The NFL Combine, which begins this week, gets national attention as the place teams measure and meet draft eligible players. The Combine is outwardly all about the draft.
But it’s more than that.
The Combine is also about free agency and trades and just about any other personnel move an NFL team can make. And the Dolphins this week are expected to be all about those things.
Although the team has two more weeks before it must solidify roster decisions on its players and go into its 2019 free agency approach in the light of scrutiny, there are meetings with agents either already set up or expected the next few days that will give clarity to what Miami will do with its players and possible free agent targets.
Some players on the current roster or pending free agents who want clarity?
Xavien Howard. wants to know Miami’s approach to extending his contract.
Ja’Wuan James, about to hit free agency, wants to know if the Dolphins will try to re-sign him and what teams might be interested in him. The Dolphins, meanwhile, would probably like to know what kind of contract James is going to initially expect.
Cameron Wake would like to know if his days with the Dolphins are over.
Robert Quinn would like to know if he’s going to be cut.
DeVante Parker would like to know if he’s done in Miami, as expected.
Frank Gore would like to return but do the Dolphins want him back.
Andre Branch fears he’ll be cut but certainty is good.
Josh Sitton expects to be cut but certainty would be good.
Danny Amendola is signed for another year but is he one-year-and-done?
Ryan Tannehill expects to be cut and would like to know if what the team’s timetable will be. The Dolphins would prefer to trade him and so they might give Tannehill’s agent a chance to talk to other teams.
Several of those players -- including Sitton, Amendola, and Tannehill -- are signed to play for the Dolphins in 2020. But the team has a philosophical direction it wants to take starting this year and those players either because of age, performance, cap issues, or a combination of those, don’t match that direction.
Parker is for all intents signed for 2020 on a fifth-year option. But the Dolphins are expected to rescind that option, making him a free agent.
The agents would like clarity about what the Dolphins have in mind for their clients -- be it cut, trade, keep or re-sign.
At this Combine, those agents will be trying to get that clarity from the Dolphins. And that will test the words of general manager Chris Grier, who said recently the team expects to be “honest and transparent,” with its decisions.
The Dolphins will also be working off their already laid foundation on free agency during this Combine. The personnel department and coaching staff have already identified players they’d like.
Now the next step.
Although teams are not supposed to meet with or discuss potential interest with expected free agents, everyone pretty much is open to getting preliminary ideas of where players stand with their current teams and their future expectations.
Yes, NFL, agents and team personnel talk at the Combine!
And this is where the Dolphins are expected to stand in free agency: Think fill in gaps kind of guys as players they will target. While a player such as New England’s Trey Flowers would be an obvious target for the Dolphins because he fits the defensive system Miami will run and has history with head coach Brian Flores, it’s hard to fathom the defensive end on the Dolphins if his price tag is high.
Multiple NFL people instead are saying the Dolphins will be more about the lower rungs of free agency rather than expensive players valued in free agency’s first hours. Think bargains, if there are any. Think players who can serve as good depth.
(The Dolphins hope to find starters in the draft).
Also, think youth.
The Dolphins aren’t looking for the 32-year-old who can come in and help get a unit over the top. Not at this point, anyway.
So there should be changes in Miami’s approach but those are necessary because the truth of the matter is the Dolphins have lost in free agency for quite some time -- which further explains why they’ve lost on the field.
Last year alone the team signed four free agents who were expected to start or be major contributors. But those four -- Sitton, William Hayes, Albert Wilson and Frank Gore -- ended up on injured reserve, missing a combined 39 games.
And, no, free agency is not the answer to building a great team. Indeed, only four players who switched teams in the 2018 offseason as free agents of any kind made the Pro Bowl, according to the NFL Network.
But the NFL is about winning at as many roster-building opportunities as possible. And the Dolphins were the league’s biggest loser in giving up the most valuable free agents.
Because two of those four productive free agents -- center Mike Pouncey and safety and special teams player Michael Thomas -- went to the Pro Bowl after the Dolphins discarded them last offseason.
So the Dolphins must do a better job of evaluating free agency and their own roster.
Grier has said he’d rather sign three good players at a modest price than one great player at a very high cost. The only words missing from his sentence were Ndamukong and Suh.
The Dolphins won’t be going after those kind of players now.
But the new approach comes with pressure. Because if the Dolphins aren’t adding starting-caliber players in free agency then the draft must solve the need.
And last year the Dolphins had only 10 starters they drafted out of the 22 on offense and defense. So a majority of the team’s starters did not come from the draft.
Four of those 10 were drafted before Grier, Adam Gase and Mike Tannenbaum were running the team. So only six of Miami’s 22 offensive and defensive starters were drafted the past three years.
The Dolphins need to dramatically improve that number and this week’s Combine would be a good time to start.