The only thing the 2019 Miami Dolphins might win between now and December is an ugly season contest.
So Dolphins fans are medicating their pain by having warm and fuzzy thoughts of next spring when the draft will come bearing three first-round picks, and free agency will beckon, with the Dolphins holding perhaps $125 million in disposable salary cap space.
The facts in the previous paragraph are compelling, and the Dolphins this week fed fans begging for any morsel of optimism by allowing general manager Chris Grier to share a glimpse of the strategy the team will use to start building next March.
That strategy is, in part, the Dolphins are going into the next free agency period loaded with more cap space than any other NFL team and more space than this franchise has ever had since the salary cap was introduced in 1994.
Making these facts a big deal is that owner Stephen Ross is expected to open his vault and let his football people spend.
And Grier intends to go for it.
“We’ll be very aggressive,” the GM said. “We’re not going to sit here on a bunch of money or anything. The plan is to build a winner here. No one likes losing. We’ve talked about building a team that’s going to win and compete for championships for a long time instead of being in this one year, and then you fall back for two or three.
“Again, it is a long-term vision, but we will be aggressive.”
Cool. But you know what’s coming next ...
Having salary cap space and money to spend is one thing. Adding excellent players who eventually help the franchise become a contender rather than a disappointing pretender is something altogether different.
And the problem is the Dolphins throughout their history have often cleared cap space and gone into an offseason intending to spend. Under both Wayne Huizenga and then Ross, there has been a commitment in the past to burn through money like it’s trash.
And yet ... no championships.
No lasting success.
Just unfulfilled promises of making things better.
So what’s going to be different this time? Why believe a repeat of the 2013 offseason — when the Dolphins had the NFL’s third-most salary cap space and multiple picks in the draft’s first two rounds but netted nothing good — isn’t going to repeat?
Multiple club officials familiar with Grier’s free agency intentions say the Dolphins are not necessarily going to be chasing the two or three most expensive players available in free agency and then call it a day. Grier’s approach instead will be to add multiple good players, but not necessarily the highest-priced players.
And what does that mean tangibly?
Don’t expect a replay of the Ndamukong Suh chase.
Don’t expect a replay of the Mike Wallace chase.
In short, expect the Dolphins to try to sign maybe 10-15 good players who cost $65 million to $75 million in cap space rather than set the market’s ceiling with three stars.
That seems like a logical approach. A sound approach.
It’s an approach that straddles the line between being aggressive and sensible.
The problem is that free agency, by its nature, usually offers teams fool’s gold talent. And the Dolphins’ free agency history is filled with instances of the club falling for the free agency banana-in-the-tailpipe trick.
Let’s address the second issue here:
The Dolphins’ history of identifying, signing, and developing free agents into significant contributors is not good. It has not been good since Keith Jackson in 1992.
Yes, the team has added some players who have helped the cause for a year or two. Those include Kevin Donnalley, Keith Byars, Andre Goodman, Brent Grimes, and Branden Albert.
But the Dolphins have never found a keeper in free agency. Never.
Not under Don Shula.
Nor Jimmy Johnson.
Nor Nick Saban.
Nor Bill Parcells.
And not under Grier, Mike Tannenbaum and Adam Gase the past four years.
The truth is the club’s history in free agency is quite well stocked with busts. Significant busts. Costly busts.
Suh. Wallace. Karlos Dansby. Lawrence Timmons. Phillip Wheeler, Jake Grove, Eric Green, Gene Atkins. All these men were very good players elsewhere and some even delivered good moments in Miami.
But setbacks and disappointment are themes common to all their stories. All failed to accomplish what they were paid handsomely to accomplish. All were cut by the Dolphins before their big free agency contracts, signed amid great hope, expired.
So right now you’re wondering what Green, who missed 39 practices in his lone 1995 season with the team, has to do with 2020?
It makes the point that Miami’s free agency disappointments began decades ago and didn’t stop in 2016 when Grier was part of the triumvirate running the team. And it didn’t stop in 2019 when Grier was solely in charge of the free agency work.
The Dolphins signed 28 veteran free agents prior to the start of training camp the past four offseasons dating to 2016. Only six remain on today’s team.
Only one of those six — receiver Albert Wilson — joined the team before 2019.
Only one of those six — cornerback Eric Rowe — is a starter.
So it’s not an expansive list of recent success while the list of recent disappointments is replete with some big names and some big contracts: Mario Williams, Andre Branch, Arian Foster, Lawrence Timmons, T.J. McDonald, Ted Larsen, Josh Sitton, Danny Amendola, and Brock Osweiler.
The list of 2019 failures, under Grier and new coach Brian Flores, doesn’t include big contracts. But the misses — Dwayne Allen, Jordan Mills, Clive Walford — nonetheless failed to serve their intended purpose of upgrading the team.
So here’s a key question: If nearly 80 percent of veteran free agents are gone after only two or three seasons, as we have seen recently, how does free agency lead to that lasting success the Dolphins are chasing? Because teams cannot cut big contracts and continue to have significant cap space.
Two more points ...
Cap space must never be considered in a vacuum. The Dolphins will have the most cap space in the league in 2020, but other teams will also have significant space to compete with Miami for the best players.
Seven other teams will have more than $75 million in cap space next year, according to overthecap.com. A whopping 18 teams other than Miami will have more than $50 million in cap space.
The point is any number of teams will be able to pay just as much as the Dolphins for different free agents. Aside from that, the Dolphins will have to overcome a recent history for failing to convince players to come to the team, a phenomenon we witnessed in 2019 when Miami wanted Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater but couldn’t land either.
Finally, it must be noted what free agency actually is: It’s a tool to help build a team but not the best tool because at its root teams are paying to pick up someone else’s discards.
NFL teams have become better at not letting their elite players get to free agency at all. There are practically no A+ players available in free agency anymore. Even the most talented players who go into that pool often come with issues — such as durability concerns or character flaws.
Simply look at some players the Dolphins let go recently.
Ja’Wuan James signed a four-year, $51 million deal with Denver this offseason. To the Broncos, he is supposed to become a cornerstone on the line. The Dolphins liked James but understood he played 16 games in only two of his five Miami seasons.
James is injured and missing games with the Broncos now.
Free agency helps in some instances, but the disappointments are bigger because the contracts are way bigger. Consider:
Nick Foles signed an $88 million deal in Jacksonville and he’s injured.
C.J. Mosley signed an $85 million in New York and he’s injured.
The Jets are 0-2 with Le’Veon Bell, who signed a $52 million deal.
Kirk Cousins signed an $84 million deal in Minnesota last year, but they didn’t make the playoffs despite going to the NFC title game the previous year. Case Keenum didn’t lift the Broncos and he was traded. The Redskins are winless with Landon Collins, as are the Giants with Golden Tate, who is injured.
So, yes, the promise of free agency helping the Dolphins starting in 2020 is real. But so are the risks of significant disappointment.
Be excited. But know that history says be wary.