Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins score a victory before the start of NFL free agency

Kenny Stills said re-signing with the Dolphins is what he “wanted from the very beginning.”
Kenny Stills said re-signing with the Dolphins is what he “wanted from the very beginning.” dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

On the face of it, the Miami Dolphins merely held serve on Wednesday. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The cynic might look at the Dolphins signing receiver Kenny Stills and defensive end Andre Branch and conclude the team didn’t add anyone, didn’t improve their talent base, didn’t make up any ground on the New England Patriots. And that is hard to argue against because it is true, both players are indeed returning to the Miami Dolphins.

And, I have to note, they’re returning at a much higher salary and with much bigger contracts than they had last season.

Stills agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal with $20 million in guaranteed money. And Branch agreed to a three-year, $24 million deal that also has incentive clauses so he can earn up to $3 million more if he becomes the second coming of Reggie White.

(Branch at $8 million per year is way more palatable than at the $9 million per year first reported nationally).

So both players are getting well rewarded.

But this is a Dolphins victory because it doesn’t just represent the team keeping its own players. It’s way more than that.

The value of the Dolphins not bleeding talent Wednesday is that now something has been established. A line has been drawn in the sand that the team can point to as its signature approach for doing business from now on.

The Dolphins are keeping their own players, something they’ve chosen not to do in the past, and they’re doing it while those players took less money to be in Miami than elsewhere. The Dolphins showed their own players love. And the players made the affair a mutual one.

That, my friends, is a reputation builder.

That is a locker room builder.

That is a win for the Miami Dolphins.

Think of it, Stills, I’m told, decided to stay in Miami before actually testing the open market and knowing that he was turning his back on at least one bigger offer. So he made a life decision that said to the rest of the NFL, “I want to be a Miami Dolphin more than I want to chase bigger money somewhere else.”

But don’t believe me, listen to Stills say it: “The fact is I wanted to be back here with this team and I thought we’re building something special. And so that’s why I’m back.”

Stills said there were three “major players,” meaning suitors chasing him.

When was the last time the Dolphins won a competition for a player by paying less?

I’m not saying Stills declined $3-$4 million more per year. That would have been crazy. But I’m told the difference was significant.

“There’s always opportunities out there, other opportunities,” Stills said. “But I was focused on what we’re doing here in Miami and what we’re building here. That’s really all I cared about.”

Branch, who came to the Dolphins on a one-year prove-it contract in 2016, re-signed because he believes he’s built a niche for himself in South Florida.

He has a role on the field and a prominent one in the Dolphins locker room -- not the least of which has been a benefit to teammate Ndamukong Suh, who saw how Branch conducts himself and patterned himself more toward his new teammate’s approachable (to other teammates) manner.

Branch came to the Dolphins and found a home.

And now the Dolphins can use this. All of it.

This was a seminal moment because the message in the Dolphins locker room when the team re-gathers in mid April will be ... “We have good players that want to be here rather than just have to be here.”

Cameron Wake wants to be a Miami Dolphin.

Kenny Stills wants to be a Miami Dolphin.

Andre Branch wants to be a Miami Dolphin.

And they all signed fair but team friendly contracts to make that happen.

The dividend to this otherwise unreported fallout from Wednesday’s contract dealings may not be seen right away. But they will be felt.

Imagine next year or sometime soon when the Dolphins are in contract negotiations with other players they want to keep or want to add. They can point to Stills and Branch, and Wake, and say, “We want players that are willing to give up some money to be here. That’s our culture. Are you that kind of player?”

And some players will surely decide, ‘Heck no, I’m about getting all the money I can for me and my family.” Those players will likely wind up elsewhere.

But some players, seeing what the Dolphins are building, what they are representing, will decide, “The team is being fair but needs me to be fair in return. If I want to get more money I have to leave. But if fair is the price of continuing to build what the Dolphins are building, I’ll re-sign here.”

That may not seem to matter much when you’re talking in the abstract in a column or blog post you’re reading. But the Dolphins have big contracts and big negotiations coming with Reshad Jones, Jarvis Landry, Kiko Alonso and to a lesser degree, a deal to close with Dion Sims.

Do those players want to stick with the culture and the program they’re already a part of? Do they want to continue to help build that to which they’ve already laid foundational bricks to? Or do they want to chase $1-$2 million elsewhere -- maybe in Cleveland or Jacksonville or some other place that finds itself where the Dolphins found themselves a few years ago...

...In a position to have to overpay to get players they want to make part of the culture.

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