Like most NFL teams, the Miami Dolphins are strapped for cap space.
Unlike previous years, the NFL’s salary cap is contracting instead of expanding in 2021 due to the lack of fans in stadiums and the decline of food and merchandise sales during the 2020 season, which was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, the cap is projected to drop from $198 million to $180 million based on a league memo last week, and that loss of cap space means dozens of teams will be forced to tighten their purse strings, and release or restructure players’ contracts — even more than they usually do at this time of year.
The Dolphins have roughly $24 million in cap space, and will need to use about $12 million of that to sign the 2021 draft class. That means Miami likely won’t be aggressive in free agency unless the Dolphins find a way to get creative with how they can create more cap space.
Here are five strategies that could produce additional cap space for the Dolphins:
Change base salaries to roster bonuses
The easiest approach to create $10-20 million in additional cap space is to restructure the deals of any, or all players who signed to substantial contracts last offseason. If Miami changes the majority of their base salaries into roster bonuses it provides plenty of relief.
Byron Jones (due $14 million), Kyle Van Noy ($12.5 million), Ereck Flowers ($8,975,000) and Shaq Lawson ($7.9 million) could all have their base salaries lowered to the NFL minimum, and the rest of their money transitioned to roster bonuses. But that approach would create more of a commitment to all of these players. Miami structured all of last year’s deals so they could be voided after the guaranteed money is completed, which many of them is this year.
Turning the bulk of this year’s salary into a roster bonus would likely extend Miami’s commitment to these veterans a season longer then may be needed. For instance, instead of possibly releasing Flowers after this season with no penalty, Miami would be forced to pay him the $10 million he’s owed in 2022. That is why this approach should be used only if necessary because the cap commitment just gets pushed further down the contract.
Waive DeVante Parker
Parker’s $7,750,000 deal becomes fully guaranteed on March 17, which is the first day of the league’s new year. That doesn’t factor in his $500,000 per game roster bonus, $100,000 workout bonus, and his $1,125,000 in player incentives, which brings his total financial commitment in 2021 to $9,475,000.
Releasing him as a post-June 1 cut clears slightly less than that. The fact Parker only makes $5.75 million in 2022 and $5.8 million in 2023 makes it cost effective to keep him this season if Miami wants to continue investing in the talented, but injury-prone receiver.
This decision comes down to how invested the Dolphins feel they are in the 2014 first-round pick, who has averaged 3.6 catches for 50.7 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in the 83 games he’s played in his six seasons in Miami. Would the franchise prefer the player, or the $9.4 million in cap space releasing Parker could create?
Release Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns and Jakeem Grant
Wilson, Hurns and Grant, three veteran receivers who all held backup roles in Miami the past few seasons, are collectively set to make a little less than $9.7 million in base salary, workout and per game bonuses in 2021.
Releasing Wilson would clear $2.85 million in cap space. Releasing Grant, the Dolphins’ return specialist, would clear nearly $2.9 million in cap space. Releasing Hurns would create $766,666 in cap space. But the Dolphins owe Wilson $1 million in guaranteed money, and Hurns $1.25 million in guaranteed money.
Because of the financial commitment owed to Wilson and Hurns, who both opted out of the 2020 season because of concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dolphins might prefer to carry these receivers to training camp and let their practice performances determine their fate. That’s not a bad idea considering that depth at receiver was troublesome all of last season.
Restructure Xavien Howard’s deal
Howard will earn $12.1 million this season, and this is the final guaranteed portion of the six-year, $76.5 million contract extension he received in 2019. Reworking the deal, potentially bumping up Howard’s annual salary into the $14-15 million a year range to reflect the dominant season he had last year, could be a win-win for the Dolphins because it has the potential to create $8 million in cap space.
All the Dolphins would have to do is change his base salary into a roster bonus. Keeping Howard happy and bought in should be a priority considering he’s clearly the team’s best player, and was the primary reason the Dolphins had one of the NFL’s elite defenses last year.
Waiting to adjust Howard’s contract could cost the team more long-term, or lead to a nasty divorce if he continues to perform at a high level.
Extend Emmanuel Ogbah’s contract
Ogbah, who signed a two-year deal worth $15 million last offseason, had a career year in 2020, contributing 42 tackles, nine sacks and forcing three fumbles. The Dolphins are committed to paying the defensive lineman $7.5 million in base salary and a workout bonus this year.
If he performs like he did last year, its possible his asking price could double. That’s why it might benefit Miami to reward Ogbah now with a multi-year deal if they are certain he’ll continue to produce at a high level.
A substantial signing bonus could lower his $7.5 million cap number into the $5 million a year range. Few players prefer to play on the final year of their contract because of the absence of guaranteed money, so Ogbah would likely be willing to sign a team-friendly deal if the signing bonus is substantial because a bird in the hand beats the two in the bush he’d have to secure by having another dominant season in 2021.