Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com is a respected analyst who annually takes on the gargantuan task of grading every NFL team’s offseason moves. I don’t recall ever meeting Barnwell. I’ve never seen him at a Miami Dolphins practice, or game, or in the locker room.
But I’m quite certain Barnwell doesn’t like the team’s method of doing business very much.
That’s because this year Barnwell gave the Dolphins a D-plus grade for their offseason work -- the lowest grade of any AFC East team.
And last year Barnwell awarded the Dolphins a D-plus grade for their offseason work -- the third-lowest of the four AFC East teams.
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I tried for about two seconds to search for Barnwell’s 2015 offseason grades but gave up because the two years I just mentioned were so filled with errors, poor assumptions and flawed analysis that I figured I’d stick to those two pieces for my purposes here.
And my purpose is to put Barnwell’s grading of the Dolphins offseason under the same type of scrutiny he just put the club under.
Let’s begin chronologically. In 2016, Barnwell thought the Dolphins got taken on the trade with Philadelphia that brought Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell to Miami in exchange for moving from the No. 8 overall selection in the draft to the No. 13 overall selection.
I know Barnwell thinks this was a bad move because he writes about the trade under the heading, “What went wrong.”
Barnwell was indifferent about the Dolphins taking “a flier” on Kiko Alonso to play middle linebacker but he really disliked the Dolphins taking Byron Maxwell in the deal because the cornerback didn’t play well on an Eagles team where no players played well enough to save Chip Kelly’s job.
The problem with Barnwell’s stance is that, for the Dolphins, the trade turned out quite nicely. Alonso was one of the team’s best defenders last season and now is considered a defensive stalwart. And Maxwell, after a very rough start, settled into his starting job and will probably keep that job again this year before probably moving along next year.
So by Barnwell’s own analysis the Dolphins gave up the equivalent of a fifth-round pick for two defensive starters. He thought that was a bad deal. He was wrong.
Barnwell correctly called the addition of Mario Williams in place of Olivier Vernon “a downgrade.”
And he correctly questioned the trade-up for receiver Leonte Carroo, who caught only three passes last season and was particularly disappointing late in the year. (Quick reminder: The actual grade on this move has to be incomplete because obviously Caroo’s career is not over.)
But Barnwell missed it on Xavien Howard. He questioned Miami’s move up five spots to get Howard in the second round. He didn’t mention the Dolphins badly needed a starting cornerback at the time, which more than made the move up understandable. And as with everything, the proof is in the play on the field, where Howard has already earned a starting job.
The only question coaches have about Howard today, after seeing him practice and play, is not whether he has ability but whether he has durability.
Barnwell wasn’t a fan of the Dolphins extending Cameron Wake’s contract last offseason. This is what he wrote:
“At 34 and coming off of a torn Achilles, there's a legitimate chance that Wake won't regain his form as one of the better pass-rushers in all of football. The Dolphins had Wake signed for one more year with a cap hit of $9.8 million, but over the weekend, they re-signed him to a two-year extension with $10 million in new, fully guaranteed money.
“Before agreeing to this deal, there was a chance that a monster season from Wake would have forced the Dolphins to spend the franchise tag on him in 2017. But the chances are greater that the Dolphins paid for the player they're hoping Wake still is instead of the guy who shows up this upcoming season.”
Wake produced a team-high 11.5 sacks last season and also led the team with 24 quarterback hurries. He was an NFL comeback player of the year candidate.
The Dolphins got it right on Wake. Barnwell was wrong.
This year’s analysis, with its subsequent division-worst grade, is also filled with questionable assumptions -- not to mention some factual errors.
Look, it’s fair for an analyst to project. It’s fair to have an opinion. I make a living doing it. But I recognize, and Barnwell must recognize, once you put your work out there, people can dissect it.
Barnwell dissected the merits of the Dolphins’ work. I’m dissecting the merits of Barnwell’s work.
I welcome anyone to dissect my work. I’m a big boy.
Amid all this biology class dissecting, facts are important in forming opinions. So when the facts are wrong or misleading or incomplete, the opinions formed from those misbegotten facts lose credibility.
Barnwell writes the Dolphins took “a worthwhile flier at just $1.3 million” on safety T.J. McDonald this offseason. Cool, except McDonald is suspended the first eight games and will not be paid during that time. The fact is the Dolphins will pay McDonald no more than $800,000 in 2017 and that’s if he plays in all eight games after his suspension is over.
So Barnwell graded the Dolphins based on this incorrect fact to form at least a small percentage of his grade. And as you’ll see, the incorrect facts will begin to add up in a minute.
Barnwell writes the Dolphins “continually outspent the market to bring back their own players.” And he cites Kenny Stills, Reshad Jones, and Andre Branch as examples.
Let’s see ... Stills said “three major players,” meaning teams, were interested in him and bidding on him during the legal tampering period before the start of free agency. At least one of those, the Philadelphia Eagles, outbid the Dolphins for Stills. Stills made a decision to nonetheless return to the Dolphins even if it was for less money because he felt a comfort level with coach Adam Gase, the offense, the town, all of it.
So how did the Dolphins outspend the market on Stills when they offered less than at least one other team? Oh, they didn’t. Barnwell claimed something that simply wasn’t true.
Barnwell also says Stills got paid based on “an unsustainable” touchdown production. Stills scored nine touchdowns last year. That’s admittedly a very high mark. But how can Barnwell state unequivocally the mark is unsustainable? He doesn’t know that. He may think it, but he doesn’t know it.
That’s simply a statement made based on ... opinion, projection, hope?, air.
Andre Branch signed a three-year, $24 million deal, which averages out to $8 million per season. If Barnwell is going to contend the Dolphins overspent based on the market because Branch had 5.5 sacks, then one has to assume he’s not counting a market that included Jabaal Sheard.
Sheard, who had five sacks last season, got a deal from Indianapolis that averaged $8.5 million per season -- more than Branch.
So Barnwell’s contention about the market is once again incorrect.
Barnwell is well within his rights to say, “the Dolphins overspent on Branch because I don’t think he’s very good so that’s my opinion.” I would almost agree with that because spending $8 million for a 5.5-sack defensive end is a big investment.
But to claim the market -- a tangible metric -- says the Dolphins overspent when it says nothing of the sort is a misrepresentation.
Barnwell also says “Branch wasn't even very effective last season, and the Dolphins could have taken a flier on the next Branch to slot in alongside [Charles] Harris and [William] Hayes.”
Name the starting defensive end the Dolphins could have locked up on March 8 (the day Branch agreed to his deal) to start opposite Cameron Wake. Also, the Dolphins weren’t in “take a flier” mode at that point. They needed a starter not a project. And the price for signing a starting caliber NFL defensive end in free agency can be anywhere from $7-$12 million per season.
Barnwell’s contention omits the fact Charles Harris was nearly two months into the future and no one could have predicted he would be there in the first round when the Dolphins selected. And the Williams Hayes trade wasn’t agreed to until one day later. Hayes, by the way, is not expected to be a starter.
So Barnwell, writing in May, is second-guessing the Dolphins’ March 8 move while assuming they should have known facts that weren’t all known until the last few days of April. Unfair.
Barnwell took a swipe at the Lawrence Timmons signing. He writes, “Timmons isn't going to be a coverage linebacker at this point of his career -- the Patriots carved him up in the playoffs -- and two-down run-stopping linebackers are bargains.”
In fact, the Dolphins believe Timmons will be a three-down linebacker but there will be a competition for the role nonetheless. Also, the team watched tape of the Steelers against the Patriots last year and in the playoffs. The Steelers asked Timmons to cover Julian Edelman one-on-one.
Let that sink in: The Steelers asked Timmons to cover Julian Edelman by himself. Did Edelman win a lot? Sure. But Timmons had 14 tackles in the playoff game. (My guess is the Dolphins won’t ask Timmons to cover Edelman man-to-man in the games they play the Patriots).
And the point is Timmons failing in man coverage against one of the NFL’s premier slot receivers does not mean he must thus be relegated to being a run stopper. Also, as a nitpick, run stopping linebackers play one down in the 2017 NFL, not two.
Barnwell writes, “The Dolphins now have $175.9 million committed to their 2018 cap, and that's before thinking about a new deal for Jarvis Landry.”
This is fake news.
Yes, the Dolphins have that amount set to go on the books for 2018. But in the NFL, if the money is not guaranteed, it’s funny money. A thoughtful look at the Dolphins’ 2018 salary cap commitment shows the team can easily cut over $76 million of that quoted figure.
That’s what NFL teams do every offseason. They make salary cap cuts of players no longer in their plans.
I already told you Maxwell, for example, likely won’t be on the team in ‘18. That’s because the Dolphins have multiple young cornerbacks already on the roster and Maxwell is scheduled to cost $10 million against the cap with no dead money penalty if he’s cut.
So that Barnwell sentence, while true, is misleading.
And now my favorite part:
Barnwell writes, the Dolphins didn't supplement their offensive line.
”Part of the opportunity cost (sic) in spending so much on guys who profile as third wideouts or two-down linebackers is that the Dolphins weren't able to commit resources to the interior of their offensive line. It made sense for Miami to ship out the disgruntled Branden Albert and move Laremy Tunsil to his natural position at left tackle, and the team is set on the right side with Ja'Wuan James, but the interior is ... spotty.
”Part of the problem is that Mike Pouncey hasn't been able to get healthy. Pouncey is a Pro Bowl-caliber center when on the field, but he hasn't made it through 16 games since 2012, and he missed 11 games with a hip ailment last season. He underwent a stem cell procedure for the hip this spring, but the Dolphins have little behind him. They will have to hope that Anthony Steen, who was forced into the lineup last season, can hold up at guard alongside converted tackle Jermon Bushrod, who simply wasn't very good but still found his way back on a one-year, $3 million deal. Offensive linemen were hard to come by this offseason, but the only notable additions Miami made were Bears castoff Ted Larsen and fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata.”
Let’s begin where Barnwell is correct. Everything he said about Pouncey is true and accurate. The Dolphins are betting on a player who has a history of hip injuries to anchor the middle of their line and that seems like wishful thinking.
Practically everything else Barnwell writes is wrong.
First, Branden Albert was not disgruntled in Miami. He loved Miami. He lives in Miami. He is now possibly disgruntled because he was traded to Jacksonville rather than cut outright and given a chance to test free agency. He is possibly disgruntled because the Jaguars haven’t given him a pay increase.
Albert was never disgruntled in Miami and to say so is a misrepresentation.
The Dolphins do not need to hope Steen holds up at guard opposite Bushrod because Steen is about the fourth guy on the depth chart the Dolphins expect to fill that spot. Larsen is ahead of him. Kraig Urbik is ahead of him. It’s possible Isaac Asiata, a fifth-round pick whom the Dolphins had graded in the third round, could eventually be ahead of Steen. So that is yet another factual error.
Barnwell claims Bushrod “simply wasn’t very good” last year. Why? Because ProFootballFocus.com said so?
At the NFL annual meeting Gase said the exact opposite about Bushrod:
”He rated out second-highest on our offensive line,” Gase said. “He played pretty good for us. For a guy that it’s his first time he ever played right guard -- he played left tackle his whole career -- I thought he did a pretty good job. We’re looking to get better from last year because he’s coming in knowing what to do.”
So either you believe Barnwell on this Bushrod narrative or you believe Gase.
Finally, Barnwell gives the Dolphins that D-plus and I find that fascinating because only a few paragraphs down, he awards the New York Jets a C-plus for the manner they handled their offseason.
The Jets, by the way, opened the offseason with no good answers at starting quarterback. And here we are on May 17 and no one in the NFL believes they have found a good answer at starting quarterback.
So the team that failed to adequately address the most important position on the field gets a C-plus, but Barnwell uses multiple wrong facts, incomplete facts, and opinions based on bad assumptions to give the Dolphins a D-plus.
Bill Barnwell gets a D-plus for this work.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero