With the Dolphins able to easily clear out more than $50 million in cap space, Miami will have ample spending money to address several needs.
The question Dolphins officials will assess, one by one, is whether each of these needs is best addressed in free agency or the draft. Here’s an early look at free agent options they assuredly will evaluate:
▪ Outside linebacker: Miami will try to upgrade over Lawrence Timmons, but the free agent market doesn’t offer a lot of great options. The experiment with the 31-year-old Timmons showed that the Dolphins need to be leery of older linebackers perceived to be on the downside.
If Miami wants a 30-or-younger quality starting outside linebacker via free agency, there are only a handful of choices, led by Detroit’s Tahir Whitehead (110 tackles) and Philadelphia’s Nigel Bradham (88 tackles, eight passes defended).
If the Dolphins go for an older linebacker, the Rams’ 31-year-old Connor Barwin (34 tackles, five sacks) is still productive.
If you want add inside linebackers (some of whom can play outside) to the list, the appealing 30-and-under free agent starters set to hit free agency are much deeper, a group including Washington’s Zach Brown (127 tackles and 2.5 sacks), NaVorro Bowman (127 tackles in 15 combined games for Raiders/49ers), the Jets’ Demario Davis (135 tackles, five sacks), Indy’s Jon Bostic (97 tackles and a sack; attended Palm Beach Central and UF), Tennessee’s Avery Williamson (92 tackles, three sacks), Buffalo’s Preston Brown (144 tackles) and Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens (84 tackles in 12 games).
The Dolphins had Zach Brown in for a visit last spring and he would certainly listen again if Miami revisits that.
The Dolphins also could wait to the draft to find a third starter to play alongside Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan and compete with Chase Allen and Stephone Anthony for playing time. Georgia’s Roquan Smith is one particularly appealing draft option, as ESPN’s Todd McShay explains here.
▪ Defensive end: The Dolphins have three pieces set for 2018 (Cam Wake, Andre Branch and Charles Harris) but will look to add a fourth.
Free agent William Hayes is viewed as a fallback option if he’s willing to take a low-money deal after free agency starts. Even though Branch was disappointing, it would cost more against Miami’s cap to cut him than keep him.
Considering the Dolphins have the fifth-fewest sacks in the league (30), a case could be made to sign a highly-skilled pass-rushing defensive end from a group including impending free agents Adrian Clayborn (9.5 sacks off the bench for Atlanta, age 29), Ezekiel Ansah (44 tackles, 12 sacks for Detroit and age 28), Alex Okafor (4.5 sacks in 10 games for New Orleans, age 26) or even 37-year-old Julius Peppers (11 sacks).
But it’s highly questionable if the Dolphins are willing to spend much money at this position, and Ansah, Okafor and Clayborn will command pricey contracts.
Dallas figures to do what’s necessary to keep DeMarcus Lawrence (14.5 sacks).
▪ Tight end: The Dolphins want to upgrade over Julius Thomas, but the draft might be the way to do it unless Miami can land Philadelphia’s Trey Burton or surprisingly decides to pursue Seattle impending free agent Jimmy Graham.
Though Graham’s 10 touchdown receptions were tied for second most in the NFL, he’s 31, his blocking has been criticized and he has a declining per-catch average (9.1 this past season).
Burton, 6-3, has been a capable backup to Zach Ertz and Brent Celek and has starting potential, with 60 catches combined during the past two years.
Beyond Dolphins backup Anthony Fasano (who said he might retire), the free agent tight end class is weak, highlighted by Carolina’s Ed Dickson (30 catches, 437 yards), the Jets’ Austin Seferian-Jenkins (50-357); Tyler Eifert (missed most of the season with a third back surgery and two years removed from 52-catch, 615-yard season), Denver’s Virgil Green (played for Adam Gase in Denver; 14 catches for 191 yards), Chicago’s Zach Miller (played for Gase; 20 catches for 236 yards).
▪ Guard: The Dolphins determined last season that they no longer want to spend big money at this position. So they tried to get by with Ted Larsen (who missed the first eight games with a torn biceps), Jermon Bushrod (who almost assuredly won’t be back as a player), Jesse Davis and Anthony Steen.
Larsen is expected back because he was competent and has a modest salary ($1.5 million) and cap hit ($1.9 million) and Davis is poised to start at guard or right tackle. But the Dolphins are expected to look to add a reasonably priced veteran who could compete to start.
Potential options include Vikings and former Dolphins impending free agent Joe Berger, who was Pro Football Focus’ 18th-best guard this season, Tennessee’s Josh Kline (23rd), San Francisco’s Brandon Fusco (21st), the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (58th) or — depending on their price — Green Bay’s Jahri Evans (30th), Kansas City’s Zach Fulton (15th), Dallas’ Jonathan Cooper (35th), the Giants’ Justin Pugh (tied for 53rd) Seattle’s Luke Joekel (tied for 53rd). Carolina’s Andrew Norwell (rated third by PFF) would be costly.
▪ Offensive tackle: The Dolphins very likely won’t pay Ja’Wuan James the $9.3 million he’s due.
If he doesn’t take a big cut — or if he’s not asked back at all — the Dolphins’ options are limited. They could select a right tackle in the first two days of the draft, with Texas’ Connor Williams an option at No. 11. They could move Davis there.
The least appealing option is signing another free agent, because the right tackle class is awful, with only one veteran starter Breno Giacomini (rated 85th among 86 tackles by PFF), several backups (LaAdrian Waddle, Michael Schofield, etc) and Bills and former Hurricanes player Seantrel Henderson, whose career has been marred by injuries and suspensions.
▪ The Dolphins could look to the draft to address their need for another running back.
• The Dolphins’ impending unrestricted free agents are Jarvis Landry, Jay Cutler, Hayes, Damien Williams, Fasano, Bushrod, Koa Misi, Nate Allen, Michael Thomas, Matt Moore, John Denney, Alterraun Verner, Sam Young, David Fales, Walt Aikens and Terrence Fede.