How the Miami Dolphins changed their approach in free agency and the fallout

The Dolphins have exasperated fans by squandering draft assets on players who — in some cases — haven’t been as productive as prospects selected after them.

But this regime seemingly has botched free agency every bit as much — even while taking vastly different approaches during the past two offseasons.

Since March 2020, the Dolphins have spent more than $172 million in guaranteed money in free agency. And the return has been deficient for that dollar figure.

Of every player added in free agency during the past two offseasons, just one — defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah — has exceeded expectations. And Ogbah — who is completing a two-year, $15 million deal — has seen his sack total drop from 9.0 in 2020 to 2.5 in seven games this season. On the positive side, he ranks 14th among NFL edge players with 27 pressures this season, and Pro Football Focus ranks him fifth among all edge players.

But beyond Ogbah, there’s virtually nothing remaining from the spring 2020 and 2021 spending sprees that’s making a significant impact on winning.

One reason the Dolphins would need to restructure contracts to clear cap space in a potential Deshaun Watson trade in the next week is that they are carrying $14.7 million in dead money for Kyle Van Noy, Ereck Flowers and Shaq Lawson, three players given a combined a $60 million in guaranteed money by the Dolphins in March 2020.

All three of those players lasted only a season in Miami before the Dolphins decided they didn’t want any of them.

Cornerback Byron Jones — given $57 million guaranteed as part of a five-year, $82 million contract — is rated by PFF as the 73rd-best cornerback this season, despite ranking among the six highest paid.

He permitted a 117 passer rating in his coverage area in 2020 and a 111.7 rating this season, allowing 24 of 35 passes to be caught against him for 281 yards.

Beyond center Ted Karras and linebacker Elandon Roberts — who were serviceable last season — none of the other 2020 free agent pickups last season made much of an impact (Clayton Fejedelem, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Jordan Howard, Kavon Frazier). Only Fejedelem (exclusively a special teams player) and Roberts — who was re-signed this offseason — remain from that group, and PFF rates Roberts 74th among 85 linebackers this season.

After regretting their spending spree 19 months ago, the Dolphins did an internal analysis of their mistakes, according to a source, and took a completely different approach this past offseason, spending $25.4 million in guaranteed money after allocating an NFL-record $147.2 million in free agency before the 2020 season.

The Dolphins’ more frugal approach to free agency was driven in part by having far less cap space than they did in 2020, but also a reflection of buyer’s remorse from the previous spring. The Dolphins could have been more aggressive in 2021 free agency by restructuring contracts.

But the new approach hasn’t yielded any better results.

Here’s how the Dolphins doled out guaranteed money in free agency this season: $10.5 million on wide receiver Will Fuller; $2.5 million for quarterback Jacoby Brissett (he’s making $5 million in salary); $2.25 million on defensive lineman Adam Butler, $1.2 million on tight end Cethan Carter, $1.5 million on cornerback Justin Coleman, $1.3 million on Roberts, $1.6 million on running back Malcolm Brown, $1.1 on defensive back Jason McCourty; $990,000 on linebacker Duke Riley, $990,000 on linebacker Brennan Scarlett, $1.1 million on defensive lineman John Jenkins, and $400,000 on center Matt Skura, who was released before the season.

The Dolphins also parted ways with offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, who wasn’t given any guaranteed money.

So the Dolphins’ spending was modest, but the returns have also been modest. Though McCourty has been helpful at times — and Brissett had some good moments filling in for Tua Tagovailoa — none of those players has been a difference maker.

In Fuller’s case, that’s largely due to health and misfortune, including personal issues that sidelined him in Week 2. He has played just 65 snaps in seven games, with four catches for 26 yards. He’s eligible to come off the injured list this week but likely won’t be ready for Sunday’s game at Buffalo because of a finger injury, coach Brian Flores said.

Brissett’s 82.9 passer rating this season is seventh worst among 34 qualifying quarterbacks and he went 0-3 as a starter.

Carter, the Dolphins’ first signing of 2021 free agency, has played just 39 offensive snaps and 112 special team snaps and made a negligible impact.

Coleman has permitted a 110 passer rating in his coverage area.

Butler, who had 15 sacks in four seasons with New England, has played 53 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps (264) but has no sacks or tackles for loss in seven games. Scarlett has played 26 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and also has no sacks or tackles for loss.

Roberts is rated by PFF as the 10th worst run-defending linebacker in football — which is supposed to be his strength.

Riley has played just 19 defensive snaps.

Brown has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry (125 rushing yards) and is a disappointing 4 for 11 converting running plays when the Dolphins need between 1 and 3 yards for a first down. His failure to get a first down on a fourth-and-1 against Jacksonville set the stage for that loss in London. He’s out at least three weeks with a quadriceps injury.

McCourty had a 114.6 passer rating in his coverage area and is likely out long-term with a foot injury. According to a source, he was told he likely needs foot surgery but is awaiting a second opinion.

So whatever approach the Dolphins seem to take in free agency — aggressive spending or modest spending — the results have been substandard.

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier declined an interview request, and Flores doesn’t like discussing moves made in previous offseasons.

COORDINATOR THOUGHTS

Though the Dolphins ran for 132 yards on 29 carries against Atlanta (4.6 per carry), co-offensive coordinator Eric Studesville said Tuesday: “The backs ran well at times but [were] too inconsistent. We left some yards out there. We’ve got to see things better in the running back room. Wide receivers have to block. There’s more out there in the run game.”

Brown’s injury leaves Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed as the only healthy backs on the 53-man roster.

The Dolphins have three running backs on their practice squad - former UM standout Duke Johnson (added Tuesday), Patrick Laird and Gerrid Doaks.

The Dolphins yielded one sack against Atlanta, but Studesville said of the team’s pass protection: “In the big picture of it, we all need to do a better job in that area.”

Special teams coach Danny Crossman said the fact that safety Jevon Holland handled punt returns against Atlanta had nothing to do with Jaylen Waddle’s health. “We intended to get him involved,” Crossman said of Holland, who returned two punts for 16 yards.

Holland averaged an exceptional 14.4 yards on 17 punt returns at Oregon. Gaskin handled kickoff returns against the Falcons.

Rookie linebacker Jaelan Phillips played only 15 snaps against Atlanta after being limited in practice all week with an ankle injury. “You don’t want to put players in situations that may not be great for him,” Boyer said, declining to say whether health or other factors were the biggest factor in Phillips’ reduced playing time.

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