The Dolphins signed tackle Ndamukong Suh last year to the largest contract in NFL history for a defensive player, banking on a dominant line to turn the team’s fortunes around.
Suh had a solid but not spectacular season and most of the players around him either struggled or dealt with injuries.
The exception was defensive end Olivier Vernon, who had 7.5 sacks and was graded as the league’s third-best edge defender by Pro Football Focus.
But with Vernon up for a major contract extension and defensive end Cameron Wake’s future also in question, the Dolphins will have to spend big on the defensive line for the second consecutive offseason. And there’s no guarantee the line will be much better this season.
Vernon’s status not only affects the Dolphins but has league-wide ramifications.
He’s considered arguably the top free agent in the league, despite racking up double-digit sacks just once in his career — 25-year-old pass rushers are at a premium in the NFL.
He will command well over $10 million a year for a long-term deal and could aim for as much as $15 million a season.
The Dolphins can give him the franchise tag, which would lock him up this season at more than $15 million. The team would then have until next offseason to negotiate a long-term contract.
Dolphins officials have not yet met with Vernon’s representatives at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, a source told The Palm Beach Post. Both sides plan to have discussions.
The Dolphins appear to be considering all their options. According to a report from NJ.com, the Dolphins have even told other teams at the combine that they’re open to giving Vernon the franchise tag and then trading him.
It’s a far-fetched scenario — trading top NFL players is rare, especially one with the franchise tag.
But the fact that the Dolphins have even raised the possibility shows that they’re unsure of Vernon’s future two weeks before free agency begins.
If Vernon isn’t under contract by March 7, other NFL teams can begin contacting him. He could sign with another team as early as March 15.
“We have options and so does he,” Dolphins head of football operations Mike Tannenbaum said. “We haven’t made any decisions. We’re just looking at options.”
The Dolphins have limited cap space available now but are expected to free up $18 million when they restructure Suh’s 2016 salary. Suh’s cap hit will drop from $28 million to $10 million this year, but the team will have to make up the difference over the next four years.
Defensive end Wake, who is coming off an Achilles’ tendon injury and will be 34 next season, is a $9.8 million cap hit this season. But the Dolphins are considering extending Wake’s contract by a year if he agrees to take less money this season.
Derrick Shelby, the third defensive end in Miami’s rotation, is also a free agent. Tannenbaum said Shelby will test the market, so he might return only if he can’t find more money elsewhere.
There’s also Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2013 draft who has been one of the biggest busts in draft history and sat out the entire 2015 season after his third drug suspension.
If his suspension is lifted the Dolphins might give him one more shot but not much is expected of him at this point.
The Dolphins could use the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft on a pass rusher regardless of whether Vernon re-signs.
Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence and Clemson’s Shaq Lawson are the top pass rushers available.
But the Dolphins have plenty of other needs including linebacker, cornerback and offensive line.
“I’d love to be here and play for my city,” said Vernon, a Miami native and former UM standout, after the season. “But at the same it’s all totally up to the guys upstairs.”