Armando Salguero

The Miami Dolphins get very good (not great) grade in their search for pre-draft flexibility

The Miami Dolphins cut defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, expecting to find a much cheaper upgrade at the position.
The Miami Dolphins cut defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, expecting to find a much cheaper upgrade at the position. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The Miami Dolphins are eyebrow deep in draft meetings now. Their scouts are in town. They have visits set up with potential draft picks they want to select and some they want to use as decoys because they know the names get out.

So it’s all about the April 27-29 draft now.

And starting Wednesday we start our annual Dolphins In Depth series explaining why certain positions make logical sense for the Dolphins to address -- including defensive end, safety, cornerback, linebacker, and guard.

But one thing that makes the Miami braintrust of Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier and Adam Gase feel good about the shift in focus from free agency to the draft is the Dolphins believe they now have flexibility for the draft based on the work they did in free agency.

They’re right on this -- sort of.

The Dolphins did enough work in free agency that they don’t have too many huge and obvious needs that must be addressed for them to actually put a team on the field and play a game. (But notice I didn’t say all the work was done and complete).

The Dolphins want this flexiblity so that they can basically do anything in the draft. They don’t want to have to pick a defensive end (although they better do that). They want to be able to pick a guard who suddenly drops out of the top five, for example. That’s why flexibility is important to NFL teams.

But before we gauge Miami’s flexibility, let’s take stock of all the Dolphins did to set themselves for the draft by either upgrading or keeping players they valued since the start of the league year:

March 8: Tendered TE Thomas Duarte, LB Mike Hull, CB Lafayette Pitts, OL Anthony Steen.

March 9: Signed DL Nick Williams. Tendered DB Michael Thomas, Tendered RB Damien Williams.

March 10 ... Traded for TE Julius Thomas. Resigned WE Kenny Stills. Resigned DE Andre Branch. Resigned LS John Denney. Signed TE Anthony Fasano. Extended SS Reshad Jones. Traded for DE Williams Hayes. Signed LG Ted Larsen. Signed LB Lawrence Timmons. Signed FS Nate Allen.

March 16. Resigned RG Jermon Bushrod.

March 21. Extended LB Kiko Alonso. Signed OT Avery Young. Restructured LB Koa Misi.

March 31. Signed FS T.J. McDonald.

That’s it. These moves are what gives the Dolphins the feeling that they can have flexibility in the looming draft. They don’t have to take a linebacker. They don’t feel like they must take a defensive end or the 2017 season will crash and burn.

The Dolphins so far this offseason have locked up all three potential starting linebackers; resigned a starting defensive end to team opposite Cameron Wake; traded for a third defensive end who is a run stopper on early downs; they added both tight ends to be able to run 12 personnel; they addressed both vacant starting guard spots; they addressed both safety spots. The Dolphins also kept the wide receiver corps intact.

That’s a solid list of business accomplishments for one free agency period -- and remember the back end of free agency after the draft still may offer possibilities.

But there were holes also left unattended during free agency. And one of those holes was created by the team itself.

The Dolphins will be going into the draft needing a backup defensive tackle, assuming a lesser defensive tackle isn’t added between now and draft day.

The team brought Dontari Poe in for a visit but couldn’t get him signed. They flirted with Jonathan Hankins in numerous phone calls but couldn’t convince him to take a visit because his price point is so high. And tackle Tyson Alualu signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on his visit there even though he was also scheduled to visit the Dolphins.

So the defensive tackle spot goes unaddressed.

Interestingly, the spot is an issue because the Dolphins chose to release Earl Mitchell. The reason Mitchell was cut is because he spent much of the first half of 2016 nursing a calf injury and when he returned off the injured reserve list, he wasn’t the same guy anymore.

“I had Earl in Houston when we were both with the Texans and he wasn’t the same guy last year,” former Dolphins defensive coordinator and new Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said.

The interesting thing is when the Dolphins released Mitchell, saving nearly $4 million in cap space, four other teams happily jumped at the opportunity to sign Mitchell -- including Joseph’s Broncos.

Eventually, Mitchell picked the best offer from San Francisco. But Joseph explained why the Broncos were interested.

“He wasn’t the same guy and not a value at that price,” he said. “But if you get him for the right price, he can still be a solid player.”

And that makes me wonder if the Dolphins might not have been wise to perhaps try to get Mitchell to take a pay cut. (Maybe they did. I don’t know). But obviously they valued the cap space more than the roster spot it could have filled. They obviously came to the conclusion that they could replace Mitchell at a cheaper rate.

That has failed so far and now Miami goes into the draft needing to add a defensive tackle because there is simply no way Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips can take all the snaps every game. The team needs a swing tackle that can account for 25-30 snaps per game, and that’s best case scenario.

That scenario assumes Phillips will be able to play 45-50 good snaps a game, which so far he’s been unable to do his first two NFL seasons.

Worst case? Phillips continues to be the same guy he’s been, coasting for 8-10 plays at a time, and that third defensive tackle suddenly is forced to play a starter’s number of snaps.

So the Dolphins have found no flexibility at defensive tackle. They have to draft one.

Linebacker is interesting, although probably only to me, because the Dolphins are giddy that Koa Misi is going to be back in 2017. And the way it was portrayed to me initially was Misi would be a backup plan -- the cheap guy (following him taking a pay cut) the team would turn to if the starter failed. No one was counting on Koa Misi, I was told.

Well, when I asked coach Adam Gase about my friend Koa Misi at the owner’s meeting, Gase didn’t quite portray Misi as the backup.

Indeed, Misi is going to be given a chance to be the starting strong side linebacker.

“He wants to have a chance to compete with the guys that we have right now on our roster,” Gase said. “I think the thing that we did do last year that was probably not the best thing was we had specific packages for him that we worked on. He gets injured (and) we spent a lot of time on those things that really he only could do. We just have to make sure we do a good job of using our time wisely.

“If he’s healthy and he’s able to contribute for us, it’s a big plus for us because he is a good player. We’ve talked about it with him as far as what we need to do to help him tackling-wise because he is a face-first guy, and that’s why obviously he had the issues with the neck. We have to make some adjustments there. The fact that a guy wants to be here and we’re going to give him an opportunity to compete for a spot, I don’t see any harm in that. He’s a guy I like being around. That’s why he’s back.”

Nothing wrong with that plan as long as Misi, entering his eighth NFL season, can stay healthy although he’s not done that the past five years. And as long as he recovers from a neck surgery, which shouldn’t be a problem because neck injuries are not that big a deal for a football player. And as long as at age 30 Misi forgets everything he’s ever known about tackling and learns a different technique that won’t expose his neck.

All good.

Anyway, strong side linebacker is a thing and the Dolphins need to add more linebackers in this draft because they want someone to eventually force Misi off the field. They also want bodies to play special teams. They also want to start planning for a year or two from now because Lawrence Timmons will be 31 years old in May.

One more thing about linebackers: The Dolphins aren’t worried about the strongside spot because that player is off the field in obvious passing downs, which in today’s NFL is over 60 percent of the time.

Still, the other 40 percent of the time does pose a need that the Dolphins think they have flexibility addressing but might not have as much as they believe.

So if you are judging how well the Dolphins got themselves flexibility going into the draft, on a scale of 1-10, I’d say they score an 8. Very good. But obviously not great.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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