Barry Jackson

The free agent subplot that’s more important for the Dolphins than ever before

Typically for the Dolphins, the first few days of free agency mean big contracts, excitement that seldom leads to meaningful results in autumn and whispers about whether the Dolphins might have overpaid.

The second week of March this year?

It’s all about restraint, sticking to the plan and two very important words:

Compensatory picks!

Per NFL rules, teams can be awarded anywhere from one to as many as four total compensatory picks, from the third round through the seventh, for teams that lose more or better compensatory free agents than they sign.

And the Dolphins already have positioned themselves to pick up, potentially, a third-round pick in the 2020 draft after the Denver Broncos gave Ja’Wuan James a four-year, $51 million deal. That’s provided the Dolphins don’t sign a free agent to a similarly lucrative contract.

Additional picks could be added for losing Frank Gore (to Buffalo) and Cam Wake (not expected back) and the cumulative effect of losing other lower-profile free agents who remain unsigned, including Sam Young, Stephone Anthony, Brock Osweiler, William Hayes, Brandon Bolden, Ziggy Hood and Sylvester Williams, among others.

But all this comes with one caveat: The Dolphins must sign fewer free agents than they lose, particularly pricey free agents who are expected to play a lot.

And here’s the key: Players released, as opposed to free agents whose contracts are naturally expiring, do not count in the formula. So the Dolphins aren’t penalized for signing tight end Dwayne Allen, who was released by the Patriots.

But the Dolphins also won’t benefit from Danny Amendola signing with the Lions because he was released by Miami from an existing contract.

Same goes for Andre Branch and Ted Larsen when they eventually find teams, and potentially Ryan Tannehill and Robert Quinn, who remained under contract to the Dolphins as of 6 p.m. Tuesday but aren’t expected back.

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So how does this compensatory formula work? The NFL has never publicly revealed it, but the formula takes into account a player’s average annual salary and to a lesser extent, snap counts and postseason awards. Because of the last two factors, compensatory picks for the 2020 draft won’t be determined until next March.

Also, players must be signed as unrestricted free agents before May 8 to qualify for the compensatory-pick formula. No more than 32 total compensatory picks can be allotted by the league each year.

And one other thing, per The formula will occasionally award a “net value” compensatory pick for a team if that team loses and gains an equal number of compensatory free agents (CFAs), but the value of the CFAs lost is considerably greater than the value of CFAs gained.

So if the Dolphins want to play this right, and potentially get as many as four extra picks in the 2020 draft, here’s what they need to do:

Focus on signing players who were released by teams, instead of those who became free agents this week because their contracts expired.

So if it comes down to selecting a 2019 bridge quarterback and deciding whether to pay $8 million to Tyrod Taylor or instead to Blake Bortles (after he’s inevitably released by Jacksonville), sign Bortles because he wouldn’t count against Miami in the compensatory pick formula.

If it comes down to signing one of a bunch of free agent outside linebackers or a player who was cut such as Nick Perry, go with Perry if the price is right. (The 28-year-old Perry – who was coached by new Dolphins defensive coordinator Patrick Graham in Green Bay last year - was cut by the Packers on Tuesday after totaling 18 sacks in 26 games over 2016 and 2017 before his 2018 season was short-circuited by a wrist injury.)

And this is the one year where compensatory picks should be a high priority for Miami because the Dolphins hardly will be devastated if they don’t win much this upcoming season. The 2019 priority is rebuilding and developing young players with an eye on fixing quarterback by landing a high 2020 draft pick.

Incidentally, astute Dolphins podcaster Chris Kouffman predicts the Dolphins will quality for third- and seventh-round compensatory picks in 2020 for losing James and Gore, with the likelihood of earning a fifth-rounder once Wake signs elsewhere.

But again, the Dolphins cannot start signing highly-paid, high-impact compensatory free agents, or it would counter those gains.

And the team’s aforementioned lower-profile free agents (such as Young and Anthony) will affect the final compensatory pick allocation, as will Miami’s signing of free agents of that quality and salary.


The Dolphins protected themselves in Allen’s two-year, $7 million deal because his $3.15 million salary in 2020 is not guaranteed, according to terms of the contract shared with The Miami Herald by a league source. There would be minimal dead money ($625,000) if he’s surprisingly cut after one season.

The Dolphins aren’t tendering restricted free agent linebacker Mike Hull, according to his agent, Mike McCartney. He will become an unrestricted free agent.

Quinn is due a $1.1 million roster bonus on Friday, meaning it would be in the Dolphins’ best interests to part ways with him by Friday if they are going to part ways with him (as expected).

The Dolphins, who have been trying to trade Quinn, would clear out his entire $12.9 million cap hit and $11.8 million base salary by cutting him.

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