It’s highly questionable if the Dolphins would pick a quarterback at No. 11 for these four reasons: faith in and commitment to Ryan Tannehill for 2018, the chance the four top quarterback prospects could be gone in the top 10, far more pressing needs elsewhere and the issue of job preservation.
Fact is, the Dolphins executives know their chances of sticking around long-term are better if they win this year. And their chances of winning are better if they draft a player who helps immediately instead of a quarterback who could spend a year or two on the bench.
That said, a quarterback at 11 could happen if the Dolphins brass falls in love with one of the quarterbacks and if that player slips to 11th, though ESPN’s Todd McShay has the draft’s most-ballyhooed quarterbacks (USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield) all going in the top six in his latest mock draft.
There is a way — more than one, in fact — in which the Dolphins could fill most of their pressing needs in free agency and make a guilt-free quarterback selection at No. 11.
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Here’s one way to do it:
▪ Clear out $50 million in cap space, which is doable. The Dolphins enter the offseason with about $8.8 million in space based on a $178 million cap, per overthecap.com.
That figure includes a measly $69,161 in carryover space — which would have been more than $10 million if they hadn’t signed Jay Cutler last August.
But that $8.8 million could grow to $42.4 million by releasing Ja’Wuan James, Lawrence Timmons and Julius Thomas — all moves that are expected — and by lowering Ndamukong Suh’s $26.1 million cap hit by converting some of that base salary into a signing bonus. If they hypothetically convert $12 million, that would reduce his hit to $14 million but come with future cap consequences.
Then, to get to $50 million in space, the Dolphins could restructure Tannehill and Mike Pouncey. They could create more than $50 million if the Dolphins restructure Cam Wake or do an even more ambitious Suh restructuring.
The Dolphins need $8.2 million to sign their draft class, another $1.3 million or so for a practice squad and $3 million to protect themselves if they need to sign veterans in the event of a slew of training camp injuries.
So let’s shave about $13 million off that hypothetical $50 million. So that gives you about $37 million to use in free agency.
Here’s what I might do next:
▪ Sign a starting tight end. Though Jimmy Graham would be tempting, he’s on the downside at 31 and the Dolphins haven’t had luck the past few years with downside tight ends (Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas).
Unless Graham was willing to take a low-money deal (and I would be surprised if the Dolphins go in that direction), the recommended path here would be Philadelphia’s Trey Burton, the former Gator who threw a touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl and caught 60 passes the past two years playing behind Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
He’s versatile, young (26) and still has upside.
Graham and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (50 catches, 237 yards last season) would be fallback options.
One agent not affiliated with a free agent tight end predicts Burton will be slightly overpaid in a weak market and could get a deal similar to the one that the Colts last year gave Jack Doyle (three years, $19 million). That would mean a cap hit in the range of $6 million to $8 million, with potential to make it lower the first season and higher the second and third.
So let’s say the Dolphins sign Burton and the cap hit is $6 million. That brings you down to $31 million in space after factoring in signing draft picks and filling out a practice squad.
▪ Sign a starting linebacker to replace Timmons. To avoid having Kiko Alonso in pass coverage as often, the recommendation here would be to prioritize a player who does that well.
The first call should go to Philadelphia free agent Nigel Bradham, who has been very good in coverage the past two years (PFF ranked him sixth among all linebackers in pass coverage last season) and plays the run well, too.
Bradham could slide into a starting job at outside linebacker, alongside Alonso and Raekwon McMillan. The Eagles are up against the cap this offseason but would like to keep Bradham, from all indications.
If the Dolphins cannot get Bradham, the Jets’ Demario Davis (135 tackles, five sacks) and the Raiders’ NaVorro Bowman (127 combined tackles for the 49ers and Oakland) would be appealing.
Davis wasn’t great in pass coverage earlier in his career but was fine last year (20th of 77, according to PFF) and can play inside or outside.
Bowman fell off in coverage in 2016 but was better last year (24th of 77, per PFF) and is a tackling machine.
Zach Brown, who met with the Dolphins last spring but didn’t get an offer to his liking, is again a free agent and has some attractive qualities (he had 127 tackles, 2.5 sacks), but PFF rated him 77th and last among linebackers in pass coverage. Alonso was 75th.
Remember, the cap hit is bigger for Alonso if he’s cut than if he’s kept, so it makes no sense to move on from Alonso, who can be an asset if he’s not used excessively in coverage.
One agent not affiliated with these linebackers said he believes it would be possible to land at least one of these three (Bradham, Davis, Bowman) with a cap hit in the $6 million range. So let’s take Miami’s cap space down to $25 million in this hypothetical scenario.
▪ Because the free agent class of offensive tackles (at least at this moment) is awful, a case could be made to try to keep James at a reduced salary — perhaps $6 million, if that’s enough to get him back (iffy). That takes you down to about $19 million in space in this scenario.
If not, the Dolphins could move Jesse Davis to right tackle (Miami believes he could play well there) and sign a guard.
Here’s where it gets complicated.
▪ If possible, try to reach a multiyear deal with Jarvis Landry that would give him a palatable cap number in 2018. The Packers’ DeVante Adams got $14.8 million per year in a four-year deal, but his first-year cap hit was $10.5 million.
If the Dolphins did that type of deal — and at the moment, they’re not offering a contract that rich — then your cap space would be below $9 million in the aforementioned scenario of signing a starting tight end, starting linebacker and starting offensive lineman and keeping Landry.
That would leave Miami with very limited space to sign a fourth defensive end (perhaps William Hayes), special teams ace Michael Thomas, free agent Damien Williams and a No. 3 tackle (perhaps Sam Young), plus a veteran arm if you want an experienced backup quarterback other than a high-round rookie.
Your other option, if you sign a starting tight end and linebacker and a starting offensive lineman, would be bypassing Landry and using your second-round pick, or at worst, third-round pick, on a slot receiver. (And then maybe draft UM’s Braxton Berrios if he’s available later on.)
For the record, I would try to keep Landry. But you’re sacrificing elsewhere if you do or reducing the chance of being able to take a QB in the first two rounds if you want to keep that option available.
And if you do not sign a starting linebacker in free agency and invest your money in Landry, a tight end, an offensive lineman and depth pickups, it would then become essential to draft a linebacker in the first or second round.
If you’re advocating the notion that the Dolphins need to draft a quarterback in the first two rounds to create eventual competition for Tannehill or protect themselves if he’s injured, another option is to take the best player at a need position in the first round — perhaps Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley if Landry isn’t re-signed, one of the two Notre Dame linemen or linebackers Roquan Smith or Tremaine Edmunds — and draft Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph if available in the second round.
Keep in mind that Kenny Stills, while an excellent boundary receiver, was very good in the slot last season, per Pro Football Focus.
Do any of these scenarios make Miami a Super Bowl contender? No.
Am I an advocate of drafting a quarterback in the first round? Not if you haven’t addressed linebacker and tight end with starting caliber players in free agency.
But at the very least, this plan fills glaring holes and puts the Dolphins in position to use their first-rounder and second-rounder on the best available player, even a quarterback, without any major regrets.