Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins plan improves their team but does it make up ground on the New England Patriots?

Miami Dolphins GM Chris Grier talks free agency at combine

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier discusses Kenny Stills' contract, Ryan Tannehill's knee and more at the NFL Scouting Combine.
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Dolphins general manager Chris Grier discusses Kenny Stills' contract, Ryan Tannehill's knee and more at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The Miami Dolphins are going to be methodical about this free agency business.

Their days of acting like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns — competing for offseason championships and headlines that lead to head coach firings mere months later — are over. The Dolphins are going to reward the players they know best, meaning their own. And they’re going to address issues they know are problems as responsibly as possible.

I accept that. (I don’t have a choice, and neither do you.)

I understand that.

So you and I are simply going to have to accept the fact that the Dolphins need two, not one, but two starting guards and they are absolutely not going to answer the problem the way the Browns did Thursday.

Cleveland signed Kevin Zeitler to a contract that makes him the richest guard in the NFL. He’s getting $60 million over five years with a reported $31.5 million in guaranteed money. The Browns also gave incumbent guard Joel Bitonio a six-year, $51.2 million extension.

So the Browns, best case, are going to be able to protect Robert Griffin III, or Brock Osweiler, or some rookie whose career they’re about to ruin, like the dickens while, you know, losing nine or 10 games next season.

The Dolphins? They used to take this approach. They once signed Justin Smiley one minute after free agency began and back then it began at midnight.

It’s going to be different now. The Dolphins will be hosting free agents at their Davie facility and a guard will be in that mix because Ted Larsen is coming and is expected to sign a three-year contract, according to the Chicago Tribune. Maybe a guard is drafted somewhere in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft as well. However, when Miami gets around to addressing this offensive line need it is fully aware exists, it’ll happen by adding guys you probably never heard of.

Raise your hand if you heard of Larsen before Thursday.

And the Dolphins will pay a modest price to do it.

And in doing that, the Dolphins will be taking the New England Patriots’ approach to interior linemen.

The Patriots, you recall, played in the Super Bowl two months ago with an offensive line whose center was a second-year undrafted free agent, a rookie third-round pick at left guard and a second-year right guard picked in the fourth round. The team’s total base salary investment on those three interior linemen?

$1.545 million.

Total for the season.

Put another way: I’ve watched the Dolphins play the Patriots twice a year for years and the past couple of seasons after Miami signed Ndamukong Suh to a $114 million contract, he’s been charged with making Tom Brady uncomfortable by charging straight up the middle and toward the quarterback.

The Patriots have generally answered this challenge by double-teamming Miami’s $19 million-per-year defensive tackle with a guard and center whose total combined salary for the year is less than what Suh makes in one game.

You know how many sacks Suh has collected against New England’s bargain interior line in four games? Half a sack.

One team playing chess. The Dolphins playing checkers — until recently, anyway.

The change in the Dolphins’ philosophy, evolving a year ago, is unrecognizable now to those of us who remember the 2011-13 unrestricted free agent periods in Miami. Miami isn’t chasing the offseason championship anymore.

Instead, the Dolphins are trying to keep players from their own roster which they value highly — such as Kenny Stills, Reshad Jones, Andre Branch and Kiko Alonso, who will be getting a new contract eventually. They’re rewarding playmakers.

And then they’re trying to fill some holes that are obvious to everyone — at linebacker with Lawrence Timmons or maybe Zach Brown; at tight end with Julius Thomas and the return of Anthony Fasano. The Dolphins are doing this while trying to be wise with their dollars.

Thomas, for example, took a pay cut from Jacksonville to play in Miami. Fasano is in Miami because the Dolphins put a number on Dion Sims and when he threatened to get more from Chicago, as in $6 million per year, they went the less expensive route with Fasano.

The Dolphins want to be wise and disciplined and reward playmakers and their own players. That is the unstated but obvious path they have taken. That is how they believe they are going to get better.

It’s not going to come in enormous leaps. It is going to happen, according to the Miami plan, in modest steps.

It’s hard to complain about that, assuming the improvement is obvious and unceasing. But the Dolphins do, nonetheless, have a problem. Indeed, the Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets have a problem.

That problem wears the NFL crown now. Yes, the Patriots.

Even as the Dolphins are doing all they can to plug holes, their problem is the Patriots aren’t stagnating. The Patriots on Thursday improved their secondary with the signing of cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

That move could make cornerback Malcolm Butler expendable in a trade. And that trade could somehow bring dynamic receiver Brandon Cooks to New England from New Orleans. So if this happens, the Patriots would keep, if not improve, the quality of their cornerbacks and add for quarterback Tom Brady one of the league’s better deep threats.

It it doesn’t happen, all the Patriots have done is ensure themselves of having two lock-down cornerbacks, which is still an improvement over last season.

Yes, they’re still playing chess.

That must be frustrating for the rest of the division.

I cannot speak for the Jets or Bills but I know the Dolphins have what I’ve been told is a good plan for getting better. That’s good. They seem to be on the right track.

How that helps derail the Patriots is a harder question to answer.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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