NFL free agency is about players getting paid primarily for what they do on the field because that is primarily what teams value.
Except if one looks at two of the biggest signings of this 2017 free agency period for the Dolphins, it is about so much more than on-field production.
The Dolphins last week re-signed receiver Kenny Stills to a four-year $32 million deal. They gave him a $7 million signing bonus simply for scribbling his name and they guaranteed his $1.975 million base salary in 2017 and his $7.975 million base salary in 2018, as you can see below, courtesy overthecap.com.
The 2017 cap number for Stills is a team friendly $3.75 million. The cap charge next year will be less friendly, at $9.75 million. I’m not going beyond that because this deal effectively lets the Dolphins walk away after two years if they want so no use trying to divine what will be happening the spring before the 2019 season. Stills is on the team the next two years for sure so that’s what we need to understand.
But you also need to understand this: The Dolphins didn’t just pay Stills because he caught nine touchdown passes last season to lead all wide receivers. There was more to it.
There were ... intangibles.
There were things you and I don’t see on a daily basis that coaches see. That the front office sees. That people in the building see and feel.
The Dolphins valued that.
The Dolphins paid for that.
(And I’ll tell you what some of that is before you’re done reading).
Same with Andre Branch. He signed a three-year, $24 million deal last week.
Neither side really won this negotiation but obviously both sides agreed to it, so both were satisfied. Yet, I don’t know why Branch’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, then leaked to his media sycophants (I’m not one of them) that it was a three-year, $27 million deal.
Why leak information you know is erroneous? To aggrandize yourself? To use it for recruiting purposes?
Sexton did a common thing in that he gave the media the maximum value of the deal. That means he poured all the incentives, such as winning the sack crown or the Dolphins attaining certain heights that would end New England’s stranglehold on the AFC East, into the total of the deal even though he knows -- everyone knows -- Branch is not likely to reach all those incentives because he is not Bruce Smith or Reggie White.
Anyway, I digress.
The Dolphins obviously valued Branch as an $8 million-a-year player because of the things he did last year on the field. He had 5.5 sacks and 49 total tackles and took over the starting right defensive end job when Mario Williams proved himself a free agency bust.
So Branch stepping in had value for Miami. But he also got rewarded because he brought ... intangibles.
That added to his value.
The Dolphins paid for that.
(And I’ll tell you what Branch’s intangibles are before you’re done reading).
The point is on two of their signature moves of free agency the Dolphins came to a value assessment on each player in part because of intangibles that you and I and the rest of the media generally have no clue about. Until now.
So let’s take Stills first.
His intangibles include the fact he has been a model of what the Dolphins organization wants out of a wide receiver both on the field and in the building. Consider:
When the play calls for Kenny Stills to run an out-cut at a certain depth, he runs it exactly at that depth. Not one inch more. Not one inch less. He generally works on being precise. That means he studies it, he refines it, he accepts the coaching which can sometimes be hard or even harsh.
In short, he has acted like a professional.
And that is valuable to the Dolphins because that makes Kenny Stills an example of how it is done in the wide receiver room. He sets an example of how to conduct himself on and off the field for both DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry as well as younger guys such as Leonte Carroo.
Parker, everyone knows now, has been challenged with maturity issues in that in the past he wasn’t always on time, or didn’t always hydrate or didn’t always treat his body (his meal ticket) with the highest regard relative to nutrition and sleep and so forth. He wasn’t a trouble maker. He was instead basically a high school junior in an elite NFL wide receiver’s body.
The Dolphins have gotten him help. He has people that manage him now, prod him along, hold his hands if necessary. And coach Adam Gase reported at the combine in February that Parker has been “doing a good job” getting it lately.
But if Parker needs an example of how to do things the right way and how that can reward you with results on the field, all Parker needs to do is look to Stills.
That is an intangible that Stills brings.
Same thing for Jarvis Landry.
Landry is Miami’s most productive receiver. He is the go-to guy. Everyone loves him and for good reason.
But he is not as precise as he could be with his routes. He is not always, and I do mean 100 percent of the time, doing things exactly right like Jerry Rice would do. By that I mean, Rice was always where he was supposed to be. He didn’t freelance. He did what he was taught so he could maximize his production for the offense. (If you want to produce like Jerry Rice, you need to reach for perfection on every route like Jerry Rice did).
There’s also the wonderful passion Landry brings that the Dolphins love that, unfortunately, sometimes boils over into moments that cause people to ask, “What is he doing?”
The extra-curricular scuffling.
That argument (some called it a fight) in a special teams meeting with a teammate a couple of years ago.
Not necessary. Emotion is great and necessary in football.
Emotion out of control is foolishness.
Stills is also an emotional guy. (Aren’t we all?) But he taps it to his benefit practically all the time. Landry would do well to learn how to do that. He’d also do well to understand he can be amazing if he adds precision to his game.
Stills bringing those things is a valuable and that example is a valuable intangible to the Dolphins.
He came to the team almost as an afterthought signing last spring. He signed a one-year, prove-it deal. He was destined for backup duty.
And then Williams flopped. And Branch seized the opportunity.
But before that happened, Branch had already brought a certain easiness to the defensive line. By easiness I mean he was cool with everybody. And he helped everyone be cool with each other.
His nature was an example to some very high-strung individuals such as -- maybe I shouldn’t name names -- Ndamukong Suh.
Suh, not very well liked within the building after his first season, was a different guy last year. Oh, he was still a jerk to the media. That didn’t change.
But he was more free with his teammates. He laughed and joked and seemed to enjoy his work more. And as he became more free, guys started to listen to him more. Suh had tried to be a leader in 2015 but it didn’t work with a majority of the defensive players.
It worked last season. It was very good for him. It was very good for the team.
And the team believes Branch set the tone and mood in the defensive line room to help that happen. That is an intangible.
The Dolphins value that.