Miami Dolphins

Dolphins ‘take care of their own’ by locking down Branch, Stills

Re-signing Andre Branch and Kenny Stills (pictured) were high the Dolphins’ list of priorities in free agency. So far, so good. Both agreed to long-term deals hours before hitting the open market.
Re-signing Andre Branch and Kenny Stills (pictured) were high the Dolphins’ list of priorities in free agency. So far, so good. Both agreed to long-term deals hours before hitting the open market. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Just last week, Chris Grier did something remarkable for an NFL executive.

He got in front of a group of reporters, just days before free agency, and told the truth.

“You want to take care of your own,” Grier, the Dolphins’ general manager, said at the NFL Scouting Combine.

On Wednesday, he followed through.

And as a result, the 2017 Dolphins are more talented now than they were then.

Here’s why: Kenny Stills and Andre Branch, two cornerstones of their 2016 playoff team, will be back in Miami for the foreseeable future.

Both agreed to multi-year contracts Wednesday, taking them off the market just hours before the start of NFL free agency.

Branch and the Dolphins worked out a three-year, incentive-laden deal worth as much as $27 million.

That was good.

The Stills deal? Even better.

He remains a Dolphin for $8 million annually — way below what industry insiders thought he could fetch on the open market. The terms: four years, $32 million, with $20 million in guarantees.

In 2017 dollars, that’s a steal.

The talk at last week’s Combine was $10 million annually was the floor for Stills, who ranked in the top six league-wide in yards per catch (17.3) and touchdowns (9). One agent thought he could get as much as $13 million per year.

Instead, he agreed to the same contract Golden Tate signed with the Lions, adjusted for inflation.

In fact, football insiders were stunned by the terms, believing that he left significant money on the table.

The precise terms of Branch’s deal weren’t known Wednesday, but he’ll definitely get a hefty raise over 2016, when he signed a one-year, $2.7 million deal with Miami.

But the Dolphins probably didn’t have much of a choice.

Had Branch left, the Dolphins would have been in a world of hurt at edge rusher. The best options — Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram — were all retained by their own teams.

Now, the Dolphins can add a journeyman defensive end in free agency and draft one in the top three rounds and be comfortable entering the season. The draft is rich at the position.

Branch had his best professional year at the best possible time. He had a career-high 49 tackles and tallied  5 1/2 sacks, beating out Mario Williams for playing time.

Last season, Williams was the high-priced signing in the offseason. Now it’s Branch.

He hinted at the move on Twitter just an hour before the news broke and then confirmed it later.

“We just getting started. The new Miami #FinsUp,” he wrote.

The Dolphins need help, much more of it, on defense. They ranked 30th in run defense in 2016, allowing a staggering 140.4 yards per game, and were tied for last in yards per carry allowed at 4.8.

When asked at the NFL Scouting Combine last week how the Dolphins were going to fix that, coach Adam Gase replied:

“I’d like to say up front, but we’ve got a pretty good front. So we’ve got to make sure we do a good job with our linebackers. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got our safeties healthy and those guys have got to be huge contributors to what we’re going to do. We’ve got to get some more guys to help [linebacker] Kiko [Alonso] out. We’ve got to keep him healthy. I think that front four is pretty good as far as what we have right now.”

It got even better on Wednesday.

▪ The Dolphins still have yet to tender their restricted free agents, a group that includes Alonso and safety Michael Thomas.

Thursday afternoon is the deadline.

The Dolphins hope to lock Alonso down with a long-term extension instead of applying the one-year tender.

Meanwhile, they tendered four exclusive-rights free agents on Wednesday: tight end Thomas Duarte, linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Lafayette Pitts and center Anthony Steen.

Finally, the trades between the Jaguars and Dolphins that would send tight end Julius Thomas to Miami and offensive lineman Branden Albert to Jacksonville can become official on Thursday.

Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins WR, had a big catch in the fourth quarter for a touchdown but also didn't win the competition with a Buffalo Bill's defender for a long pass to him in the third quarter.

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