Armando Salguero

Dolphins salary cap primer: Moves coming that will free up money — but lots more to do

Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins’ highest paid player, might not be in the team’s future plans.
Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins’ highest paid player, might not be in the team’s future plans. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Today’s snapshot of the NFL’s projected salary cap rankings for 2018 presents a bad picture for the Miami Dolphins. Yeah, actually, it looks terrible.

It’s the Dolphins currently projecting to be over the salary cap kind of terrible. It’s the Dolphins sitting in the second-worst salary cap situation of any NFL team kind of terrible.

With 55 players under contract, the Dolphins would be between $7 million and $8 million over a projected $177 million salary cap. And that’s just for the top 51 contracts the NFL counts during the offseason.

So Mike Tannenbaum, the Dolphins executive vice president who’s primary function is to handle the team’s cap affairs, needs to get on his horse.

Tannenbaum and the Dolphins will be doing a lot of work this offseason to get the Dolphins under the cap by the March 14 start of the league year. And after that’s accomplished, they’ll have to do more work to give the Dolphins some cap room to actually compete in free agency.

But here’s a couple of warnings:

Regardless of how much work the Dolphins do, they will not be as flush with cap space as a majority of the other NFL teams already are.

And in a free agency market that NFL sources are saying will not be brimming with awesome talent, what few good players are available will be paid. And I do mean paid. Because teams with more money than Miami will be driving up the prices on a few elite players.

So what does this all mean for the Dolphins?

It means they have to find a way to create cap space in the next three weeks. And they will.

The Miami Herald has learned the team will cut tight end Julius Thomas by March 14. That will save $6.6 million in cap space.

The Miami Herald has learned the team will cut linebacker Lawrence Timmons by March 14. That will save $5.4 million in cap space.

The Dolphins could also terminate the fifth-year option on offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James. That would make James a free agent. And it will save the Dolphins $9.34 million.

Those three moves would save the Dolphins $21 million.

Suddenly, the Dolphins will be cap compliant at around $11 million under the limit. But that will still leave them near the bottom of the cap pool because, remember, this is in an environment where the Cleveland Browns are scheduled to open with about $110 million in space.

Even after these cuts, the Dolphins will have the least cap space in the AFC East.

So more will have to be done. Tannenbaum could have saddle sores from all his work.

The good news, I’m told by multiple club sources, is the Dolphins wrote and timed contracts in a manner that gives them flexibility to create necessary cap room.

The Dolphins could restructure quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s contract and save $11.123 million in cap space this year. The restructure involves turning base salary into signing bonus, which would then be prorated over the final two years (2019 and 2020) of Tannehill’s contract.

The club could do a similar exercise with safety Reshad Jones and save $7 million in cap space.

It could save $4.79 million doing this with Kenny Stills, $4.72 million doing it with Kiko Alonso, and another $3.5 million doing it with Andre Branch.

The point is if the Dolphins needed to create enough cap space to go crazy in free agency, they could wipe up to $31 million in cap cost off the 2018 books simply by restructuring deals for players they currently plan to keep.

Tannenbaum put these options in place a year or two ago before he got on the horse.

But there’s more and this is where it gets intriguing.

The two biggest salary cap issues the Dolphins face this offseason involve receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

The Dolphins currently seem to be under water because they’ve got a $16.2 million cap hit budgeted for Landry since Tuesday evening when they made him their franchise player. It would shock if that number stands all of 2018.

The Dolphins can remove the tag and suddenly they have $16.2 million more in cap space.

The Dolphins can trade Landry and suddenly they have $16.2 million more in cap space.

The Dolphins can sign Landry to a long-term contract and the cap space will necessarily come down because such a deal will involve guaranteed monies that prorate over the life of the contract. This, by the way, is the least likely scenario. The Dolphins aren’t signing Landry to a long-term contract unless they or the player cave on earlier negotiating positions.

And neither is currently motivated to do that.

The point is if Jarvis Landry carries a $16.2 million cap figure into the regular season, something went wrong. Plans went awry. Tannenbaum not only fell off the fictional horse but got trampled by it.

There’s also the problem of what to do with Suh. And, yes, it’s a problem.

Suh is a good player who had a good season in 2018 despite overcoming a knee injury suffered against Oakland Nov. 5. He started 16 games and has started all 126 games of his career.

He’s a steel horse, to stick with a recurring theme.

But Suh is scheduled to cost the Dolphins $26.1 million in cap space this year. That’s the most on the team, the most by any defensive player, the most by any non-quarterback, and third overall behind only quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford.

Think of this: Suh’s cap cost in Miami this year is higher than six Super Bowl winning quarterbacks are costing their teams.

Suh’s production does not match his cost despite the fact he’s pretty good.

So what to do?

The Dolphins can trade Suh and save $3.9 million in cap space and get compensation in return. This makes sense in a salary cap environment where multiple teams could absorb such a contract.

The Dolphins can designate Suh as a post-June 1 cut, get no compensation, but save a whopping $17 million in cap space. This is currently the most likely scenario if the Dolphins choose to move in a different direction.

And here’s the thing: The Dolphins are not dismissing the idea. Or any idea.

In plotting strategy, the Dolphins are considering every option. Because the current snapshot of the salary cap is unacceptable and the Dolphins are going to change it.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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