Their public display of affection was illuminated last preseason when the organization sent Vontae Davis to Indianapolis, thrusting Smith atop the team’s depth chart. Smith validated their decision by often erasing a third of the field for opposing quarterbacks with his physicality and range in coverage in 2012.
But now, on the eve of free agency, the Dolphins must draw a financial line with Sean Smith and put a number on the extent they like 25-year-old corner.
Smith had a strong showing last season and proved to be an integral part of the Dolphins' improved defense. Standing 6'3" and weighing 220 pounds, Smith offers a physicality that is unique to the cornerback position. He’s fantastic in press coverage and rarely stands across from a receiver who is athletically superior.
When you put on the tape you see that Smith has the respect of opposing quarterbacks—including division rival Tom Brady, who was 46-76 against the Dolphins in 2012 but only 2-7 when throwing against Smith—yet you also see moments where Smith looks despondent and trails his matchup by five yards. But how much does an above-average athletic physical corner who is prone to inconsistency merit in the open market?
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter during an appearance on NFL32, it is believed that Smith could receive in the range of $7 million to $7.5 million per year on the open market.
We also know for certain that the Dolphins value Smith south of $10 million, which was the value that the team declined to place the franchise tag on him for. But in the current landscape of the NFL where cap casualties are rampant the number that is more significant is amount of the contract that is guaranteed.
So to ascertain an affective figure for where the financial line should be drawn by the Dolphins concerning Smith, guaranteed money is the paramount model.
Before negotiations can begin, the market must first be established in order to frame the player’s value. For cornerbacks in the NFL, the market is high. In 2011 Nnamdi Asomugha signed the most lucrative contract among cornerbacks with a five-year, $60 million deal in which $25 million was guaranteed. In 2011 Cortland Finnegan signed for five years, $50 million, $24 million guaranteed; in 2012 Brandon Carr received five years, $50 million, 25.5 million guaranteed; and in 2010 Darrelle Revis got four years, $46 million, $27.5 million guaranteed.
So where does Smith fall in line with those players? Given Shefter’s projection of $7 million to $7.5 million per year, Smith’s contract can be extrapolated out to roughly five years, $40 million hypothetically.
Before the Dolphins can nominalize their interest and answer the pertinent issue of how much of the contract they can afford to guarantee to Smith, it’s important to observe Miami’s cap space and other free-agent ambitions.
The Dolphins currently sit around $30 million in cap space after placing the franchise tag on Randy Starks and resigning Brian Hartline and Matt Moore. They have wide-spread interest in acquiring a wide receiver Mike Wallace (h/t Pro Football Talk) and they will either have to re-sign left tackle Jeff Long, or permanently place Jonathan Martin at left tackle and sign a right tackle. Even before addressing other team needs, safety and tight end, that $30 million looks has dwindled substantially.
Still, the Dolphins will be hard pressed to find a better schematic fit for their style defense, almost entirely zone, than Sean Smith.
So what’s the number?
I don’t think I'm being cavalier by saying the market for Sean Smith isn't parallel to Revis, Asomugha—at the time of his free-agent signing—Finnegan or Brandon Carr. Given that, and the parameters of the potential deal of five years, $40 million, the Dolphins must draw the financial line at $20 million guaranteed.
What does that number actually mean? Miami would have to give Smith a signing bonus, let's say between $3 million and $4 million, and a first year salary of $4.5 million. With that Smith eclipses his market value of $7.5 million per year while the Dolphins would still have $22 million to carry out their other free agent ventures.
The second year of the Smith contract, when Miami would be less cash strapped than this season, would pay him a higher salary base, say $7 million, and another $2 million to $3 million signing bonus. Under this format, the Dolphins would pay Smith $18.5 million over the next two seasons.
If Smith continues to teeter with inconsistency after these two years and hasn’t improved to the expectations of the organization, the Dolphins can cut Smith and only be responsible for paying him $1.5 million while relinquishing the final $20 million in the contract. If he has improved, the Dolphins would be more than happy to pay him the duration of the contract, which would be a value at three years and $21.5 million.
The Dolphins' interest in Mike Wallace shows an organizational commitment to put the team on a winning trajectory. They appear confident in their franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill and new coach Joe Philbin. By result it would border on hypocrisy for the Dolphins not to entertain offering Smith $20 million guaranteed to secure his services. He is very compatible with the type of zone defense the Dolphins play and has shown no signs of hitting his ceiling potentially.
Do the right thing, Miami. Sign Smith. Worse-case scenario you release him in two seasons.
However, if another team with deeper pockets—say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—overpays Smith with a guaranteed $24 million the Dolphins have to stick to their guns and attempt to replace Smith in the draft.