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The Dolphins Are Half-Asleep

Tagging Jarvis Landry is just the latest in a line of moves that have left Miami with the worst cap situation in football. What is the team’s plan?

Jarvis Landry Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When dolphins need rest, only half of their brain goes to sleep. The other half remains awake to periodically rise the mammal to the surface for air while also quite literally keeping one eye open for shark attacks.

Like their aquatic namesake, the Miami Dolphins seem half-asleep, and have been that way for the past few offseasons, though perhaps the city has been distracted by the 10-alarm inferno that is the Marlins’ fire sale. The latest chapter in Miami’s sleep study came Tuesday night, when the team announced they were placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry. This year’s tag figure isn’t final, but last year’s number for wide receivers was just under $16 million, more than four times the $3.5 million Landry’s earned in his career to date. Despite that hefty raise, Landry may not be pleased. Since being drafted in 2014, he’s set the NFL record for receptions in the first four seasons of a career with exactly 400 catches, the third most in the league among all players in that span behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. With that kind of production, he wants a long-term extension.

In late January, Landry told the Miami Herald he felt disrespected by the team, especially after he showed good faith by appearing at OTAs and training camp last offseason even though he was playing for a fraction of his value.

“I tried to handle it the right way and figured if a team values you and wants you to be a part of the team, why haven’t they answered [his agent’s counteroffer] in the past month?” he said.

There are serious questions about whether Landry is worth upper-echelon receiver money. While talented, he’s primarily a slot receiver, and many of his catches happen around the line of scrimmage. The numbers show that Landry’s receptions are less valuable than many other wideouts’ are. While there’s a legitimate debate to be had about what Landry is worth, Miami choosing to franchise him offers up a broader question: What are the Dolphins trying to be?

The Dolphins’ 2017 season got flipped, turned-upside-down in August, when starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill reaggravated his left knee in a season-ending non-contact injury. Dolphins head coach Adam Gase called Jay Cutler with a Lady Antebellum level of desperation to save their season, which, surprise, didn’t work out so well. The 6–10 team’s issues were laid mostly at Tannehill’s knees. “The season didn’t start out right with injuries, and you can’t replace a good quarterback,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said.

As the Eagles and Vikings just proved, you can, in fact, replace good quarterbacks. There’s also little evidence that Tannehill is good. In November 2016, Tannehill’s best season as a starter, his coaches considered his “game manager” label to be high praise. A month later, he sprained his ACL and MCL. Eight months later, he reinjured the knee. When Tannehill takes the field in September, he’ll have to shake off more than 20 months of rust to return to his previous level of play, which, again, was “game manager.” He turns 30 years old in July and has three more years left on his contract, the final year of which isn’t guaranteed. Perhaps as he enters his 30s, Tannehill will come off of two major knee injuries to make good on the promise he showed in college. Or maybe he’s just the kind of quarterback who would need an elite supporting cast to lead a team on a Super Bowl run.

The issue is that the Dolphins’ fins are tied at the moment. The NFL’s salary cap has risen by over $40 million since the 2014 season, making it much harder to hamstring a roster with bad contracts than in years past, but, bless their hearts, some teams still do it anyway. This year, the teams bumping up against the cap either have Super Bowl aspirations or are the Miami Dolphins. According to the numbers at Spotrac, the Dolphins had just $7.8 million in cap space, the third-lowest total in the league, before they tagged Landry. With Landry on the books, they’re around $8 million in the hole and need to clear up space. To put that in perspective, the league average is $35.8 million in cap space. Ten teams have less than $20 million in cap space. Eight of them had winning records. The ninth, Green Bay, ousted its general manager. The 10th is the Dolphins. Being mediocre is bad. Having virtually no cap space to climb out of mediocrity with is a disaster.

That’s happened in part because Miami has handed out more money than Rick Ross shooting a music video at LIV. Ndamukong Suh is a top-tier interior defender, but his 2018 cap hit is $26.1 million — more than that of every single player in football except Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford. Worse, it goes up to $28.1 million in 2019. [Puts eyeballs back into sockets]. Last offseason, the team handed out big deals to tight end Julius Thomas and defensive end Cameron Wake, both of whom may get released to (partially) pay for Landry’s tag figure.

One argument for tagging Landry is to see how he performs under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, and now the team will get that chance. There’s recent precedent for this. Last season the Los Angeles Rams tagged cornerback Trumaine Johnson after a breakout season to see how he played in a different system, under coordinator Wade Phillips. Johnson didn’t perform as well as he did in 2016, and his future in L.A. is in doubt. The Dolphins could take a similar approach with Landry, but Miami doesn’t have the cap space to plug other holes on its roster like the Rams did last year.

They’ll need to replace Thomas if they cut him, as well as re-sign or replace starting guard Jermon Bushrod, and the defense could use some upgrades, too. The linebacking unit struggled in pass coverage last season, and a more adept coverage backer will need to play alongside Kiko Alonso. The Dolphins should be clamoring to let Landry walk, collect a third- or fourth-round compensatory draft pick, and spread that money across multiple positions. Instead they tagged him, ensuring they can’t get the compensatory pick or the space to fill out their roster. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk wrote that the Dolphins may be looking to trade Landry, who was on the block at the trade deadline along with Jay Ajayi, but he’ll have to sign the tender before he can go anywhere.

Individually, the Dolphins’ tricky cap situation, the gaping holes on the roster, and the serious questions around Landry’s worth can each be talked away. But, taken together, they illustrate a situation where it isn’t clear whether the team wants to compete or rebuild, spend or slash, get younger or older. Maybe the Dolphins are still half-asleep.