With his team the ultimate long shot for a playoff berth, Dolphins coach Adam Gase made clear on Monday why his players should be highly motivated for Miami’s final two games (at Kansas City, home to Buffalo):
“I would hope they would be very motivated,” Gase said. “They are playing for their jobs.”
Does Gase weigh the last two games a good deal in offseason personnel evaluations?
“Yeah, I think you do,” he said.
Among positions where the final two games could help give Miami some clarity on looming personnel decisions:
▪ Backup quarterback: Even though the Dolphins remain committed to Ryan Tannehill as their starter for 2018 — he’s healing well from August knee surgery — the notion of bringing back Jay Cutler as well next season had not been ruled out as of last week, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.
Let’s say Cutler plays well or even decently the final two weeks. Then Miami faces a potential decision about whether to approach Cutler or Matt Moore to be Tannehill’s backup next season. Cutler and Moore are impending free agents.
There are serious possible obstacles with a Cutler return if Miami pursues that. For starters, it’s unclear if Cutler would be content being a backup. It’s also highly questionable if he could find a starting job anywhere in the league.
It’s also unclear if Cutler would settle for a vast reduction in his $10 million salary. Veteran backups earn far less than what Cutler made this season, with Moore averaging $1.75 million per year in a soon-to-be-expiring two-year deal, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and Washington’s Colt McCoy make $3 million annually and Jacksonville’s Chad Henne $4 million.
If Cutler had any interest in being a backup here, he likely would seek a deal worth at least — if not more than — what Nick Foles is making in Philadelphia (two years, $11 million).
But spending even $6 million on Cutler combined with Tannehill’s $17.5 salary next season would be an awfully high allocation at that position. Moore ultimately could be the cheaper, better option. This decision will be made in the offseason, and Cutler’s last impression could have an impact.
▪ Linebacker: Miami must decide whether to retain Lawrence Timmons, who has played well at times, poorly at others and is rated 60th among 104 linebackers by Pro Football Focus.
Cutting him would be tempting because he has an $8.2 million cap hit in 2018 if he’s on the team, $2.75 million if he’s not.
The Dolphins also must decide if they can project rotational type roles for Stephone Anthony (has played decently in 66 defensive snaps) and fill-in starting middle linebacker Chase Allen (139 snaps). “Both those guys have done a good job for the most part,” Gase said. “There have been a few times where things have happened where you wish they would make the play or do something different. Those have been a couple guys that have been positives for us. Consistent too.”
▪ Where to put Jesse Davis: He has filled in competently for Jermon Bushrod at right guard the past four games and also can play right tackle. The sense is he has impressed enough to enter the offseason as a front-runner to start at one of those spots.
But which one? If the Dolphins play him at right tackle, they can save $9.3 million by cutting Ja’Wuan James. Gase said Monday he has seen enough of Davis at right tackle to know what he can do there.
“I feel good about what we’ve seen at both spots,” Gase said. “We knew there would be growing pains. The more experience he gains, the better it’s going to get.”
▪ Tight end: It’s doubtful that Miami retains Julius Thomas and impending free agent Anthony Fasano, but the question is whether the Dolphins keep either. Thomas, whose season has been generally disappointing, has a $6.6 million 2018 cap hit if he’s on the team, nothing if he’s cut. Even if Miami wanted him back, it likely would be with a lower salary.
The class of impending free agent tight ends isn’t very good beyond Seattle’s Jimmy Graham (52 catches, 472 yards, nine touchdowns). Among others also scheduled for free agency: Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert (had season-ending back surgery in October), Carolina’s Ed Dickson (28 catches, 415 yards), the Jets’ Austin Seferian-Jenkins (46-336) and two players who have played for Gase — Denver’s Virgil Green (13-185) and Chicago’s Zach Miller (20-236).
▪ Whether to project Jakeem Grant as Miami’s primary return man in 2018: Grant is ninth among qualifiers in kickoff return average (22.7) and 17th in punt return average (7.7), down from 23.1 and 8.3 in 2016. But he has reduced his fumbles from a year ago (four to two) and has displayed growth as a receiver.