The 2016 offseason for the Miami Dolphins is one of a familiar refrain for its fans: a sea of changes, and an ocean of hope.
The team started off quickly, landing one of the first coveted prizes of the offseason: former Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who the Dolphins moved quickly to lock up as their new head coach. Gase worked wonders with Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler in his last two stops, and his primary responsibility will be to help put Ryan Tannehill — the previously anointed franchise quarterback — back on a path of growth. After signing a four-year, $77 million extension before the 2015 season began, Tannehill did little to justify the megadeal; his completion percentage, touchdown passes thrown, and overall passer rating regressed in 2015 after a very promising 2014 season.
Outside of working with Tannehill, Gase — along with new Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier — will have their hands full replenishing a roster that was largely built through misguided free agent signings, instead of wise draft selections. Entering this offseason, the Dolphins are dead last in the NFL in available cap space, as they’re already almost $7 million over the projected salary cap of $154 million.
They’ll first have to take a long look at restructuring the contract of Ndamukong Suh — the prized offseason acquisition last year — just one year into his six year, $114 million contract. Suh’s contract has a whopping $28.6 million cap charge for 2016, and they could free up a ton of money by getting creative with his $23.4 million base salary this year (although that could come back to badly haunt them in later years).
They also have the ability to shed a few bad contracts this offseason, by releasing under-performing veterans like defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, tight end Jordan Cameron, and wide receiver Greg Jennings.
But regardless, any money they’re able to free up won’t necessarily be available to use for them to go shopping for upgrades to their current roster.
Miami has to decide whether they’ll try and retain defensive end Olivier Vernon, who had a career year for the Dolphins and became an emerging force after they lost stud defensive end Cameron Wake to a season-ending tear of his Achilles tendon. Vernon is going to command top dollar on the free agent market, and the Dolphins might not realistically have the funds to bring him back.
They have a similar decision with running back Lamar Miller, a free agent who might have been the most neglected running back in the NFL last year; the continual game plans which avoided giving Miller, one of the team’s most dynamic playmakers on offense, were beyond confounding.
But the team may determine that they’ll use their few available dollars on upgrading the defense, because of what’s already available “in the cupboard” on offense. Tannehill showed in 2014 that he has the talent and ability to be a very good quarterback; he just needs the right guidance. Rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker showed lots of promise down the home stretch of the 2015 season, Rishard Matthews was enjoying a breakout year until he suffered a season-ending injury in late November, and Jarvis Landry remains a stud slot receiver. Rookie running back Jay Ajayi flashed some pop, in comparison to the more elusive Miller, though there are some questions as to whether he needs to be combined with another running back to maximize his efficacy.
Miami has booked pieces in left tackle Branden Albert and right tackle Ja’Wuan James, and they have a Pro Bowl center in Mike Pouncey. The interior of the offensive line, however, will require a big shot in the arm this offseason; guards Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner were well below average, and it really showed.
But, the defense is much more of a mess. There’s already the situation of Vernon’s impending free agency and Wake’s return from a very tricky injury. There’s the ability to motivate Suh, who can be one of the most singularly dominant forces in the NFL when he wants to, but has shown a penchant for coasting and taking plays off way more often than you’d like. They badly need an upgrade at middle linebacker over Kelvin Sheppard; this could very well be where they look in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The secondary has question marks all over it, with the usually solid Brent Grimes taking a big step back last season and free safety Louis Delmas coming off his second ACL injury in nine months.
Dolphins fans should be accustomed to hoping and waiting for future success. Things are no different right now. They’ve got pieces, and a couple of savvy managers to work with those pieces, but in a division loaded with talented rosters and savvy coaches, fans may need to exercise patience.