This is what the losing was for.
The Miami Dolphins, losers of 11 games in 2019 and owners of the most intentional tank job the NFL has seen since the 2016-17 Cleveland Browns, ended the first day of unofficial free agency as the biggest spenders by signing Byron Jones, Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy.
The 2019 season didn’t go exactly as planned for Miami, in large part because their coach coached too well and their veteran quarterback prone to performance dips didn’t dip often or frequently enough. But armed with the most cap space of any team, the Dolphins began deploying resources as soon as they could Monday afternoon.
Lawson, who will ink a $30 million deal over three years, joins a Dolphins team that brought up the league caboose in sacks last season. He will be 26 at the start of the season and joins a line coached by Marion Hobby, who also coached Lawson at Clemson.
Then, general manager Chris Grier made Byron Jones the highest-paid cornerback in the league with a five-year deal worth $82.5 million, including $67 million of that in guaranteed money. In a world with just the franchise or transition tag, the Cowboys were never going to be in a position to pay Jones what the market would say he’s worth. His signing in Miami comes after the Dolphins locked up fellow cornerback Xavien Howard to a five-year deal worth $76.5 million last year, giving the AFC East team one of the best cornerback duos in the league.
Finally, Grier brought in a familiar face for head coach Brian Flores, formerly the Patriots defensive coordinator. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy agreed to a four-year, $51 million contract Monday night that will be official Wednesday afternoon. All told, the Dolphins poured $163.5 million in total future (non-guaranteed money) into these three defensive positions.
Miami also awarded offensive lineman Ereck Flowers a three-year deal worth up to $30 million. Flowers has proven to be a far better guard than tackle, and clearly he was never a good fit in New York. But, to me, the price-point on this signing was more about the abundance of cap space than what was economically prudent.
But that’s the beauty of having what OverTheCap.com estimates was $82.6 million in cap space for 2020. You can overpay now for an interior offensive lineman because you just have so much darn money.
The second part of this overhaul is the draft. The Dolphins own three first-round picks and five picks in the first 56 selections in April’s draft. Miami has its own No. 5 overall pick, followed by Pittsburgh’s 18th and then the 26th from the Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills trade. (By the way, the Dolphins have the Texans first- and second-round picks in 2021, too.)
In a cruel twist though, the Dolphins still outdid their own intentional tanking model. On pace in September to be one of the worst teams in NFL history, the Dolphins did the right thing and lost 17-16 to Washington in Week 6. But Flores coached too well in November, and Ryan Fitzpatrick played too well in the winter, and what should have been a zero-to-two-win Dolphins squad turned into a 5-11 team that forced New England to play on Wild-Card Weekend.
Miami won too much, and now the Dolphins may have to use some of that draft capital to go as high as No. 2 in the draft to get Washington’s pick and nab Tua Tagovailoa if they so wish.
One issue standing in Miami’s way of this grand plan all working out: COVID-19. Restrictions that are sure to be placed on teams visiting with draft prospects could hurt the Dolphins’s pursuit of the Alabama quarterback, who was set to have his own pro day on April 9. Furthermore, the possible inability for the team to have its own doctors evaluate Tagovailoa as he continues to recover from hip surgery could prove an impediment in devoting too much draft capital for him.
But those are things out of Miami’s control. And the Dolphins should be celebrated for pulling off a successful one-year tank job.
Yes, I know some hate tanking of any degree. You play to win the game and whatever else you think you believe. A hard reset is what this organization needed, and it had alignment from ownership-down that agreed this was the path. There was no prolonged, half-decade “Process, nor was there some show of a flashing analytics department that the football staff would overrule.
This was a good, old-fashioned talentless team that believed in themselves too much and (slightly) threw off management’s plans. Still, the plan was sound and guys like Van Noy, Jones, Lawson and Flowers are thankful for it.
All the national jeering and punchlines. All the losing. All the screenshots of StubHub selling lower-level tickets for the price of a combo meal. The Dolphins endured it, and now they’re on the other side of it like Andy Dufresne, head to the sky and arms outstretched.