2017 NFL free agents: Nothing flashy from Dolphins, but sound moves

The Dolphins’ dive into free agency has been exactly as they promised it would be: boring and practical.

And smart.

In a departure from the way things have been handled in recent years, Miami’s decision makers went into this spring with little interest in chasing the biggest, most expensive stars available. Instead, the mindset is to spread spending around the way New England does and raise the overall baseline of talent.

That’s why they haven’t been in on Dont’a Hightower, even though skill-wise he’s exactly what they need at middle linebacker. They weren’t in on $60 million guard Kevin Zeitler or top-line safeties Tony Jefferson and Micah Hyde, who signed deals for a total of $64.5 million.

The Dolphins have gone that route before. They know it’s boom (Ndamukong Suh) or bust (Mike Wallace) and the trio of Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier and Adam Gase is averse to that kind of turbulence. They also don’t like what it does to the rest of the roster when a non-quarterback accounts for 11 percent of the salary cap like Suh will this season.

So when Miami needed a linebacker, it chose veteran Lawrence Timmons on a two-year, $12 million deal while Hightower is expected to perhaps double that annual salary on a much longer contract wherever he lands.

There’s a hole at safety with the departure of Isa Abdul-Quddus, and Nate Allen came in at $3.4 million for one season.

To fill out an offensive line where the Dolphins already had $19 million committed for the upcoming season, they opted for journeyman Ted Larsen for three years, $5.7 million to start at one of the guard spots.

It’s been much more like taking a checklist to Walmart than browsing all the new tools at Home Depot with a big roll of cash in your pocket.

Every one of Miami’s acquisitions is risky—Timmons is now the third-oldest player on the roster, Allen hasn’t started a full season since 2014 and Larsen was the 44th-best guard in Pro Football Focus’ rankings last year—but none carry the kind of liability that can bury the team if they don’t work out.

The Dolphins saved those types of expenditures for guys they know inside and out. They confidently sunk $27 million into defensive end Andre Branch for three years and $32 million into Kenny Stills for four.

It’s easier to feel comfortable with those commitments, compared to outside free agents, when the organization has essentially been vetting Branch and Stills for a year. The Dolphins have seen how willing these guys are to play through pain, how they function in the locker room, the way they reacted to last season’s 1-4 start and what they look like on their best and worst days.

No team in the NFL had a more thorough book on Stills or Branch than Miami, and that’s the basis for its overall approach to building a winner. The way the current administration views it, there’s no better way to spend money than to secure players developed in-house.

There was no hesitation, for example, dropping $60 million on a five-year extension for Reshad Jones. He’s actually hurt at the moment, but the Dolphins know that situation precisely enough to be confident signing him.

Besides taking care of their own, as Tannenbaum likes to say, the moves reflect Miami taking a long-term view of its roster building. The collective impact of this year’s signings, so far, isn’t enough to vault the Dolphins from 10-6 last season to Super Bowl contender this one but that isn’t how most winners are built anyway.

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