Dolphins Make a Splash
When the NFL free agency period began earlier this month, waves of free agents hit the open market. One of the most surprising teams to navigate the free agent waters and make a big splash by signing big-name players was the Miami Dolphins. In case you forgot, the Miami Heat aren’t the only professional sports team in the city, and it looks like the Dolphins are trying to be better than mediocre this year. In the past four NFL seasons, the Dolphins are 27-37. It took the Dolphins four years to amass the same number of wins that the Heat had in 27 consecutive games. Finally, it looks as though Jeff Ireland is trying to turn the team into a winner and perhaps even steal the AFC East crown from Tom Brady and his perfect hair.
If Ireland can create a team that can compete with the Patriots, then the AFC East is up for grabs. The Jets made more noise last season for Tim Tebow, the butt fumble and Rex Ryan’s tattoo of his wife wearing Mark Sanchez’s jersey than they did for their actual play. The Bills just released their starting quarterback, Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick, leaving them with Tavaris Jackson, Aaron Corp and Brad Smith. Call me crazy, but none of those guys will lead the Bills to a winning season. The opportunity for Miami to move up and seize the division is as good as it’s ever going to get, and it looks as though it is trying everything within its power.
It would be an understatement to say that Dolphins blew it during free agency last year. The Dolphins had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl in 2012 (110:1 odds) than they did in attracting big-name free agents. They entered the Peyton Manning sweepstakes only to get spurned when he headed to Denver. They pursued Matt Flynn, who denied them even though Dolphins’ head coach Joe Philbin was his former offensive coordinator in Green Bay. Why couldn’t Miami sign anyone in a state with low taxes, beautiful weather and women, as well as prominent nightlife? A player is as likely to say no to that, as Ray Lewis is to say no to PEDs. Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark seemed to have the answer when he tweeted that no one wanted to go to Miami because “[there’s] not a good guy [in charge] making decisions.” It’s well understood that he was talking about Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. He’s not so bad if we forget about him asking Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute in a pre-draft interview. And the time he interviewed Jim Harbaugh for head coach while Tony Sparano was still employed as head coach. It seems though that free agents and NFL players have gotten over their dislike for Ireland as he has been able to secure some big-name signings.
The Dolphins opened up free agency by snagging the best available free-agent wide receiver. Ryan Tannehill quietly put up a good rookie season last year and showed a lot of potential, but was eclipsed by fellow rookies Andrew Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson. Ireland went out and bought his quarterback one of the top wide receivers by signing Mike Wallace. Wallace will immediately make a huge impact on the field and give Miami the deep-ball threat that has evaded it for years. Brian Hartline and Davone Bess don’t exactly take the top off of a defense. Wallace’s speed and big-play threat will open up the entire field and allow the offense to be much more efficient. By resigning Hartline to a five-year, $30 million dollar contract, the Dolphins secured both wideout positions with the slot open to Bess or the recently-signed Brandon Gibson. Wallace’s presence instantly improves the Dolphins passing offense and gives Tannehill the weapons that are necessary to develop his game.
A signing that isn’t making any big headlines but continues to bolster the Phins’ offense is Dustin Keller. The Dolphins got away with signing Keller to a one-year contract worth $4.25 million. Receiving tight ends are a young quarterback’s best friend and Keller fits right into the hole that Anthony Fasano left. Not only that, but whoever ends up being the Jets quarterback can look forward to throwing every ball to Santonio Holmes as the Dolphins snag a division rival’s starter. Miami risks very little in Keller’s signing and he could prove a very valuable offensive tool provided he can stay healthy.
The Dolphins didn’t just improve on the offensive side of the ball. The Dolphins pulled one of the biggest shockers so far during free agency by signing Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. EllerBEAST was a monster during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run and seemed a lock to re-sign with Baltimore. Ellerbe chose the big payday with Miami, giving the Dolphins a young, versatile linebacker. As if Ellerbe wasn’t enough, the Dolphins signed Oakland’s Phillip Wheeler to a five-year deal. Pair these two signings with the Dolphins decision to cut Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, and the Dolphins managed to save money while getting younger. Wheeler said “I’m aggressive like a shark; but it’s ironic, because now I’m a Dolphin,” but the Dolphins are hoping Ellerbe and Wheeler maintain their aggression and provide the foundation of their defense for years to come. Throw this in with recent signing of cornerback Brent Grimes, and the team just keeps looking better and better. The Dolphins got a steal when signing Grimes to a one year $5.5 million dollar deal. The Dolphins needed a huge upgrade in their secondary after losing Sean Smith, and took little to no risk with the one year deal. They got a team need, one of the best cornerbacks on the market, and a player who was $10 million last year for $5 million. Even if he’s coming back off injury, he’s worth the risk and further bolsters an improving Dolphins defense.
While all of these signings make the Dolphins a better team, the price tag cannot be forgotten. With the new CBA and salary cap restrictions, teams need to be careful about how they allocate their money. (See the Ravens disintegrating a Super Bowl team and giving Joe Flacco a contract so big it literally devalues the dollar.) However, in the age of mega-contracts, if you want elite talent, you have to pay top dollar. Wallace has the biggest contract at five years, $60 million, of which $27 million is fully guaranteed. As long as Wallace plays like a top NFL receiver, it can be considered money well spent. Ellerbe signed for a five-year, $34.75 million contract with $14 million guaranteed and Wheeler got a five-year $26 million contract with $13 million guaranteed. The Dolphins still have money to spend, as they are still more than $10 million under the $128 million salary cap so expect a few more signings to occur. While Miami’s contracts for its new players are backloaded, meaning the base salaries are highest in the latter years of the contract, contracts can always be restructured and players often do not play out the entirety of their contract in the NFL. The Dolphins want to win now and winning requires talent, which requires money. They’re rolling out a new logo, new offense, new defense and a new attitude. The season doesn’t start for months, but for the first time in a while, Dolphins fans have something about which to be excited.
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