Miami Dolphins coaches and personnel staff will travel to Indianapolis Monday for the start of the annual NFL Scouting Combine that runs Tuesday through March 6. And while the stated mission of the trip is to meet and get the measure of hundreds of college players for the coming draft, the organization’s priority mission may be to try to preserve their relationship with pending free agent Kenny Stills.
It will not be an easy assignment.
According to sources familiar with the situation, the Dolphins this week hope to make a strong pitch to the wide receiver’s representation in hopes of getting feedback that will suggest Stills will be re-signing with the team.
But if this assignment is viewed through the prism of a regular season game, the looming work with Stills has the Dolphins in the fourth quarter because free agency begins March 9. And, sources say, Miami seems to be trailing.
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That’s because, multiple NFL sources agree, Stills is more likely to leave via free agency than stay in Miami.
The Stills camp is already aware of the receiver’s potential value in free agency. And the market is said to already be in the $12-million-a-year range, per sources.
There is even a team on everyone’s lips as a likely landing spot for Stills -- The Philadelphia Eagles.
Kenny Stills to Philadelphia has been an open secret for weeks before agents and teams are officially allowed to talk about potential deals starting March 7. It is so well known in league circles that NJ.com reported weeks ago the Eagles would be targeting Stills if he made it to free agency.
And that report is correct, sources confirm.
So that leaves the Dolphins in an unenviable position because they are aware that a bidder exists and the likely price for their player is quite high. And so far the Dolphins have not been ready to climb to the price plateau the Eagles -- in dire need of a speedy, deep-threat receiver -- seem poised to reach.
The Dolphins, per sources, have had internal discussions about all their free agents and placed monetary values on those players relative to their cap structure. And paying Kenny Stills $12 million per season is nowhere close to the model the Dolphins feel comfortable about.
It is not known how high the Dolphins are willing to go to keep Stills. Stills and his representatives are likely to know in the coming week after they meet with the team. But the Dolphins so far do not intend to be the high bidder.
And that is a point they’ve made to Stills and several other of their valued free agents, such as defensive end Andre Branch and tight end Dion Sims.
The Dolphins are universally telling their players they want to re-sign players who show commitment to the team and its current favorable direction. They want players that wish to remain in Miami to continue building what was begun in 2016 when the Dolphins were 10-7 and went to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
None of that suggests the Dolphins are going to match the offer of other teams dollar for dollar.
That means if Kenny Stills, who led the team with 10 TD receptions last season, decides he wants to maximize his salary in free agency, he’ll be playing for another team because the Dolphins have no intention of winning a bidding war.
This is where the curious fan might simply ask, why not?
It’s a fair question. The Dolphins have enough projected cap space -- approximately $43 million once Branden Albert comes off the books -- to do it.
Well, the reason is the Dolphins have cap space but they also have many holes they need to fill this offseason, including defensive end, at least one and probably two linebackers, two guards, perhaps another defensive back and that’s not even taking into account other deals that will be pending.
The Dolphins, you’ll recall, have contractual control of safety Reshad Jones, receiver Jarvis Landry, and linebacker Kiko Alonso for 2017. But both Jones and Landry expect contract extensions this offseason and Alonso wants a long-term deal as well rather than simply being tendered for one-year as a restricted free agent.
So the Dolphins have so far reached a conclusion they cannot address all these issues and pay Stills as much as another team might.
So, yes, the contest to retain Stills is reaching a late stage.
And the Dolphins find themselves seemingly trailing and needing to rally to keep one of their top contributors from a season ago.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter @ArmandoSalguero