that earned him a three-year, $24 million contract. He has no sacks in five weeks (three for the season) and just 15 tackles all season, though in his defense, he hasn’t missed a ton of tackle opportunities.
But here’s the problem: Though his $10 million 2018 cap hit is too steep, the hit is $11.9 million if he’s cut.
It would be surprising if Miami moves on, but altering the contract becomes a consideration if Branch doesn’t play well the rest of the way.
FYI: Branch, Jones, Kenny Stills and Kiko Alonso are the four highly-paid Dolphins players with a higher cap hit if they’re not on the team than if they are. So there would be no financial incentive to move on from them.
Alonso has struggled the past two weeks. His cap hit is $9.6 million if he’s on the team in 2018, but $13.2 million if he’s not.
• Cameron Wake. Has an $8.6 million cap hit if he’s on the team in 2018, just $500,000 if he’s not.
If he plays in December like he did the first five games (six sacks), then he likely stays with an $8 million base next season. If he plays like he has recently - no sacks and four tackles the past three games – then his future here will be in doubt.
• Lawrence Timmons. Hasn’t played nearly as well the past month as he did his first few games, and because his contract was restructured after he went AWOL for the opener, his return is no longer assured.
Has an $8.2 million cap hit in 2018 if he’s on the team, $2.75 million if he’s not.
• Julius Thomas. Barring an incredible final two months, he appears likely to be cut, saving the team $6.6 million in 2018 space.
So the Dolphins’ $17 million in space becomes $24.3 million if Thomas is cut, $34.3 million if Suh’s contract is restructured by about $10 million and close to $44 million if James is cut, with potential to clear more than $50 million in space with other moves.
So cap space, with Byron Maxwell’s $10 million now off the books, won’t be nearly the concern it appeared likely to be months ago. Bottom line: There will be the money to sign Landry (if Miami wants) and address guard, running back and tight end (potentially all three in the draft) and a front-seven player on defense.