Austerity is over in Miami. The Dolphins had the lowest payroll in the NFL in 2019, and their 5-11 season was a reflection of their frugality. Miami’s spending might increase in 2020, and its record might improve as a result. On Monday, Miami signed Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones to a deal that will make him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the deal is guaranteed for $57 million over five years and worth as much as $82.5 million ($16.5 million per year on average). Jones will reportedly take the title of highest-paid cornerback from … his new teammate Xavien Howard. The Dolphins will be paying a lot for that combination, but cornerback is a premium position worth the investment. Rapoport reported that the Raiders and the Giants were the other main bidders for Jones’s services. After the Jones deal was reported, Schefter reported that New York was signing Carolina cornerback James Bradberry to a deal worth $32 million guaranteed over three years.
Prior to the Jones deal on Monday, the Dolphins signed former Bills first-round pick and defensive end Shaq Lawson to a contract guaranteeing $21 million over three years, as well as former Giants first-round pick and offensive lineman Ereck Flowers to a deal guaranteeing $20 million over three years. Lawson was a disappointment as a starter in Buffalo at the start of his career but was a solid rotational player in 2019. He’ll have a chance to perform with lower expectations in Miami. Flowers was a disaster at tackle for the Giants but switched to guard playing for Washington last year and looked competent. As a Floridian who played at the University of Miami, the Dolphins may also hope that being closer to home helps Flowers revitalize his career. After the Jones deal, the Dolphins reached an agreement with former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy on a deal guaranteeing $30 million over four years. The deal reunites Van Noy and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who worked with Van Noy when he was a defensive assistant coach in New England. Those four signings represent a lot of money for Miami general manager Chris Grier to spend, but they appear to be wise investments for a team with a lot of cash to burn.
On the surface, the Dolphins’ spending spree is reminiscent of the team’s past mistakes. For years, Miami overspent in free agency under the misguided belief that the team was a couple of players away from competing. They kept robbing Peter to pay Paul and then asked Paul to restructure his contract to get below the salary cap. The result was a lot of seasons between 6-10 and 8-8 (nine of their past eleven seasons, to be exact). But this free agency period is different than five years ago, when they signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a deal with $60 million guaranteed. Last year, owner Stephen Ross empowered Grier to tear the team down to the studs and embark on a tough rebuilding phase. The Dolphins traded quarterback Ryan Tannehill, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, running back Kenyan Drake, and got rid of just about every other player on the team you had heard of except for wide receiver DeVante Parker and Howard (who you still may not have heard of). Miami broke the record for players used in an NFL season, and they did it in 15 weeks. The 2019 Dolphins became a who’s who of who? Yet Miami’s 5-11 record hides the Dolphins’ tale (tail?) of two halves. Miami began with a disastrous 0-7 start but finished 5-4 and with a win against the Patriots in New England. Flores was as impressive as any coach down the stretch, and there is reason to believe the Dolphins can beat their ludicrously low external expectations in 2020.
Grier has managed to clear Miami’s mountain of salary cap dead money (and most of their good players) and has three first-round picks and two second-rounders in next month’s draft, giving the team five of the first 56 picks and six of the top 70. With that kind of a haul, the Dolphins can rebuild the core of their team and still be left with a good problem: How do they hit the salary floor when draft picks are so cheap? They also have a more pragmatic problem. How does a team establish a winning culture when they are giving a dozen 22-year-old kids a lot of money to live in Miami?
The Dolphins are aiming to answer both of those questions, at least in part, by spending in free agency. The Jones deal is about paying top dollar for a position that is hard to fill, and it’s a bet on Jones’s athleticism (Jones has just two picks in five years, but turnovers are random and can spike drastically—just ask Minkah Fitzpatrick). With Flowers and Lawson, the Dolphins are trying to turn around former first-round picks with minimal financial commitment. The dollar signs look large at $20 million guaranteed, but Miami is unlikely to be committed to either beyond 2021. Van Noy is a two-time Super Bowl champion who knows Flores and, at 28, can strike a balance between being relatable to rookies while being seasoned enough that they have to listen to him. With these four signings, the Dolphins are paying for athleticism, upside, and culture.
All of these deals may look like overpays, but there is no chance the Dolphins will struggle for salary cap room in the next two years. They still have among the most cap space of almost any other team in the league even after these deals. Previous Dolphins teams used free agency as an exercise in excess. This team is using it to meet its bare minimum needs, investing in known talent in Jones, panning for gold in Flowers and Lawson, and adding a role model for the younger players in Van Noy (he was New England’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year community service award in 2020). Add in five players in the first 56 picks, possibly led by Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at no. 5, and Miami might just win the AFC East within the next few years—as long as they pick the right guys.