Greg Cote: Hopeful days are here again as Miami Dolphins start strong in free agency

03/13/2014 12:01 AM

07/24/2014 5:49 PM

The calloused curmudgeon’s view of NFL free agency is that it is overblown and overrated, nobody can be sure of how much any team really improved, and, therefore, fans shouldn’t get too excited.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Dolphins have done well so far in the first stage of the sport’s open market, and Miami fans should feel good, guilt-free.

I’m not starting a “Su-per Bowl!” chant here. I’m saying the Dolphins are a better team today than they were when the week started, and that new general manager Dennis Hickey — the guy they settled for after a tortured search wrought with rejections — shows encouraging early signs of competence. Like he’s ready for this. Like he’s up to it.

Bullygate shrinks by degrees in the rear-view mirror as the Dolphins move forward. The air feels fresh. I’m not leading a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” either. I’m saying that, perhaps, hopeful days finally are here again.

You have to love what has become of the Dolphins’ No. 71 jersey this week, as a symbol of that fresh air and positive change.

The old occupant, Jonathan Martin, the accusing principle in the bullying scandal, was traded away for a low draft pick.

The new occupant, Branden Albert, spoke Wednesday at his introductory news conference of “leading a new era” of Dolphins football.

Miami’s upgrade from Martin to Albert at the left tackle spot is an extreme and colossally needed makeover at a key position — something that, by itself, makes this a plus-free agency for the Dolphins.

Some of the team took Albert out for a meal Wednesday night.

“Probably the happiest person at the dinner table was Ryan Tannehill,” Hickey said.

After Tannehill endured a league-high and franchise-record-worst 58 sacks last season, you have to imagine the mere sight of Albert, 6-5 and 316 pounds and fresh off a Pro Bowl season for the Chiefs, is making even the young quarterback’s deepest bruises magically disappear.

Albert describes his main job perfectly:

“Quarterback’s got to be upright to do his job,” he said.

The Dolphins on Wednesday also introduced new defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, 26, who last year led all NFL interior D-linemen in tackles.

Miami also has upgraded at free safety in signing veteran Louis Delmas.

And Hickey’s early free agent bounty included two valuable Dolphins free agent defenders who were re-signed: Cornerback Brent Grimes and, on Wednesday, defensive tackle Randy Starks.

Maybe in an ideal world we’d all take three years to analyze every team’s personnel moves in the clarity of hindsight. See, but I’m not writing for a set of encyclopedias, and fans aren’t posing for an oil painting. We’re all moving in real time, in the real world, where even instant analysis can feel tardy.

So teams act and we react, and in the case of free agency none of us need feel guilty about immediate conclusion-drawing or excitement.

Don’t get me wrong. Certain instant analysis in football IS rather silly. Like when a college’s recruiting class is immediately graded and ranked based on the unreliable pedigree of a bunch of unpredictable 17-year-olds. Or when an NFL team drafts Who’s That From Where’s That in the sixth round, and fans who’d never heard of him get all excited because Mel Kiper Jr., guessing, called it a “value pick.”

With free agency, though, these are known quantities with track records.

We know that Albert is cornerstone-quality at the team’s position of absolute greatest need, “a targeted guy from the first day I got here,” Hickey called him.

We know that getting Mitchell and keeping Starks gives Miami what looks like it could be an excellent (not good, excellent) defensive line.

We know that keeping Grimes and adding Delmas makes the secondary look at least three-quarters solid.

Hickey’s work is far from finished.

The Dolphins need to add at least one more starter on the offensive line and perhaps two more in free agency and, as I wrote in Tuesday’s paper, I’d love to see them bring in a young, veteran running back such as Ben Tate.

(I’d not put much stock in the tantalizing speculation about making a play for cornerback Darrelle Revis. He’d break the bank. But it IS fun to think about!)

Hickey’s priorities seem to be on the mark so far, and needs left unfulfilled in free agency over the next couple of months are why God invented the NFL Draft in May — the second half of Hickey’s early challenge, his onus and opportunity.

The club’s free agency news conference Wednesday at the Davie headquarters happened to be held in the team’s main meeting room, where you couldn’t help notice that one wall is dominated by giant team photos of the club’s Super Bowl-champion 1972 and ’73 teams.

Oddly yet appropriately, the photos are not full color but sepia-toned, as if to convey how old they are.

Seeing a new team picture up there, in full color, starts in the hands of Hickey, coach Joe Philbin and Tannehill. Urgency had better be great, because patience will be short. In the worst-to-first NFL, rebuilding is an archaic word, and teams that finish 8-8 had better be pointed north to contention.

“We’re confident we’re in the process of building a championship team,” Hickey said Wednesday.

“We’re going to get there; I feel confident,” owner Stephen Ross said.

You cannot get there without what this week has been for the Dolphins:

A start. Progress.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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