Free Agency Primer: 10 Players the Dolphins Should Target On This Year’s Market
Now that the 2016 NFL season is officially over, it is time for the Miami Dolphins to start narrowing down their list of realistic free agent acquisitions ahead of the 2017 NFL season. While the front office has a number of important decisions to make in regard to player retention, draft scouting, and managing their cap situation, they need to explore every option in improving last year’s playoff squad with affordable veteran talent. Significant areas of need such as coverage linebacker, depth in the secondary, and the interior offensive line are sure to be addressed in one way or another, and free agency could be the avenue to take for immediate improvement. With that in mind, here is our list of the top 10 free agents (in no particular order) that the Miami Dolphins should consider signing based on their overall talent, deficiencies they would address, and affordability.
Kevin Zeitler (G):
Of all the players on this list, Zeitler is the one that would probably cost Miami the most to sign. Zeitler was among the best at his position in the NFL and was named as a Pro Bowl alternate for the Cincinnati Bengals. His top tier physical talent and pedigree as a guard, coupled with his young age (27), make him one of the best free agents at a position that most teams need to improve upon. Offensive guards are typically safe signings, and in the past it has been relatively inexpensive to sign top-tier interior O-line talent. However, recent contracts like Kelechi Osemele’s contract with the Raiders (5 years, $58.5 million) cast some doubt on the perpetuation of that trend.
While the offensive line is not in dire need of improvement now, the team would be wise to look to the future. Injuries and inconsistency took their toll at times through the season and too often hampered the offense’s ability. As it stands, the interior O-line is among the positional units that figure to see the most change over the next few years. Mike Pouncey is always injured, Jermon Bushrod is a 32-year-old free agent, and Laremy Tunsil will eventually be making the move to left tackle to replace injury prone 32-year-old Branden Albert. With Bushrod potentially leaving with Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James as the future at the tackle positions, the team should consider signing Kevin Zeitler to solidify the interior for years to come.
Ronald Leary (G):
The logic behind signing Ronald Leary is essentially the same as the logic behind signing Kevin Zeitler. The difference is that signing Leary would be forgoing some of the safety of Zeitler in order to save some cap space. Leary, like Zeitler, is relatively young (28) and is among the best at his position. However, Leary comes from an offensive line in which he was not asked to do all that much. Unlike Zeitler who was the best, or 2nd best behind Andrew Whitworth, Leary may have been the 4th best offensive lineman on his team. Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick certainly make Leary look a little better than he would on an average O-line.
Leary is much more likely to hit the open market (and for a cheaper price) than Zeitler due to the Cowboys’ strength at the position. With their three Pro Bowlers and youngster La’el Collins back from injury, the Cowboys are likely to see the odd man out as Ronald Leary. The Dolphins should try to take advantage if Zeitler becomes a pipe dream.
Jabaal Sheard (Edge):
Pass-rushing defensive end is not exactly a weakness for the Miami Dolphins, but it does need to be addressed. With Cameron Wake hitting the ripe age of 35 and Andre Branch’s coming free agency, moves need to be made now to ensure that the Dolphins’ defense has a pass-rush in the future. Whether Branch stays or goes, the Dolphins should consider the Patriots’ Jabaal Sheard. While Sheard’s stats aren’t blowing anyone away (5 sacks and 31 tackles), he had virtually the same impact as Branch with about 2/3 of the snaps. He also had 8 sacks in 2015. The issue with Sheard will be his asking price, as young pass-rushers tend to be incredibly overvalued on the free agent market. Sheard may be the team’s best option to improve their pass-rush through free agency without completely breaking the bank, as he should receive a contract that gives somewhere between $7-10 million per year. Personally, I feel that if Sheard (or any player of his caliber) commands more than $8 million per year the best option may be to use a first or second round pick in the draft instead.
Jack Doyle (TE):
Considering that Jordan Cameron, Dion Sims, and Dominique Jones are all set to be free agents, we could be seeing a whole bunch of new faces in the tight end unit. Cameron will almost certainly not be brought back and Dominique Jones is a depth tight end, which leaves Dion Sims as the wildcard. Dion Sims was solid for much of the year and was tied for 2nd on the team with 4 touchdowns. However, as good as Sims was down the stretch, he may ask for more than he’s worth. He does not have a particularly strong overall resume and may take advantage of the thin market. Sims was even listed as just the 21st highest graded free agent tight end, according to PFF. Enter Jack Doyle.
While I’m sure we’d all love to have Martellus Bennett, I doubt the Patriots will move on from their best Gronk insurance. Jack Doyle was a solid, reliable pass-catcher for the Indianapolis Colts last year. The 27-year-old is the 4th rated FA tight end according to PFF, and his statistics as the Colts’ #2 tight end were significantly greater than those of Sims. His 59 receptions for 584 yards and 5 TDs are very solid for a tight end and much better than Sims’ 26 receptions for 256 yards and 4 TDs. While Doyle did have Andrew Luck throwing him the ball, his success, especially on third downs, is indicative of the trust the Colts had in his ability to move the chains. He is also an excellent blocker, going back to the beginning of his career as the Colts’ depth tight end. Considering the massive contract that the Colts handed out to Dwayne Allen last year, they may not have the funds to keep two high-priced tight ends on the roster. The Dolphins would be wise to take advantage of that opportunity.
Jacob Tamme (TE):
Like Jack Doyle, Jacob Tamme represents a significant upgrade over the team’s other receiving tight ends. While the 31-year-old has some injury concerns after season-ending shoulder surgery, he remains among the most reliable options on the market. In 8 games he totaled 22 receptions for 210 yards and 3 TDs for the Atlanta Falcons and had 657 yards on 59 receptions the year prior. He is PFF’s 2nd ranked free agent tight end and has the best overall career pedigree of any free agent tight end not named Martellus Bennett. His age and injury history are undoubtedly a cause for concern, but they should also drive his asking price down significantly. Considering his connection to Adam Gase (Broncos 2012-13), and his reliability as both a receiver and blocker, I think he would be a perfect stopgap option at tight end for the Miami Dolphins.
Lawrence Timmons (LB):
The Dolphins’ linebacker unit is among the worst in the entire NFL. We’ve been over this nearly every week of the 2016 season. Considering that Jelani Jenkins, Spencer Paysinger, and Donald Butler (all of whom were among the worst linebackers in the league) are free agents, the Dolphins have a perfect opportunity to bring in new blood without cutting anyone. An established veteran like the Steelers’ Lawrence Timmons could help stem the bleeding of the linebacker corps while helping to bring along the team’s young guys, whoever they may be.
While Dont’a Hightower would be nice, there is no way he is leaving New England. Solid inside linebackers tend to be undervalued on the market, as evidenced by the Chicago Bears managing to sign two elite coverage linebackers last year in Danny Trevathan (4 year $24.5 million contract) and Jerrell Freeman (3 year $12 million contract) for relatively inexpensive deals. Timmons (30) should receive a contract between the two previously mentioned examples, which is reasonable for a guy who recorded 114 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble in 2016.
Kevin Minter (LB):
Kevin Minter may not be the household name that Lawrence Timmons is, but he is four years younger and much more reliable in coverage. Minter recorded 81 tackles and 3.5 sacks in the 2016 season for the Arizona Cardinals, and he would undoubtedly be a massive improvement over any Dolphins’ linebacker not named Kiko Alonso. His pedigree is less than that of some other options on the market, but a flier on the former 2nd round pick could yield dividends.
Darius Butler (DB):
The starting four in the secondary in 2017, as it stands now, will be Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones and Isa-Abdul Quddus. Objectively, this is not a terrible starting defensive backfield. However, Byron Maxwell missed the last month of the season, and both starting safeties ended the season on injured reserve. The secondary’s lack of depth was exposed and shredded against quality competition like the Patriots and Steelers, and it is in need of a serious overhaul in the event of injury to any of the starters. Both cornerback and safety are in need of improvement, and Darius Butler may be the best guy to kill two birds with one stone.
Like the Miami Dolphins, the Indianapolis Colts’ secondary was decimated with injuries at both the cornerback and safety positions. Butler, who graded out as one of the league’s most dangerous slot cornerbacks (5th rated FA cornerback per PFF), was also asked to play safety for much of the season. He performed quite well, grabbing three interceptions over the course of the year. His reliability as both a cornerback and safety would be perfect for the Dolphins’ beleaguered secondary at an affordable price.
Micah Hyde (CB):
Like Butler, Hyde is a versatile defensive back who is within the top 10 at his positional free agent class. While Hyde does not have the experience at safety, he did very well when called upon by the Green Bay Packers. The 26-year-old has slightly better long-term potential than 30-year-old Butler, and he could be had at a very affordable price. Taking a calculated chance on the younger option could yield dividends down the line for the Dolphins.
Logan Ryan (CB):
While Butler and Hyde are probably the best option for the Dolphins if they are looking for depth, Logan Ryan is perhaps the best option as a future starter. With Malcolm Butler set to become a restricted free agent, Dont’a Hightower expected to receive the franchise tag, and Martellus Bennett’s impending free agency, Logan Ryan may find himself as the odd man out. Ryan performed excellently in the Patriots’ defensive scheme and could find himself as a number two corner somewhere else in 2017. Considering the question marks that the Dolphins have in the secondary, bringing in Ryan (if he is affordable) could be an excellent idea. Like a wise man once said, if you can’t beat the Patriots… just take all of their players and pray that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady retire soon.
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