Why Miami should let Lamar Miller walk in free agency
Perhaps no NFL team faces a more difficult 2016 free agency period than the Miami Dolphins. A cornerstone of their offense—Lamar Miller—is set to hit the free agent market, DE Olivier Vernon has been transition tagged, and the Dolphins lack the cap space to guarantee either will return to the team next season.
The Dolphins’ short-term solution to their predicament has been to transition tag Vernon, in the hopes that they can retain his services. The tag requires Miami to pay $12 million to their standout pass rusher, assuming no other franchise makes a play at the top defensive free agent. Should any team entice Vernon with a better offer, the Dolphins will have the opportunity to match, but will receive no compensation if he signs elsewhere. In a league that craves pass rushers, a $12 million offer is unlikely deter other teams from entering a bid.
Despite preseason projections picking Miami as the most likely challenger to the Patriots in the AFC East the Dolphins won just six games and finished at the bottom of their division. New head coach Adam Gase had his work cut out filling holes in the 2015 roster, let alone replacing two of last season’s standouts. Previous decisions dictate that the Dolphins will have to find value in free agency this year, far from an easy task.
DE Derrick Shelby
Unlike Vernon, Derrick Shelby might come at a reasonable price. The undrafted free agent out of Utah finished 2015 as our 10th-overall defensive end, with an 82.9 grade. Shelby is developing nicely, finishing with four sacks, six hits, 31 hurries, and four batted passes last season. He’s also one of the better edge-setting defensive ends currently plying his trade in the NFL.
WR Rishard Matthews
The recurring theme amongst the suggested roster moves in this piece is the limited financial investment required. Matthews might fit that bill, but then again, he might fancy a dip into a free agent market barren of wide receiver talent. The Dolphins have never been shy of investing at the position, with first and second round picks—DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry—already in place. Kenny Stills (acquired via trade) and Greg Jennings also remain on the roster. Parker stepped up after Matthews was injured late in the year, but Stills underperformed. The former Saint caught only 27 passes for 440 yards (four drops) and three scores in 2015. Matthews, meanwhile, caught 43 passes for 662 yards (six drops) and four scores in 2015, providing the Dolphins’ with a reliable intermediate threat. Recent reports indicate the Dolphins will attempt to resign Matthews—they’re just hoping the cost does not become prohibitive.
HB Lamar Miller
The Dolphins lack the resources to invest in both the wide receiver and running back positions under the new regime. Adam Gase’s penchant for running the football means losing Lamar Miller would be a blow to the offense, but perhaps not a crippling one. Jay Ajayi’s nine-game stretch to close out 2015 offers serious hope that at least part of the solution is already on the roster. Ajayi fell all the way to the fifth round in last year’s draft, but looked like an explosive playmaker in his 49 carries. Overall, he picked up 187 yards from those carries and, while the 3.8 yards per carry average looks distinctly average, the 3.3 yards per carry average after contact and 12 broken tackles do not. To put those numbers in perspective, Miller averaged only 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, and broke just 28 tackles in 194 rushes. Amongst backs with a minimum of 50 touches, only Dion Lewis surpassed Ajayi’s 83.7 elusive rating, and only Spencer Ware and Le’Veon Bell recorded a superior yards-after-contact average. Ajayi will have to prove his talent with an increased workload, but the early signs are incredibly promising for the Dolphins.
CB Adam Jones (Bengals)
The Dolphins and Adam Jones are an obvious fit, considering Gase hired Bengals’ secondary coach Vance Walker to be his defensive coordinator in Miami. Familiarity wouldn’t be the only motivating factor, however; cost and quality also come into the equation. At 32 years old and entering a swollen cornerback market, Jones is unlikely to command a big paycheck. As for his quality, Jones finished as our 15th-ranked corner in 2015, with an 83.1 coverage grade. He’s the kind of corner the Dolphins mix in with Reshad Jones’ playmaking ability. He allowed the fifth-lowest QB rating when targeted in 2015 (60.7), allowing just 43 catches on 75 receptions for 416 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and two pass defenses. The 9.7 yards-per-catch he allowed also ranked in the top 10.
Slot corner Brice McCain was released after a disappointing campaign, while Jamar Taylor was torched consistently in 2015. In contrast to Jones, Taylor allowed a QB rating of 134.8 including six touchdowns. Simply put, corner is a major position of need for the Dolphins.
HB Tim Hightower (Saints)
If Lamar Miller does decide to move on this offseason, the Dolphins will need a complement to Ajayi. Hightower could be that guy. An intriguing story, considering he was out of the league in 2013 and 2014, the former Cardinal played well in his handful of games last season. A slimmed-down Hightower appeared more decisive in his return to the NFL, carrying 96 times for 375 yards and four scores. After breaking just 52 tackles on over 550 carries in an underwhelming four seasons with Washington and Arizona, Hightower made would-be-tacklers miss 13 times on his 96 carries for New Orleans. One of those broken tackles came on a game-ending third down conversion against the Buccaneers. The sample size is too small to make any definitive judgments, but Hightower is the kind of low-risk, high-reward free agent that might just pay off.