Miami Dolphins

Here’s how the Dolphins can lock down Tunsil, James without totally breaking the bank

The Colts miked up Darius Leonard for the Dolphins game, and the in-house camera crew caught a funny exchange with Dolphins left tackle.

“I’ll give you a dollar if you tell me what y’all about to run,” Leonard said. “C’mon, a dollar. I got you. I’m a rookie. C’mon.”

Laremy Tunsil, with more than a bit of bemusement, struggled his shoulders and, of course, declined.

For one, it’s an absurd request.

But also, It’s not like Tunsil, by left tackle standards, is loaded either.

He’s in the third of a four-year, $12.5 million contract.

And by any metric, he’s underpaid. The Dolphins are trying to get Tunsil to the Pro Bowl, and players of that caliber are making six or seven times what Tunsil is owed next year.

Will he get a raise this offseason?

He might have to wait his turn in line.

Because the Dolphins’ other bookend tackle, Ja’Wuan James, is set to become a free agent in March, and he looks poised to cash in as well.

That’s the downside of a rare Dolphins bright spot in 2018.

Team decision-makers believed back in the summer that they built an offensive line that would give Ryan Tannehill a clean pocket for the first time in his career.

Injuries derailed those plans, yet Tunsil and James have done their part.

Dolphins quarterbacks have been sacked 28 times, but Pro Football Focus found that Tunsil and James are responsible for just four of them.

Sunday’s loss to the Colts was more of the same. The only time the Colts sacked Tannehill, Leonard beat a running back, not a tackle, to get to him. (Plus Tannehill held the ball too long.)

“I want to dominate, I want to be perfect,” Tunsil said earlier this season. “Of course, you can’t be perfect every game, but you always want to dominate and be the best you can be.”

Perfect? No. But not far off.

He has allowed just one sack and 13 pressures in 556 snaps this year. Those are stats worthy of the Pro Bowl.

But perhaps the best way to gauge Tunsil’s value is by seeing how the Dolphins’ offense functions when he’s not on the field.

The answer: Not well.

Tannehill missed five games because of a shoulder injury caused by a Carlos Dunlap sack. Dunlap would have been Tunsil’s man, but Miami’s left tackle was out of the game due to a concussion. Sam Young filled in for Tunsil, and was overmatched.

The story was the same a few weeks back in Green Bay. Both James and Tunsil were out with injury, allowing the Packers’ dangerous pass rusher Kyler Fackrell to feast. Fackrell had a sack and four tackles in the Green Bay win.

Tunsil and James have more than held their own against the best pass rushers on Miami’s schedule. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had just one sack — combined — against the Dolphins this year.

The Dolphins don’t have a ton of strengths, and would be wise to keep the ones they do intact.

That begins with signing James to a new, multi-year deal with a bunch of guaranteed money. The top end of the right tackle market is $11 million annually, set by Lane Johnson, but industry insiders don’t think it will take nearly that much for the Dolphins to keep James.

A more realistic comp is the five-year, $32.5 million contract extension signed by Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon in July. But if James is the best right tackle on the market, the numbers could balloon, so time is of the essence in getting this deal done.

The Dolphins surely don’t want to get to that point with Tunsil. They have his rights for two more seasons, assuming Miami picks up his fifth-year option (at roughly $10 million). Combined with Tunsil’s 2019 base salary, he is essentially guaranteed $12 million over the next two seasons.

Again, that’s far below market value, considering the Titans signed Taylor Lewan to a five-year, $80 million extension in July, the richest contract ever given to an offensive lineman.

Tunsil might be able to get that type of payday on the open market, but that’s still two years away. So how about a compromise?

Five years, $60 million, with half fully guaranteed? That way, the new money Tunsil would get beyond 2020 would pay him at the top of the market.

And the Dolphins would lock down their left tackle for the next half-decade at palatable rate.

Will the Dolphins and Tunsil follow this common-sense blueprint?

Check back in March.

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