The Miami Dolphins are in a tough spot when it comes to key defensive free agent Christian Wilkins.
A-to-Z Sports Miami reporters Josh Queipo and Kyle DeDiminicantanio projected that the interior lineman will sign a four year, $92 million contract that includes $50 million guaranteed. At the same time, the Dolphins are currently $51.898 million in the negative according to Over the Cap.
Despite all that, Pro Football Focus analyst Brad Spielberger highlighted Wilkins as the main free agent that Miami “can’t afford to lose” in 2024 free agency.
“Wilkins was the odd man out of the 2019 first rounders who signed marquee extensions this past offseason, and he used that as motivation to have the best pass-rush season of his career,” Spielberger reasoned.
Continuing: “He has always been one of the best run defenders in the NFL and could push the pocket to free things up for other rushers, but his own pass-rush production came in 2023 to the tune of 58 pressures, nine sacks and 16 quarterback hits.”
So, how can the Dolphins retain their top free agent while also shedding the necessary salary to get themselves even again?
Dolphins Would Have to Sign Christian Wilkins to Backloaded Extension
Miami is unlikely to franchise tag Wilkins in 2024. Over the Cap projects a defensive tackle tag value of $19.753 million this spring, and remember, that means a problematic cap charge of the exact same amount.
There’s typically only one way to keep a great player when you don’t have the funds — sign them to a backloaded contract. If Wilkins is extended, the Dolphins could potentially offer more guaranteed money long-term on a deal that begins with a lower cap hit and increases dramatically as the years progress.
The issue with that plan is that Miami would be kicking the can down the road again.
Even if general manager Chris Grier manages to clear enough cap space through lucrative roster cuts and restructures, this course of action would be putting them in a dangerous position in the coming seasons. That’s what makes this Wilkins decision so difficult.
Dolphins Could Be Forced to Part Ways With Aging Veterans
Whether Miami extends Wilkins or not, they’ll need more cap space in order to operate. Grier will certainly rework some contracts this offseason, but the Dolphins will free up larger chunks of space if they part ways with a couple of aging veterans.
Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine suggested two cap casualties that fit this description on January 16: Xavien Howard and Terron Armstead. On paper, these may sound like detrimental departures for Miami but in reality, they’re underperforming pieces that did not live up to their contracts in 2023.
“The Dolphins are going to have to look at a few of their high-dollar players and decide whether they are still deserving of the big money they are making,” Ballentine noted. “Howard just turned 30 and isn’t the ball-hawking playmaker he was when he signed his deal.”
The four-time Pro Bowl cornerback started 13 games for Miami this year, allowing 502 receiving yards and two touchdowns (62% reception rate) in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus. He also missed seven tackles and was penalized seven times.
“The Dolphins would have to eat two big dead cap hits [if they cut Howard] ($11.4 million in 2024 and $15.7 million in 2025), but it would create $14.5 million in cap space this offseason,” Ballentine relayed.
As for Armstead, the 32-year-old was voted to the Pro Bowl despite only starting 10 games. His PFF grades were solid when he was out there — 72.6 as a run blocker, 79.5 in pass protection — but is his lack of availability worth a cap hit over $20 million?
Ballentine concluded that it’s too big a risk at age 33, explaining that “cutting Terron Armstead and designating it as a post-June 1 cut would clear $9.4 million while carrying an $11.4 million dead cap charge in 2024 and $12.7 million in 2025.”
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