Slowly, some Dolphins offseason decisions are coming into focus. It’s clear that Miami cannot afford, from a cap flexibility standpoint, to keep DeVante Parker at the $9.4 million he’s owed (nonguaranteed) for 2019. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s no veteran quarterback option this offseason who will be clearly better than Ryan Tannehill.
It’s clear that rookie Jerome Baker can handle a starting linebacker job. It’s clear they can’t count on rookie Mike Gesicki to be their starting tight end in 2019, unless he makes dramatic improvement. And it’s clear — after a rare bad day for Minkah Fitzpatrick on Sunday — that the Dolphins could use another starting cornerback in case they move Fitzpatrick back to safety.
But one position that’s very muddled, and very much in flux, is the defensive line — so much so that not a single player in the current defensive line rotation can confidently say he will be back next season except Davon Godchaux.
Cameron Wake is an impending free agent who’s still making an impact but is in no longer in position to demand $8 million a year (his current salary) considering his modest sack numbers (4.5, down from 10.5 last season, with two games missed due to injury this season). The question is whether Wake — who likes it here — and agent Paul Sheehy and Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum arrive at a number that the Dolphins find palatable and Wake doesn’t find insulting. I would expect a Dolphins offer, at the very least.
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The Dolphins told Wake’s camp early this past offseason that they wanted to extend him but nothing materialized. Wake can make the case that he has 45 pressures and 39 quarterback hurries (13th most among edge rushers) and is rated 18th overall by Pro Football Focus among qualifying defensive ends. But the Dolphins can say that he’s 70th among all defensive ends against the run.
Then there’s the question of what to do with two starters — Robert Quinn and Akeem Spence, who are in team-friendly situations in that (like Parker), they have 2019 contracts with no dead money if they’re cut.
Miami would erase all of Quinn’s $12.9 million 2019 cap hit and all of Spence’s $2.5 million hit by releasing them.
Three weeks ago, it appeared certain Quinn would be cut, and the odds are still in favor of that. But Quinn is giving the Dolphins something to think about with two sacks and eight pressures combined the past two weeks (including the critical sack to end New England’s possession before halftime), giving him 4.5 sacks for the season.
Quinn has posted the Dolphins’ highest PFF grade on defense for two consecutive weeks and is now rated 27th among 107 qualifying edge defenders.
And though Quinn’s 62.0 run-stopping grade is behind Wake’s, Adam Gase said Monday: ”I feel like he’s done a really good job of helping us out in the run game and tightening things down. And then he’s done a good job when he gets one-on-ones. He’s creating pressure.”
One team official cautioned that any quality starter wouldn’t cost a ton less than what some of these players are making, including Quinn. But it’s difficult to see Miami allocating the $12.9 million cap hit to Quinn unless he’s extraordinary the next three weeks. If they make smart investments, that $12.9 million could buy a pretty good end and a pretty good tackle.
Quinn said he has given no thought to whether Miami will keep him – “I was surprised I was traded [here]” – but is glad he’s contributing more.
“I’m finding my groove again,” he said. “There are two things you base your career off - wins and production. We were winning and I wasn’t producing so it was all right. And then we started losing and I wasn’t producing either, so it definitely was not all right. The way to keep our jobs around here is to produce. If I stop producing, then bring someone else in.”
Spence is a good locker room guy and a favorite of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, but if he stays at a reasonable $2.5 million, that means there’s room for only one other rotational tackle addition because Godchaux and Vincent Taylor (on injured reserve with a foot injury) are cheap and productive and not going anywhere.
Pro Football Focus ranks Spence just 98th of 116 qualifying defensive tackles, with Taylor 28th and Godchaux 33rd. So this is a tougher call.
Here’s what’s already clear:
Andre Branch looms as a likely cap casualty, with Miami able to shed $7 million off its cap and carry just $2 million in dead money if it moves on, as expected. His production (18 tackles, 1 sack) doesn’t warrant the nonguaranteed $6.9 million base salary for next season.
Charles Harris, who has just 14 tackles in eight games and hasn’t made a single memorable play all season, likely will return, unless the Dolphins can find a team that plays a 3-4 defense (where he might be better suited) willing to trade a mid-round pick for him.
Otherwise, it would be difficult for the Dolphins to project an automatic rotational role for him unless he does something — anything — notable in the final three games. His two career sacks are 9.5 less than the next defensive end drafted after him – 11.5 by Atlanta’s Takkarist McKinley and 15 less than the linebacker (T.J. Watt) drafted by Pittsburgh eight picks later.
“He overthinks some things,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke admitted last week about Harris, while insisting he’s playing well. “You have to kind of turn that part of his brain off sometimes. We’re asking him to just go. Just use his explosion and use his speed and use his athleticism and not let him overthinking things slow that part of his game down.”
Among 107 qualifying defensive ends, PFF rates Harris 91st and Branch 105th.
And what’s clear is that this line must have considerable personnel turnover, because Miami is neither good enough against the run (29th) or generating sacks (22 as a team, 31st in the league).