Analyzing the Dolphins salary cap: An interview with Jason Fitzgerald

While every Dolphins fan dreams of the roster’s next iteration…in the words of the O’Jays, “money money money, monnnnneeeeyyy!” Regardless of the whom the new general manager may be, an integral component of the Miami Dolphins 2014 offseason direction will be dictated by the team’s salary cap.

Overthecap.com (OTC) was recently developed by founder Jason Fitzgerald with a hope of being, “the most comprehensive NFL contract and salary cap website on the web.” I cannot recommend this resource strongly enough; the wealth of information they provide for each and every NFL team’s salary cap situation is astounding to say the least. The salary cap calculator, alone, allows any given fan to play GM in a way that brings contractual realities to a sobering light. Ok, enough with my enthusiastic plug, what’s going on with Miami’s salary cap?

Before we get to the questions that Jason so graciously answered for us, let’s start some background information. The majority of this information can be found on OTC or via their Miami Dolphins 2014 Financial Scouting Report – http://overthecap.com/2014-miami-dolphins-offseason-salary-cap-financial-report/

The Dolphins have 13 unrestricted free agents from their 2013 roster including notable names Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, and Brent Grimes and 3 of this season’s starting offensive linemen in Jerry, Clabo, and McKinnie. On average, as compared to the rest of the NFL, the Dolphins have invested less money to both the offensive and defensive units entering the 2014 season. When broken down by position, on offense the largest cap spend is on WR (Mike Wallace 2014 cap charge is $17.25 M) and on defense the largest cap spend is on LB (Ellerbe/Wheeler 2014 cap charge totals $13.825 M). Onwards to the interview.

Overall Roster

How would you characterize the overall health of the Miami Dolphins salary cap heading into this offseason?

Miami is in good cap shape heading into 2014. I don’t think I would call the situation great because they have a number of free agents who are starters, but they do have a great deal of flexibility as they can always create more cap room by restructuring the contract of Mike Wallace. Basically they can decide if they want to keep the team intact or go outside the organization and add to it. Only 8 or 9 teams can say that this year.

It has often been pointed out that the Dolphins have had a lack of drafting success over the last several years, is this reflected by the salary make up of the roster in terms of proportional spend on draft picks vs FA acquisitions?

Absolutely. The Dolphins have not re-signed a first round draft pick to a contract since Ronnie Brown who was drafted in 2005. When you don’t extend those players it skews your salary cap tremendously as well as the makeup of your team. Just looking at free agents vs draft picks the team has about 52% of their cap invested in free agent signings, not including the waiver pickup of Dimitri Patterson. Players drafted by the Dolphins only account for 39.5% of the active roster cap spending.

Your offseason report shows the proportion of roster spend made up of draft pick by round and on drafted players, free agents, and undrafted players. Is this a typical breakdown of team spend or are the Dolphins higher/lower in certain areas as compared to the league average? (As an aside, is there a typical breakdown for successful teams? My assumption would be that a typical playoff team would have more proportional spend on drafted players and less on free agents.)

Based on the teams I am most familiar with they are underinvested in top draft talent and instead have focused more on players who have maybe exceeded their draft status. They have a good deal of undrafted players on their roster. In terms of how they acquired those players it’s somewhat close to the league averages. (I don’t really have a breakdown of successful vs unsuccessful as of now but I’d imagine you are correct. I think better teams enhance through free agency but spend on their own high picks. Miami is backwards with the spending having a high figure for free agent spending and low figure for in house spending.)

Which part(s)/unit(s) of the Dolphins roster do you think has/have generated the highest value – performance/spend?

The two spots where Miami got great value last season were the defensive end and cornerback positions. The value at DE comes from a very strong deal that the team signed with Cameron Wake that was back-loaded with incentives and pretty low cost on the front end. He is essentially giving the team huge value at ¾ of the cost. At corner you had two low cost guys- Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll- giving the Dolphins top level performance. Both are free agents though this year so their value will likely disappear next season if they are both in Miami.

Vice versa, which part(s)/unit(s) do you see generating the worst value?

Wide receiver is almost a total bust for the Dolphins. Brian Hartline exceeds his value but Mike Wallace is a $7 or $8 million dollar playing hiding in a $12 million dollar contract. Brandon Gibson was injured for most of the year. The other spot is Linebacker where the Dolphins are heavily invested in Phillip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe, and Koa Misi and as a unit they were poor, specifically Ellerbe and Wheeler. The Dolphins had all three on artificially low cap charges last season, but that won’t be the case this year. Of the 43 defenses in the NFL they will rank 2nd or 3rd in LB cap spending this year.

Which current player’s contract would you say has been the most value generating and which player’s contract do you think has been the least value generating?

I think the decision comes down to Hartline and Wake, but Wake is a premier player so I would give him the nod. The base value of his contract is just $8.3 million a year which is not even top 10 among pass rushers at the DE and OLB position. He should have earned over $11 million a year on his extension and did not come close to that. It was a major win for Miami when they got him to agree to that contract.

Even though it’s just one year into the deal Wallace is the player I consider the least value. He earns $12 million a season to produce 930 yards and 5 touchdowns. In those critical late season games against the Jets and Bills he had a grand total of 63 yards. He should have had a big score against the Jets when Ryan Tannehill missed him, but that is a reason why a player like Wallace should be avoided. Ryan is not the kind of QB yet that can utilize that type of player. If you miss Wallace once in a game on a big play you have pretty much missed your only chance in the game. 

Free Agents

As you note in your report, Miami has 13 impending unrestricted free agents heading into this offseason, including 9 starters. Considering the current roster make up, and the Dolphins cap status, how many, and which, of these players do you see being realistic targets for re-signing?

Getting a new GM since I wrote that report makes it a little bit difficult to predict. I think they have to keep Grimes and should keep Carroll as well. I think Randy Starks is the better defensive tackle but when you consider cost and age vs Paul Soliai I’d expect Soliai to stay and Starks to sign elsewhere. I feel like John Jerry and Tyson Clabo can both play a low cost role for the team and Dustin Keller is a higher upside play next year since the cost will be nothing.

Of those players Grimes is the only player that will put a big dent in their cap space. I think the others will allow them to maintain some consistency and depth while giving them an opportunity to spend in 2014 without reworking Wallace’s contract. What they need to avoid is using the franchise tag on anyone this year.

One interesting situation the Dolphins face is the decision on who to possibly re-sign at DT with Randy Starks and Paul Soliai both becoming FAs. What factors do you see playing into this decision and how do you see the decision to keep one or both of them going?

As I stated above, I think it comes down to cost and wear. While Soliai is the same age as Starks its 144 NFL games vs just 99 games. While there is some falsehood to that argument as bodies break down more based on age than use, I do think teams look at that as a big factor. Starks gets after the QB better and the perception is he is better which equals more dollars.

At the end of the day I think they have to keep one guy since it’s a strength of the team but they won’t overinvest by keeping both. I don’t think Soliai had a great deal of interest outside of Miami when he was a free agent in 2012 so he’s the guy who likely sticks.

Brent Grimes was a standout player for the Dolphins this season. What kind of contract do you think he commands? Many have speculated that he is a possible candidate for the franchise tag; do you see the Dolphins retaining him via the tag or with a new contract?

If this was Ireland in charge I’d be sure he would tag him, but since Ireland is out of the picture I think they sign him to an extension. The corner market changed so much this year that it’s difficult to say exactly what he would get, but Tim Jennings just got $5.6 million a year in Chicago and Grimes is on a different level than Jennings. Prior to his injury in his last year in Atlanta Grimes was probably considered the second best corner in the NFL to Darrelle Revis. He’s older now and should not command top dollar but if the market goes back to normal I think he’ll be close to $7.5 million a year with $13-$15 million guaranteed.   

A well-publicized team weakness in 2013 was the Dolphins offensive line and, regardless of who is hired, the new GM will need to place an emphasis on improving this unit. Moreover, John Jerry, Incognito, Clabo, and McKinnie are free agents this year. Which of these players do you think we could see back on the Dolphins next year?

I think Jerry is the most likely since he won’t be very expensive and could be, at the least, a depth player for a few seasons. Clabo is the other player who Miami should consider bringing back. There is not a tremendous amount of free agent talent that may be out there so I think there is justification for retaining him. If I was Miami I’d look first in free agency but keep him in mind the whole time. The other two would be surprising to see back.


Existing Players – potential for cap cuts or restructuring

Dimitri Patterson has barely played for the Dolphins and has a contract that seems very cap cut friendly. Do you agree and do you see him being a likely cap casualty? Others have mentioned Matt Moore and Daniel Thomas; do you think these are/are there any other obvious cap cut friendly candidates?

I’d be surprised if Patterson was back. He was injured last season and they have better options. He definitely won’t be back on his current deal and will either be extended or released. I guess if they let Grimes walk he could be back.

Moore I think is safe because they want insurance for Tannehill and it may be more than just injury insurance at this point as coaches jobs may rely on playoff appearances in 2014. I think the injury at the end of the year to Tony Romo in Dallas and subsequent game that Kyle Orton played will also reinforce to teams how important a good backup is even if they are overspending on him.

Cutting Thomas does not really save any significant money but he is also ineffective. His contract certainly does not protect him so I would think he would be released to realize about $800,000 in savings.

Miami does not really have many contracts where cap room is created by release. If there was one name to maybe look out for, and this would be in camp more than the regular season, I would say Brandon Gibson. I think it’s a long shot but they can save $2.7 million in cash if he is not on the team in September.

How do you see Jonathan Martin’s contract being optimally resolved? Clearly it is extremely unlikely that he will be on the team next year, but cutting him would result in only small savings ($345,066). Would a trade possibly be the best-case scenario?

A trade is the best case scenario because Miami does not have to play the bad guy in that situation and they can get at least something back for him. That is the optimal scenario for Miami. The fact, though, is that Martin abandoned the team. Even after suspending Incognito for the year he did not return. Miami should protect their money and force him to return and honor his contract. I know the PR might be awful but Miami did whatever they could to fix the situation and Martin made no attempt to come back. If the same occurs they should go after his bonus money next year rather than paying him his salary and saying its ok.

Perhaps no acquisitions were more disappointing to Dolphins fans this year than linebackers Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler; their dismal underperformances were well publicized. Unfortunately, it seems that their contracts will keep them in Miami through at least next season.  No easy way out of this conundrum, right? How do their contracts look for a cut after next season?

Both have their salaries essentially guaranteed this season so neither is going anywhere. It becomes more advantageous the following year to release both. Releasing Wheeler in 2015 saves no cap room, unless designated a June 1 cut, but the team saves $3 million in cash by cutting him which is significant.

Ellerbe has a $3 million guarantee in 2015, but I’m not certain of the date that this money becomes fully guaranteed. Still it contains offsets so it should not stand in the way of release. He is set to make $8.45 million in 2015 and the team will be more than happy to not pay that if his play does not significantly improve. They should save over $5 million that year when he is cut.


Cap Space Heading Into Next Year

You have the Dolphins estimated to enter the 2014 season with $30 million to spend on free agents, although this might change significantly due to re-signings. Do you think Mike Wallace’s contract could also be restructured in order to create more space and what are the factors that need to be considered in his possible restructuring?

It clearly could be restructured as he has $15 million in non-prorated charges on the books in 2014. By converting that to a bonus they would save millions in cap space. However any restructure compromises their ability to release him the following season. As things currently sit the team saves $5.5 million and takes a $6.6 million dead charge by releasing him in 2015. If you take the big savings in 2014 he is un-cuttable in 2015 and potentially just a June 1 candidate in 2016. They have to decide if they want to be tied to him for the next three years or not. Based on what he showed last year I think having an escape plan is much more valuable than creating cap space in 2014. If they do need to restructure they should not go completely in to at least keep the door cracked open for cutting in 2016.

Outside of the current roster, with the need for improvement at offensive line and running back, do you see the Dolphins spending money on these units? What do you think are names to keep an eye on as potential free agent pickups for these units?

The name I really like for Miami is Anthony Collins of the Bengals. He won’t cost a huge amount of money and can play both left and right tackle. There are questions as to whether or not he can be a full time starter, but he’s a perfect get for Miami since they have questions about both sides.

Miami was hot for Brandon Albert last year to play left tackle and they supposedly had a deal in place contingent on a trade so I have to think the parameters are there to sign him if the Chiefs let him go to free agency. If they can get him and Collins it’s a huge upgrade for the offensive line.

If they spend high on the line I would not expect them to spend high on a runner, expecting the line to open the holes for them. I think names like Rashard Mendenhall and Steven Jackson, if released, make sense. Miami needs a solid professional veteran player more than an expensive potentially dynamic runner. The dynamic player can be found in the draft and you use the veteran to teach him the ropes and do much of the dirty work in year 1.

Thank you, Jason.

A special thanks also goes to Ian Wharton – @IanWhart0n – for his help with this piece.

Pablo Knowles can be found on twitter – @pabloknows