After a year of saving money and being relatively dormant in NFL free agency, the Miami Dolphins showed they aren't waiting around any longer by making their first significant steps toward competing in a new-look AFC East - one without Tom Brady leading the New England Patriots.
The first-day big-fish splash came in the form of agreeing to terms with former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones (a slight surprise), a move that could give the Dolphins the NFL's best cornerback duo paired with Xavien Howard. It certainly is the most expensive one -- a $31.8 million average salary per year for those two players.
Coach Brian Flores went back to his roots in his first active free agency, targeting the type of defensive players whom he and the Patriots have valued the most. That means acquiring lockdown man-to-man cornerbacks, even at a premium price, such as Jones. That also means adding versatile, hard-working scheme fits who can defend the run on the edge such as Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy.
Familiarity is king, especially as we approach an unprecedented offseason where the early offseason workouts have already been postponed. Flores is getting his guys, and building it the right way, as he and Dolphins general manager Chris Grier repeated throughout the offseason.
There is room for a new king in the AFC East, and there's no reason why -- in due time -- it can't be the Dolphins.
Since Brady became the starter in 2001, the Patriots have won 17 AFC East titles. The Dolphins and Jets have each won one, and the Bills none. New England won the past 11 division titles. It could be a new era without Brady -- and that should make all of the non-Patriots AFC East teams very happy.
But spending the most money, or winning free agency, doesn't necessarily correlate directly to immediate success.
Miami is spending $138.5 million in guarantees on agreed-upon deals with Jones, Van Noy, Lawson, guard Ereck Flowers, safety/special-teams ace Clayton Fejedelem and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. That number, which will rise with Tuesday's news of agreements with running back Jordan Howard and linebacker/special-teams captain Kamu Grugier-Hill, surpasses the 2019 New York Jets for the most guaranteed money spent on free agents by any team in the offseason, over the past 10 offseasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Those Jets went 7-9.
Dolphins beef up defense with Van Noy
Adam Schefter explains how the Dolphins are continuing to pool resources to acquire quality talent like Kyle Van Noy.
The Dolphins also led the league in free-agent spending in 2013 and saw only a one-win improvement from 7-9 to 8-8 overall.
As for the $57 million guaranteed for Jones, in particular, it is the second-largest guarantee the Dolphins have given out over the past 10 offseasons. Defensive end Ndamukong Suh received $60 million guaranteed in a deal that ultimately didn't work out.
The Dolphins hope that familiarity mitigates some of the natural risk that comes in free agency. That, along with the much-needed massive increase in talent the Dolphins have added to their defense with more moves probably coming, sets them up for a jump forward in 2020.
Van Noy is a Flores favorite from their time shared together in New England, and it's easy to see him becoming a leader for the Dolphins. Lawson played under Dolphins defensive line coach Marion Hobby at Clemson -- where he also shared the field with Miami's 2019 first-round pick and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins in college. Both Van Noy and Lawson are coming off career-highs with 6.5 sacks each in 2019 -- either would have led the Dolphins in sacks with those numbers.
The Dolphins talk a lot about scheming pressure and it seems they are taking that approach rather than focusing on adding elite pass-rushers.
Imagine a healthy Xavien Howard and Jones patrolling each side, playing a ton of man-to-man coverage, locking down the passing lanes. There should be more coverage sacks and opportunities to scheme pressure.
These free-agent additions, along with the pending draft selections, mean the Dolphins' defense is on track to be improved from a unit that finished last in sacks (23) and pressures (122) in 2019, and in the bottom 10 in nearly every other defensive category.
There seems to be a positive future ahead for the Dolphins who, as Grier promised, are not sitting on all of their money. The biggest prize might still be ahead in the NFL draft, where the Dolphins are likely to land their franchise quarterback. They have three first-round picks and 14 total picks.
The AFC East is wide open, and the Dolphins are making their step forward.