Graziano: Do the Dolphins have a plan? Here’s what we found

Matthew Berry likes Dolphins WR Albert Wilson as a late-round flyer in deeper PPR leagues because Ryan Fitzpatrick loves to target slot receivers. (1:15)

The Miami Dolphins swear they didn’t want to trade offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, and for a minute there they were walking the walk. Teams that were in contact with Miami this summer came away believing pretty much anyone on the roster was available in a trade except Tunsil and star cornerback Xavien Howard, who received a new contract in May. The Dolphins might be going young and piling up draft picks to build for the future, but Tunsil is a good 25-year-old left tackle. You extend contracts for guys like that; you don’t trade them.

But the Houston Texans, a defending division champion with perennial protection issues who just watched their chief competitor’s quarterback retire two weeks before the start of the season, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Sources close to the situation say Houston was basically like the car dealer who won’t let you leave the showroom without a car. Every time the Dolphins said no, the Texans made the deal better, to the point where they’d have been nuts to say it again. Two first-round picks, a second-rounder, offensive tackle Julie’n Davenport and cornerback Johnson Bademosi for Tunsil, receiver Kenny Stills, a fourth-rounder and a sixth-rounder. Better than the Raiders did for Khalil Mack a year earlier. The Dolphins had to take it.

“Look, they’re tanking!” yells the wider world, and the Dolphins bellow back, “No we’re not!” and the truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in between those two 2019-style debate poles.

The Dolphins aren’t “tanking” in the sense of trying to lose games on purpose. NFL tanking isn’t like tanking in the NBA, where teams try to lose as much as possible in an effort to get the top pick. In the NFL, the goal is to amass as many early-round picks as possible so you can maneuver in the draft, and sources in the organization say that’s exactly the goal.

The Dolphins have two first-rounders and two second-rounders in each of the next two drafts. If they were to be better than we expect this season and end up with, say, the No. 7 overall pick, they’d have all of the tools they’d need to trade up to grab the quarterback (or offensive tackle) of their dreams.

At the same time, though, even the Dolphins have to admit they aren’t fielding the most competitive team they possibly could in 2019. Even if you agree that most of the players they got rid of this offseason weren’t that productive for them in 2018, trading Stills and Tunsil for picks and two replacement-level players a week before the season is a screaming admission that their roster isn’t as good as they could have made it.

The idea, as they’ve said publicly, is to make the roster as sustainably good as it can be for a number of years.

“You can throw it together and make a playoff run, like in Adam Gase’s first year, but then you’re just covering up problems,” one source familiar with the thinking of Miami’s front office said. “You’re not going to throw in a pricey veteran or two just to get yourselves another win or two this year at the expense of the long term.”

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The point is not to lose, or to get the first pick, necessarily, but rather to have as many options as possible. Based on conversations I’ve had with people close to the situation, these are key elements of the plan:

Those early-round picks the next couple of years will allow Miami to do more or less whatever it wants in the draft. If it decides it needs to trade up to get a quarterback, it can package picks to do that. If the Dolphins figure out their quarterback position some other way and it makes more sense to move down, they’ll be flexible enough to be able to do that. Teams want to control the draft to whatever extent they can, and no team will be better positioned than the Dolphins to do that over the next two years.

The Dolphins probably will lead the league this year in “dead money,” which is salary-cap charges for players no longer on their team. At the moment, they’re carrying about $51 million in dead money, mainly because of leftover charges for Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh. The next-highest dead money figure at the moment is Arizona’s $35 million. But that’s a one-year issue that will leave them with what one source called “clean books” in 2020 and beyond. So they can comfortable extend whichever of their young players end up deserving contract extensions — guys like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jerome Baker, Kenyan Drake, Kalen Ballage, whomever.

Even the draft-weekend acquisition of quarterback Josh Rosen was about options. Rosen, a top-10 draft pick in 2018, cost almost nothing to acquire and will cost Miami only $6.2 million over the next three years to pay. The fact that he opens the season as the backup to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t a source of concern within the organization. Sources there say coach Brian Flores and his staff are development-focused and believe they can evaluate Rosen on the practice field. And if the season goes by and they never play him … well, that kind of tells you what their evaluation of him is, doesn’t it? If Rosen turns out to be a franchise quarterback, he’s an all-time steal. If not, he didn’t cost anything, and they have a bunch of high draft picks and a ton of cap space with which to address quarterback next offseason.

It’s one thing to make a plan. It’s another to stick with it. The NFL’s most recently proximate example of what the Dolphins are trying to do is the Cleveland Browns, who look like a 2019 contender but had to endure a messy slew of coaching and front-office changes before landing where they’ve landed. Flores has a five-year contract, and I’m told the Dolphins have assured him they’ll stick with him through the rebuild. But for this to work, they have to stay true to their word. If, say, Jim Harbaugh decides he wants to come back to the NFL, they can’t just fire the coaching staff to take a run at him (as their owner did once upon a time).

If you’re a team in a division in which the same team wins 12 games every season, as Miami is, and that team’s coach and quarterback probably have only a couple of years to go, this whole thing makes some degree of sense. What good does it do the Dolphins to win, say, eight games instead of four? How do you fault them for deciding the right plan is to be as strong as possible two or three years from now, when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady might be wrapping it up? The key is that they stick with it, use those draft picks the right way and make good on their plan to build a sustainable winner from the ground up.

Here are a few other NFL-related questions on my mind ahead of Week 1:

Elliott’s holdout worked, as he got to miss all of training camp and become the highest-paid running back in the league. But from a team standpoint, the situation points up yet another reason taking running backs with top-5 picks is a low-value proposition.

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Elliott’s rookie contract averaged $6.2 million a year — actually, $6.8 million a year if you factor in the fifth-year option the Dallas Cowboys had already picked up. So as of three days ago, he was already the seventh-highest paid back in the league by average annual salary. Leonard Fournette, selected with the fourth overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars a year after Elliott was, is currently the eighth-highest paid back in the league. Saquon Barkley, taken No. 2 overall by the New York Giants in 2018, is the sixth-highest paid.

So the best-case scenario for the Jaguars and Giants is that Fournette and Barkley play great and the teams find themselves in the same situation the Cowboys were just in — having to pay them at the top of the market or risk losing him. The draft is about value — teams want to find players who can contribute before they have to pay big money. When teams take a running back that high, they might be getting a great player, but they aren’t getting value.

Speaking of running backs, for those wondering how the Chargers’ setup will go without Melvin Gordon, I wanted to share a bit of a conversation I had with Chargers coach Anthony Lynn recently. Discussing how he’d deploy Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson in Gordon’s absence, the former running back and running backs coach told me he used to admire the way the Carolina Panthers used Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in a two-back setup when those two were in their prime.

“I always told myself, if I got the chance to be a head coach, I’d never go back to a one-man show,” Lynn said. So, if you’re a fantasy player looking for clarity on the Ekeler/Jackson situation … sorry.

The Colts’ quarterback maneuvers this week reminded me of another conversation I had recently with general manager Chris Ballard. We were talking about how Indianapolis entered the offseason with the most salary-cap space of any team in the league and didn’t use very much of it, and Ballard said that was the plan, because he wanted to keep a big salary-cap cushion at all times. “As long as I’m here, we’ll never be in a position where we can’t sign a player for salary-cap reasons,” Ballard said.

So out of nowhere, Andrew Luck retires two weeks before the season starts and they end up having to give new starter Jacoby Brissett a huge raise and sign new backup Brian Hoyer to a three-year, $12 million contract. Without having seen the full details of those deals, it’s fair to estimate they cost something like $9 million or $10 million in cap space. Not a coincidental figure, since the team is “saving” about $9.1 million in cap charges on Luck, whose cap number would have been $27.525 million this year if he’d played and is now costing $18.4 million in dead money on the 2019 cap. Ballard signed two quarterbacks this week and the whole thing was basically cap-neutral.

Sources close to the collective bargaining agreement negotiations say they’re stalled for the time being. There were no player/owner negotiating sessions this week and none are scheduled. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) came out of last week’s negotiating session believing the owners wouldn’t agree to any deal without some sort of expansion of the season — 17 games, 18 games, expanded playoffs, something. But sources say the owners have yet to offer a concrete proposal that includes such an expansion.

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Can the players’ union, which has steadfastly insisted it wouldn’t agree to an expanded season, reverse course on this? The better question is: What’s the price at which they’d have to consider it? The current CBA specifies that players get no less than 47% of all league revenue in any given year. How high would the owners have to make that number to get the players to agree to an expanded season? You have to think it’s at least 50%, if not more.

It’s possible the negotiations stall over this issue, and obviously the owners did not meet their stated goal of having a new agreement in place before the start of the 2019 season. But sources say enough work has been done on other issues that, once the macro financial issues are resolved, a deal could come together quickly.

NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith is on the road now, doing his annual visit to every team, and his schedule has been tightened up this year to allow for him to return to the negotiating table as soon as might be needed. There’s a sense that the landscape could shift if no deal is done in the next couple of months, as the owners’ attention will have to turn to other matters such as negotiating new TV deals, so this is a bit of a precarious time on this issue. There are still two full seasons to be played before the current CBA expires, but if a new one isn’t in place by this time next year, things will feel a great deal more urgent and scary.