Can the Dolphins' new brain trust get the most out of their $30 million in cap space this season?
Twelve months ago, the Miami Dolphins took home the hypothetical trophy as the most active team in free agency. If they want to get closer to taking home a real trophy as the Super Bowl champion, they still have a long way to go.
The Dolphins were aided last year by decisions that left them with over $40 million in cap space to spend.
Last year's spending spree included signing the prize pony of free agency in wide receiver Mike Wallace, along with cornerback Brent Grimes, right tackle Tyson Clabo and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
The Dolphins also took care of their own by re-signing wide receiver Brian Hartline, giving safety Reshad Jones an extension and placing the franchise tag on defensive tackle Randy Starks.
Despite all those moves, the Dolphins still have over $14 million in cap space for the 2014 season—and that's not including a potential rollover of over $17 million in cap space that was left over from the 2013 season.
New general manager Dennis Hickey doesn't need to rebuild the Dolphins, but he has plenty of resources to reload the team as he (along with head coach Joe Philbin and capologist Dawn Aponte) sees fit.
Sign Branden Albert
Moving on from left tackle Jake Long proved to be the loose thread that unraveled quarterback Ryan Tannehill's protective sweater, the offensive line.
With Jonathan Martin moving over to the left side, Tannehill found himself left out in the cold time and time again, absorbing a league-high 58 sacks on the season.
Pro Football Focus tracks offensive line metrics, and they assigned blame to the Dolphins' offensive line for 41 of those 58 sacks (10 sacks were assigned to the quarterback, running backs or tight ends, and seven sacks were unassigned).
As the two starting left tackles, Martin (Weeks 1-7) and Bryant McKinnie (Weeks 8-17) combined to give up 13 sacks in 2013, revamping the left tackle spot has to be a priority.
However, Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post expects the Dolphins to make a push to sign a left tackle, and thinks Branden Albert could be the target:
Don't be surprised if the Dolphins go hard after a left tackle with Kansas City's Branden Albert being the biggest target. Albert supposedly wants a deal worth $9 million a year with $25 million guaranteed. The Dolphins would probably try to counter in $7 million a year range. Philbin wanted the Dolphins to trade for Albert last offseason (Miami likely would've had to give up a second round pick), but former GM Jeff Ireland wanted to give Jonathan Martin time to develop at left tackle.
Who knows if they would have handled things differently if they'd known how it would all turn out. Maybe they would have re-signed Long to a big contract, injury history and all.
Now that Ireland and his plan are both out the door, it's time to stabilize the left tackle spot for good.
Estimated cost for 2014: $7 million
Re-Sign Tyson Clabo
The Dolphins offensive line was reduced to rubble in 2013, so it may be hard to believe there are actually valuable pieces that can be salvaged from the wreckage. Tyson Clabo struggled to start the season, and came up on the wrong end of some key plays.
However, he finished the season strong and played better than just about any other Dolphins offensive lineman down the stretch.
Over the final eight games of the season, Clabo allowed pressure on 5.2 percent of his passing snaps, compared to Bryant McKinnie, who allowed pressure on 9.9 percent of his passing snaps.
"He's a real professional, first and foremost," Philbin said of Clabo's midseason turnaround. "He's tweaked a couple of things. I don't think there's been a dramatic shift in his play style that is, but I think he's been a little more detailed, a little more focused on his fundamentals, and I think that's paid off for him."
Retaining Clabo may not be a long-term solution—he is 32 years old and has been in the league for eight years—but on a one- or two-year deal in the range of $2 to $3 million a year, there may be few better options out there.
Clabo can get the job done for now, and hopefully, the new general manager does a better job of finding talented offensive linemen than the old one did.
Estimated cost for 2014: $2.5 million
Re-Sign Brent Grimes, or Use the Franchise Tag in an Emergency
There were questions about Brent Grimes after a torn Achilles ended his 2012 season, but the Dolphins rolled the dice on him and hit the jackpot.
Grimes was not just the best cornerback on the team last year, he was one of the best and most underrated corners in the league. He allowed a passer rating of 66.3 on throws into his coverage, eighth out of 81 qualifying cornerbacks.
Now, their best external free-agent signing of 2013 is a free agent once again in 2014.
Without Grimes, the Dolphins secondary comes unraveled pretty quickly. It forces Nolan Carroll (also a free agent), Dimitri Patterson (a potential salary-cap casualty) and Jimmy Wilson into the spotlight as the top three cornerbacks on the team.
Grimes will be 31 years old in July; as such, the Dolphins may be apprehensive about giving him long-term money, but at the same time, Grimes is running out of time to cash in with a big contract.
Pending UFA Brent Grimes on possibility of franchise tag: "that's not what anybody wants."— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) December 30, 2013
He is the only thing close to a legitimate No. 1 cornerback on the roster. But just because the Dolphins need him, doesn't mean contract negotiations will go smoothly. Grimes may not be keen on the idea of the tag, but it may be the Dolphins' only recourse to ensure their secondary doesn't fall apart.
Estimated cost for 2014: $9 million if a long-term deal, $11.3 million if franchise tagged
Total 2014 Expenditure: $18.5-20.8 million
You will notice that there's one position that is left out: defensive tackle.
The Dolphins have two defensive tackles up for new deals in Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Each has his merits and flaws, but at 30 years old, each of them will likely be too expensive to justify signing to the long-term deal that each of them probably wants.
Plus, with the signings mentioned here, there may simply not be enough space left over to make a big splash at defensive tackle—keeping in mind that the Dolphins must save away at least $5 million to sign their draft picks.
Thus, the Dolphins may have to go bargain-basement shopping for a new starter. Even if they plan on drafting one in the first round, signing a veteran free agent at a low-cost deal seems like a smart move.
This is all just guesswork, beginning with how much cap space the Dolphins will have in the first place. As mentioned, they currently have just $14 million, but can jack that number up to over $30 million if they choose to roll over all the remaining cap space from 2013 (although there's no reason to think they won't).
The conjecture continues with the estimated costs I've provided. These numbers are based off the average salaries of players around their skill level at their position, but the actual numbers could look much different depending on how the contracts are constructed.
If they front-load the deals, the money will dry up faster; if they push the money back, the Dolphins could get away with a lighter cap hit this year.
It's fair to note, however, that amid all the spending the Dolphins did last year, they still managed to keep some money in their pocket for more spending this year.
That being said, the Dolphins must be careful not to commit too much money and threaten the long-term stability of their salary cap.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases, salary info provided by Spotrac and advanced stats obtained via Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).