Armando Salguero

The Dolphins made bold moves to improve before the season. Here’s why that didn’t work out

Remember the offseason? The Miami Dolphins organization was flying high in the offseason.

The afterglow of a 10-6 run to the playoffs in the winter of 2016 was still fresh and the possibilities for greater things in 2017 seemed within reach. So the Dolphins went into the 2017 offseason with a mission of consolidating if not building on 2016’s success.

Except — and here’s the point of this post — that didn’t happen.

The two dozen or so offseason moves the team made between March and the start of the regular season have paid off handsomely in only a few instances. Mostly those moves have led to decreased salary cap space, uneven individual performances on the field, and obviously a disappointing 4-6 record.

It needs to be said that of the Dolphins’ 10 highest salary cap hits this season, eight belong to players addressed this offseason.

The team did work to sign, re-sign or renegotiate deals for Jay Cutler, Cameron Wake, Julius Thomas, Andre Branch, William Hayes, Kenny Stills, Reshad Jones and Lawrence Timmons. The magnificent seven plus one — sort of.

Yes, there were other moves but let’s first look at these eight that are atop the Dolphins salary cap structure.

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Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler (6) throws an interception late in the second quarter as they play the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 15, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Jay Cutler: When Ryan Tannehill blew out his knee (again) the first week of training camp the Dolphins faced a season-defining decision. They could turn the team over to backup Matt Moore and sign a viable backup for $2-$3 million, or chase Cutler to become the starter. Coach Adam Gase wanted Cutler and no one in the organization pushed back hard enough to dissuade him.

So the Dolphins signed Cutler to be the new starter. The problem is the signing cost $10 million against the cap this year. And regardless of whether that is a bargain price for a starting quarterback or not, the Dolphins decided to cash all their checks for 2017 because it left them with practically no cap room.

The Dolphins right now have $607,148 in salary cap room according to the NFL Players Association and that is the least cap room of any AFC team and the second least in the NFL behind only the Seattle Seahawks.

That hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s ability to do business this year — except at the October trade deadline when Miami couldn’t afford to take on any salary burden from an incoming veteran.

But the issue will matter for 2018 because cap room can be carried over. And so if the Dolphins had not spent those $10 million on Cutler and signed a backup instead, for example, they would have an extra $7-$8 million in cap space to carry over next year.

The New York Jets will be carrying over approximately $17 million from this season to next.

The Buffalo Bills will be carrying over approximately $12 million from this season to next.

The New England Patriots will be carrying over approximately $3.8 million.

The Dolphins will be carrying over that $600,000 or so they currently have.

So that one move, the Cutler signing, might affect the Dolphins ability to add a couple of starters in free agency next season. Said another way, adding Cutler this season might hurt Miami’s ability to compete both in free agency and on the field next season.

It would all be worthwhile if Cutler was leading a Dolphins playoff charge this season. That might be worthwhile if Cutler was having a great season. But neither of those is true.

Cutler, like most of the rest of the players in the Miami locker room, has had an inconsistent season. Up. And down.

The Miami offense is 31st in points scored.

Cutler is ranked 25th among 35 quarterbacks who have started games this season.

So has Cutler delivered good return on the investment? That speaks for itself.

Before Cutler was added, the Dolphins did some heavy lifting to improve the tight end position in the offseason. The team signed Anthony Fasano to a one-year deal. And Miami traded away a seventh-round draft pick to Jacksonville in exchange for Julius Thomas and then redid the tight end’s contract.

Fasano has been a good addition. It’s a winning offseason move. He’s only caught seven passes and scored one touchdown but he’s a good blocker and was actually the team’s best tight end early in the year. So the team is more or less getting its $2.75 million worth from Fasano.

Not so with Thomas.

Julius Thomas: He is costing $5.6 million against the cap, which is the fifth-highest cap number on the active roster, and has not lived up to expectations so far.

He has caught 29 passes for 290 yards with two touchdowns. But he has dropped a handful of passes, he has time and again failed to win one-on-one matchups, particularly in the red zone even against smaller defensive backs. He also rarely breaks a tackle.

Multiple times Gase has said Thomas hasn’t had better games because the coverage has prevented it. It seems more like Thomas simply doesn’t have the kind of speed he had when Gase coached him in Denver as late as 2014.

This weekend the Dolphins play the New England Patriots, who will come into the game with one and perhaps two productive tight ends.

Coverages don’t seem to often limit Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.

The Dolphins may argue Thomas was worth the cost. Actually, they don’t argue this at all because the team already believes he won’t be on the roster in 2018 for the final season of his contract.

At age 30, Thomas can be on the Miami 2018 roster at a cost of $6.6 million. The Dolphins can also cut Thomas and save the entire amount.

I’ll give you one guess which the Dolphins will do.

Andre Branch: The Dolphins did an absolutely fabulous job adding Branch late in the 2016 offseason. They paid him $2.75 million and he rewarded them with 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 49 total tackles. He went from part-time player through six games to full-time starter afterward.

Branch had single game high tackles of six against Arizona, five against Buffalo and San Francisco, and four against San Diego. He factored.

So the Dolphins rewarded the defensive end with a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason. The team obviously believed a player in a contract year delivering career-best numbers was more what Branch is than his previous seasons in Jacksonville when he had been something of a disappointment.

And to the apparent surprise of everyone within the Dolphins organization, Branch has regressed to the mean now that he has his new contract.

He has 16 total tackles in nine games. He has three sacks. He hasn’t had a sack since Oct. 8.

Branch this year is producing much like the player that was a disappointment in Jacksonville in 2014 and ’15 except now he’s making $8 million per season.

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Miami Dolphins LB Lawrence Timmons (94) returns to practice at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fla., Sept. 27, 2017. Timmons disappeared at the beginning of the regular season. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Lawrence Timmons: Forget that Timmons embarrassed the Dolphins and himself by leaving the team one day before the season opener. That alone casts doubt on the two-year, $12 million contract the 31-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers discard got from Miami.

The bigger trouble is Timmons is not a long-term solution to any issue and he is failing as a short-term solution because, lately, he is playing as if he’s worn out.

Timmons was signed to be a three-down linebacker. The problem is when he finally got back from his AWOL episode, which included a one-game suspension, Timmons played like a two-down linebacker who could get by on run downs but was exposed in pass coverage.

The issue with that? Timmons was exposed in pass coverage last season with the Steelers. And somehow the Dolphins thought that was a fluke or correctable.

The Steelers liked Timmons for his toughness, which he still has, and his occasional ability to blitz, which he can still do. But cover running backs or slot receivers or tight ends?

Nope.

Timmons last week became a two-down player as the Dolphins tried to introduce Stephone Anthony into the pass coverage role on third down.

The problem with the Timmons deal is next year, at age 32, he’s not likely to be a better player. He’s trending in the wrong direction. But the Dolphins are on the hook for an $8.2 million cap hit if he’s on the team.

Now this is where the Dolphins have gotten lucky: With Timmons going AWOL, he had to forfeit the guaranteed portion of his 2018 salary to get back on the team, a fact I reported first several months ago. So the Dolphins can cut Timmons this offseason and because earlier this season he left the team without permission, he would cost the team only $2.75 million in dead money rather than the $7.25 million he would have cost otherwise.

Timmons, a mistake signing last offseason, will likely be cut in this coming offseason.

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Miami Dolphins DE William Hayes 95, runs a defensive drill during training camp at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fla., July 31, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

William Hayes: It was a good trade for the Dolphins. Hayes has filled the role he was hired to fill — as an expert run stopper — to virtual perfection. He is a free agent after the season. My guess is the Dolphins would like to re-sign Hayes to do the same job after this season is over.

That would be a good move as long as, you know, the team doesn’t overpay a player who will be 33 next season.

Dilly, Dilly!

Kenny Stills: I didn’t love this re-signing at this price because I thought the Dolphins could get about the same production out of, say, Marquise Goodwin — the player I suggested as an option at the time — for about 1/8th the price. And, make no mistake, Goodwin has been solid for the San Francisco 49ers while having no real quarterback and playing for less than $2 million.

But I was nonetheless wrong.

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Miami Dolphins Kenny Stills (10) stiff arms Tampa Bay Buccaneers Ryan Smith (29) in the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., Nov. 19, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Stills has been good on and off the field for the Dolphins.

Stills leads the team in receiving yards (588) and yards per catch (14.7). His five touchdowns are on pace with the nine he scored last season. And with six games to play he has 40 catches compared to the 42 he had all last year.

All told this was a good football signing considering one other team offered Stills $10 million per season and the Dolphins got him for $8 million per season.

Off the field, Stills is a quiet leader. He took it upon himself to tutor Jakeem Grant and Leonte Carroo in the offseason. No, it hasn’t paid dividends but it’s admirable. He’s always at the team facility and enthusiastically tried to convince visiting free agents to sign with the Dolphins.

Stills also is good in the community and although that does not factor one iota to the win-loss record, it should be acknowledged. On a team that had a player go AWOL and another who was arrested at a club when he was still out partying at 8:30 in the morning, Stills offers a strong counter argument to that influence within the locker room.

So this move has been a good one by the Dolphins so far.

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Miami Dolphins Kiko Alonso (47) tackles Tennessee Titans Rishard Mathews (18) in the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., Oct. 8, 2017. ROY VIERA For The Herald

Extending Kiko Alonso and Reshad Jones: The Dolphins didn’t have to do either of these moves. But I understand the reasoning, including the idea that owner Stephen Ross promised Jones a new deal the previous year. Sometimes moves get done from higher sources.

Anyway, Alonso would have been a restricted free agent. The Dolphins could have put a first-round tender, worth about $3.91 million, on Alonso and any team wanting to sign him would have had to give Miami a first-round pick if the Dolphins didn’t match the offer.

The Dolphins, however, valued Alonso so much they signed him to a four-year contract costing $28.9 million. Cool. Good value overall.

Alonso leads the team in tackles and is second in tackles for losses. But he’s not as good in coverage this season as last season and he’s not delivering turnovers like he did last season when he was responsible for seven, including a game-winning interception at San Diego. This season Alonso has played a role in two turnovers.

The Dolphins believe Alonso’s coverage problems are a result of his desire to cover up failings by Timmons, so there’s that. They consider Alonso a cornerstone on the defense.

But that doesn’t change the fact the Dolphins are paying more while getting fewer big plays from Alonso so far this season.

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Miami Dolphins Reshad Jones (20) tackles a New York Jets player at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., Oct. 22, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Same story with Jones. He is the team’s second-leading tackler. He scored a touchdown on a fumble return against Tennessee and sealed the victory in Atlanta with a last-minute interception of Matt Ryan.

Big plays.

And that’s what Jones has promised and often delivered the last few years.

But that and more is what’s supposed to happen because Jones had his contract renegotiated this offseason and he went from an $8 million-a-year player to a $12 million-a-year player.

Jones is having a good season. No issue there.

But is he having a season that’s $4 million better than his 2015 or even injury-shortened 2016?

Both the Alonso and Jones extensions were not wrong. They were not bad.

But great work? Awesome? Prescient?

Debatable.

(OK, it’s Thanksgiving. Give yourself a break. Go get some turkey and stuffing or something. Then come back and read the rest. If you’re reading this after your meal and haven’t gotten indigestion, then read on).

The offensive line moves and philosophy behind them: This is a big one because a majority of the problems the oft-troubled Dolphins offense is enduring have roots in the offensive line.

Let’s begin with the move to cut Branden Albert and move Laremy Tunsil from left guard to left tackle. The Dolphins felt this was a no-brainer because Albert was declining but his cap number was not. So they saved approximately $7 million in cap space by cutting Albert.

I have no issue whatsoever with this so far.

But here’s my problem … The team moved Laremy Tunsil from guard to left tackle and knowing that their second-year player and first-year starting left tackle was still young and inexperienced, they undervalued the need to help him by teaming him up with an excellent guard.

The Dolphins actually undervalued guards, period. They didn’t want to pay for the position. And they didn’t use a premium draft pick for the position, either.

So they paid Ted Larsen approximately $5.65 million for two years as almost an afterthought move. The team was clearly blindsided by how fast and how high guard salaries soared in free agency.

The move that should have been made is either using the $7 million saved on Albert on a premium guard or drafting a guard with a premium pick. I would also opt for the drafting of that guard.

Instead, Larsen seems like an afterthought signing and the drafting of Isaac Asiata on the third day of the draft seems like an afterthought selection. Larsen is serviceable at best and Asiata is getting a “redshirt” year to improve his strength even though he’s going to be 25 years old next month.

The result of what the Dolphins did? Tunsil, a young and unestablished NFL left tackle, hasn’t had a quality veteran presence next to him to guide him as Albert did last year. And so the left side of the Miami offensive line, expected to be a strength, has not been.

The Dolphins at the end of last season expected to move on from Jermon Bushrod. That was the plan. But, again, the price of free agent guards soared.

And so suddenly, Bushrod for $3 million seemed like a good idea. Bushrod is a stopgap. He’s great in the locker room but not as much on the field where he should be getting more double-team help in pass protection but isn’t.

One more offensive line issue that didn’t come up in offseason moves but was an offseason conversation: The Dolphins banked center Mike Pouncey would be the same player this year as he’s been in the past. He’s not. His pass protection remains excellent. His run blocking has declined.

He’s due to cost $9 million against the cap next season but the team can save $7 million by cutting him. That is going to require a very lengthy and difficult conversation among the team’s braintrust.

T.J. McDonald: The grade here is incomplete because the guy has played all of two games. The Dolphins believe they’ve added an elite safety at a bargain $500,000 for eight games this season and $6 million per season for four years after that. Safeties of his caliber can get $8 million per year so the Dolphins believe they got a bargain.

If McDonald plays as advertised and stays out of trouble after serving his suspension, then yes, enlightened move.

The 2017 draft: First the really, really, really good: Davon Godchaux has been very good when one measures … A. The team’s need at the position. B. The fact he was found in the fifth round. C. The fact Godchaux should be the team’s rookie of the year and on some plays is the team’s best defensive lineman.

Davon Godchaux is at this stage the team’s best draft pick in 2017.

The Dolphins boast they have up to three rookies start on defense this year and up to six rookies (including undrafted rookies) actually playing snaps. They see activity as a good thing.

I see achievement as a good thing.

Defensive end Charles Harris, drafted in the first round, has one sack. He flashes on occasion and other times not so much. The coaches love him.

Fans will love him when/if he’s a double-digit sack guy. And I side with the fans because, again, achievement is more important than activity.

Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, drafted in the second round, is out for the season. Incomplete grade.

Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, drafted in the third round, is starting now. He’s coming off a good game against Tampa Bay. He’s struggled in multiple other games. In my view, he’s ahead of schedule so this seems like a good pick.

Guard Isaac Asiata, drafted in the fifth round, was mentioned above.

Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor is not as far along as Godchaux but he’s shown good value as a part-time player. Very good third day of the draft selection.

Overall: The point of an offseason is to improve a team. Judging it by another way is spin. The Dolphins earlier this season thought they used the offseason to “fix” the defense only to find their defense declining the past five games. The team used the offseason to keep players it valued at home. Except several of those players are delivering less than they did last season.

Yes, some things were done well.

And some moves probably shouldn’t be judged too harshly because a turnaround is still possible and we don’t know what might happen longterm.

But there is no doubt the Dolphins, looking to hit a home run last offseason, are having to settle for much less.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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