Miami Dolphins

Making sense of the Dolphins’ latest roster shakeup — and a sobering stat for 2019

Reasons to watch the Dolphins’ final preseason game, held here against the Saints on Thursday night:

1. The trade for Jadeveon Clowney could conceivably go down in real time.

2. The Dolphins’ Week 1 starting quarterback might play in it.

And 3. A lot of little-known Dolphins who will be big-time contributors in 2019 definitely will play in it.

The Dolphins’ five-month QB battle is in its final hours, but Brian Flores insisted this week that he has not decided between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen.

He had hoped both would make their closing arguments against the Saints. Yet Fitzpatrick ill, we might only see Rosen.

But not much will change on that front. We have dedicated countless words and dozens upon dozens of stories on this competition since it began in May. Not much more can be said that already has been covered.

What needs a bit more attention: the makeup of the other 51 men who will fill out Miami’s roster.

Or to put a finer point on it: Are the best 51 possible players going to take those roster spots? And what benefit is there to cut some of the team’s better talents when doing so comes with next to no near-term financial relief?

In the span of three days this week, the Dolphins released safety T.J. McDonald, right tackle Jordan Mills, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Chase Allen.

None was a training camp body; all had a good chance to make the team. McDonald, Mills and Spence were all projected starters at one point or another.

And here’s what makes their firings all the more puzzling: Not one of them was expensive. McDonald’s $5 million salary was the most of the bunch, and thanks to contract guarantees, he gets to keep all but $1.3 million of it.

Combined, the five players cut by the Dolphins in 2019 provide less than $8 million in 2019 cap savings — and it’s not like the Dolphins needed the space. They now have roughly $26 million in salary-cap room, and if they don’t land Clowney (who’s owed $16 million on the franchise tag), almost all of that will carry over to the 2020 season.

And more relief is sure to come as the Dolphins get down to 53 before Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Linebacker Kiko Alonso and wide receiver Kenny Stills are the biggest two names whose futures are still uncertain. Both are without question among the best 53 players the Dolphins have in their locker room. Neither had been given assurances that he’s safe, as of Monday.

So again, how to explain this, assuming as we should that coach Brian Flores is as still dead set against the idea that the Dolphins are tanking now as he was in the spring?

Perhaps it’s as simple as the Dolphins making way for Clowney. But again, that doesn’t explain why they would cut a player such as McDonald, who provided negligible cap savings?

“Every team is going to have to make some decisions here over the next — let’s call it five days — and we’re not exempt from that,” Flores said Tuesday. “I think we did what we felt was best for the team, and we’re going to continue to do that moving forward.”

A more complete answer might have been: “I think we did what we felt was the best for the team long-term.

Because by moving on from solid, but not great veterans who aren’t part of the team’s future, it will allow the Dolphins to get information on the dozens of players who might be around in 2020 and beyond.

That includes the 12 or so rookies, including approximately six who went undrafted, expected to be on the team this time next week. And also four or more “first-year” players (non-rookies who don’t have an accrued season of NFL experience).

Which means the Dolphins should be one of, if not the youngest team in the league this year. In 2018, the Bengals had that honor, with an average age of 25.2 at the start of the season.

But that’s only half the explanation. The Dolphins could have been real players in free agency and spent money on young players who will be around in a few years, which would have allowed them to build for the future and put together a competitive team in the present.

They went the other way, and as Chris Kouffman, the host of the Three Yards Per Carry podcast first pointed out, amassed by far the league’s lowest payroll (more than $20 million less than the next-lowest team and some $50 million below the league average). They would likely still have the NFL’s smallest payroll, even if they trade for Clowney.

And the total annual average value of all contracts on their books — which is probably the best gauge of a roster’s strength — is also dead last by $20 million. Not surprisingly, teams with low payrolls end up with low win totals; Kouffman found that teams historically in the Dolphins’ position have won on average just 4.7 games.

The flip-side to all of this: The Dolphins should have in excess of $100 million in salary cap space next year with which to improve their roster.

So don’t call it tanking. Call it strategic rebuilding if that’s easier. But make no mistake: the 2019 season is about getting out from underneath four years of bad contracts. And find out which of the dozen or so rookies expected to make the team can be counted on going forward.

Related stories from Miami Herald