There’s a substantive risk in the Dolphins letting go of someone like left tackle Branden Albert, but the potential reward was too enticing to resist.
Few teams in the NFL had such a troubling gulf between expense and production as Miami did on its offensive line last year, and it was imperative that the organization find a way to correct that this offseason. Albert’s play wasn’t part of the on-field problem when he was healthy, but his $10.6 million salary cap hit for 2017 would have been the third-largest on the team.
By cutting defensive end Mario Williams, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and little used cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu on Thursday, as well as reportedly making a plan to unload Albert by trade or release, the Dolphins will free up roughly $20 million in cap space for the upcoming season. Other than Albert, those departures won’t hurt much. Williams was dead weight, Ekpre-Olomu never saw the field last year and Mitchell made five starts.
Considering the Dolphins already had nearly $30 million in space prior to these moves, the big question is what they plan to do with all that cash.
The offensive line is one place they likely won’t be using it.
One basic order of business that looks prudent for Miami is to balance its spending. Last year, for example, it allocated 18.9 percent of its money to the offensive line. That was the fifth-biggest portion of the cap paid to any o-line in the league, and it didn’t yield that level of return. The bulk of the o-line money went to Albert and Mike Pouncey, who both missed time due to injuries, and left the team with limited resources to assemble depth.
The immediate concern with dropping Albert isn’t left tackle, where Laremy Tunsil takes over and is expected to hold that job for the next decade, but guard. The Dolphins need to find the right match of quality and affordability at the left guard spot vacated by Tunsil and at right guard where it’s unclear whether they intend to bring back Jermon Bushrod.
Miami vice president Mike Tannenbaum hinted the team was thinking along those lines when asked about the possibility of Tunsil bumping Albert — also an $11.3 million cap hit in 2018 — out of his spot. While Tannenbaum declined to answer the question with anything definitive, he said, “We’re thrilled that we have (Tunsil) and we have that flexibility.”
The Dolphins also spent a league-high $38.9 million on their defensive line, making the total commitment on both sides of the line of scrimmage 44.5 percent of their payroll. Meanwhile, Super Bowl champion New England didn’t go over 17.4 percent on any unit. Neither did the Falcons.
As it stands, the defensive line is on the books for $32.8 million and the offensive line will cost $17.9 million this season.
Miami runs the risk of falling into its same uneven spending habits if it chases after big free agents next month, but a splashy signing makes sense if the team thinks it’s close to competing with the best in the AFC. The Dolphins were 10-6 last year and claimed the final wild card spot before getting demolished by Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
If Tannenbaum, coach Adam Gase and general manager Chris Grier think all Miami’s missing are big playmakers at linebacker and in the passing game, it makes sense to throw big offers at free agents like Alshon Jeffrey, Martellus Bennett and Lawrence Timmons.
But Gase is merely one year into a job he plans on having for a long time, and he’s probably more inclined to think big picture. The Dolphins have the financial flexibility now to secure promising long-term talent.
Wide receiver Kenny Stills and defensive end Andre Branch were vital pieces last year and will hit the open market. Middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who looks like he’ll be a mainstay, is a restricted free agent. Pro Bowlers Reshad Jones and Jarvis Landry will be free agents a year from now, but Miami can take care of that with extensions this offseason.
Regardless of what the Dolphins end up doing with their newfound money, they get credit for putting themselves in such an advantageous position and they found a relatively painless way to do it.