The Miami Dolphins on Tuesday placed the transition tag on Olivier Vernon, a $12.7 million tender that comes with a huge escape clause for the player:
Starting next week, Vernon is free to negotiate a contract with the 31 other teams, and he is sure to draw interest. The Dolphins have the right to match any contract Vernon is offered, but it’s no sure bet they will.
After weeklong discussions between Vernon and the team, the two sides could not agree on a long-term deal that would avert a free-agency standoff.
Instead, that seems to be exactly what is in store.
Vernon is expected to draw real interest on the open market, and probably can land a contract that would pay him more than Miami is willing to offer.
Of course, he could sign the one-year offer sheet, which would pay him a guaranteed $12.7 million, but that seems unlikely any time soon.
This is second year in a row the Dolphins have used the transition tag. Charles Clay was given the designation in 2015, but signed a lucrative multiyear deal with the Bills that the Dolphins elected not to match.
The Dolphins could have locked down Vernon by placing the franchise tag on him, but that would have cost $3 million more in 2016.
Using the transition tag could be a savvy move, if the Dolphins have accurately pegged Vernon’s value. It’s entirely possible that the rest of the league sees Vernon’s ceiling at $13 million annually, in which case the Dolphins would consider matching any offer Vernon gets. But as Clay showed last year, it’s a risky bet.
The transition tag is not without its advantages for the Dolphins, however slight. Tagged players are unable to legally negotiate contracts with other teams until the league year starts on March 9. All other pending free agents can speak with other teams beginning March 7, but cannot finalize deals for another two days.
Perhaps the Dolphins’ plan all along was letting the market set the price. They haven’t made a formal offer to Vernon since last September, and his price tag since then has surely gone up.
Vernon wants a long-term deal, and would likely skip all voluntary offseason practices and workouts if he doesn’t get one -- from the Dolphins or anyone else. But that seems the least likeliest scenario, according to league sources.
Drafted by the Dolphins in the third round of the 2012 draft, Vernon has outplayed his rookie contract. His 25.5 sacks the last three years are 18th in the league.
By tagging Vernon, the Dolphins are now roughly $3.5 million over the 2016 salary cap, so they will need to shed payroll to get under it before 4 p.m. on March 9. But that won’t be difficult; they will almost certainly restructure Ndamukong Suh’s budget-busting contract in the next eight days, which alone would free up $18 million.
Plus most believe the team will cut receive Greg Jennings for an additional cap savings of $4 million. So even if Vernon plays under the tag and Miami doesn’t touch the high-priced contracts belonging to Brent Grimes, Cameron Wake and Jordan Cameron, the Dolphins will likely have around $20 million to sign a guard, a linebacker, a safety and a corner.