Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins revamp underachieving defense in free agency

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) scrambles as Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams defends at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. on Sunday, November 8, 2015.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) scrambles as Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams defends at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. on Sunday, November 8, 2015. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It was just 12 months ago when the Dolphins gambled that Ndamukong Suh would be their defense’s cure-all.

Perhaps predictably, he was not. The Dolphins were worse defensively in 2015 with him than they were in 2014 without him.

So in Year 2, Mike Tannenbaum got the message.

He knew he had to take a wrecking ball to an overpriced unit that has regressed in each of the last three years. On Wednesday, the first day of free agency, the Dolphins’ football czar played demolition man.

Out: Big-ticket stars.

In: Cheaper pieces that fit the scheme.

In the span of two days, Tannenbaum added four starters on the defensive side of the ball — and none will cost owner Stephen Ross more than $8.5 million in 2016.

So when Olivier Vernon signed the most lucrative contract for a defensive end ever Wednesday — a jaw-dropping, five-year, $85 million deal with the Giants — Tannenbaum simply shrugged and continued to sift through the bargain bin.

There was no need to panic.

The Dolphins had essentially written off Vernon when Mario Williams signed a two-year, $17 million deal with the team late Tuesday night. Miami officially closed the book early Wednesday; the organization rescinded Vernon’s transition tag, a decision that freed up $12.7 million in salary-cap space and positioned the team for a high compensatory pick in 2017.

Plus, Tannenbaum didn’t back out of his blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, even after a minor medical scare involving corner Byron Maxwell.

A preliminary physical raised red flags Tuesday evening, but ultimately team doctors cleared Maxwell’s troublesome shoulder, allowing the deal to go forward.

By 4 p.m., Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso were Dolphins. They didn’t come free, however. In return, the Dolphins agreed to swap first-round draft picks with the Eagles; Philadelphia will now pick eighth, and Miami 13th, in April.

Still, the swap netted the Dolphins two starters who will earn just $9.5 million — combined — in 2016.

But Tannenbaum was just getting started.

Also Wednesday, he:

▪ Cut three-time Pro Bowler Brent Grimes, a move that shed $8 million in salary and rid the organization of his wife’s endless distractions.

▪ Allowed defensive end Derrick Shelby, who started after Cameron Wake tore his Achilles tendon at midseason, to sign a four-year, $21 million contract with the Falcons.

▪ Passed on safety George Iloka to sign a cheaper Isa Abdul-Quddus away from the Lions. (Instead of spending $6 million annually for Iloka, the Dolphins will pay Abdul-Quddus $12.75 million over three years.)

▪ Walked away when the bidding got too high for coveted defensive end William Hayes, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal to remain with St. Louis.

▪ And refused go past his salary ceiling for Bengals corner Adam “Pacman” Jones, who re-signed with Cincinnati late in the day.

Tannenbaum’s restraint wasn’t limited to the defensive side of the ball. Keeping Lamar Miller was an organizational priority. But the market for running backs exploded this week, and the Dolphins thought better of matching the four-year, $26 million contract Miller got from the Texans. Also, receiver Rishard Matthews agreed to a contract with the Titans late Wednesday.

So after three years of winning the offseason Super Bowl, the Dolphins finally showed restraint.

Did it make them better? That remains to be seen.

But the defense couldn’t be much worse than it was in 2015. Even after signing Suh to what was then the most lucrative contract for a defensive player ever, the Dolphins were just 25th in yards (376.2 per game) and points (24.3).

New defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is betting that, out of this collection of flawed new players, he can craft a winning scheme.

The days of dropping in coverage are over for Williams, who will line up with his hand in the dirt and hunt quarterbacks in Miami.

Maxwell, who never lived up to his $63 million contract with the Eagles, will get to use his best asset — his size — at the line of scrimmage.

With Alonso, it’s simply a matter of getting — and staying — healthy. Two major knee injuries in two seasons derailed a once-promising career.

As for Abdul-Quddus, he’s out to maximize his first real payday. The Fordham product started just 16 games in his first five NFL seasons. The Dolphins hope to get that many starts out of him in 2016 alone.

In all, the Dolphins did something surely unprecedented (at least for them): they finished the day with more salary-cap space than they began it.

By letting Vernon walk and cutting Grimes, the Dolphins created more than $19 million in space. The addition of Alonso, Maxwell and Abdul-Quddus cost them no more than $14 million this year.

The lesson Tannenbaum gleaned from last year’s failure was this: sometimes more is less. We’ll soon learn whether, for the Dolphins, less is more.

▪ The Dolphins added former St. Thomas Aquinas offensive lineman Sam Young late Wednesday. The Coral Springs native and former Jaguar is expected to be the team’s third offensive tackle.

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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