« Dolphins go international in talent search | Main | Cameron Wake signs Miami Dolphins contract »

Third in series: A look at free agency

[Blog note: This is the third in a series of posts evaluating Miami's player acquisition moves of 2008. Today: Free agency. Next, which does not necessarily mean tomorrow: The draft.]

We've already agreed in the first two parts of this series that Big Tuna Bill Parcells and Tuna Helper Jeff Ireland did magnificent work in remaking, refurbishing and retooling the Dolphins this season. We've already established they did great work overall and did great work with their trades.

Unrestricted free agency?

Did I mention they did great work with their trades?

Unrestricted free agency was not the duo's shining moment, with the exception of one Chad Pennington. I grant you, signing Pennington as a free agent when the Jets released him was Miami's signature move of the season.

Pennington changed everything. But does that completely erase the problems with signing Ernest Wilford? And Josh McCown? And Boomer Grigsby, and Chris Crocker, and Sean Ryan?

Were it not for Pennington becoming unexpectedly available, Miami's 2008 venture into free agency would have graded a C-minus, at best. Of course, Pennington's acquisition turned an ugly picture into a winning portrait.

But as the team prepares for the start of a new free agency period in about a month, one hopes some lessons have been learned. The Dolphins seemed to overpay on some players -- Wilford. The Dolphins figured some players would develop into starters and they did not -- Randy Starks.

And the Dolphins refused to dabble in any players past the age of 26-27 when clearly expanding the horizon a bit might have improved the team's ability to add talent. On the bright side, Miami apparently learned that last lesson by the time the 32-year-old Pennington became available.

What follows is a player by player breakdown of the free agents Miami signed from other teams. Miami's own free agent signees will be evaluated later in the series.

The player: QB Chad Pennington. The deal: Signed a two-year, $7.9 million contract on Aug. 8. The deal included a $500,000 guaranteed roster bonus for 2008. The skinny: The Dolphins convinced Pennington to come to Miami over Kansas City. That was great for both parties, but greater for Miami. Pennington brought leadership, confidence and work ethic to the QB, something the offense had lacked for years. Pennington was the team MVP and that far overshadowed the fact he is still challenged in getting the football down the field because of his arm strength. Pennington has already been named the starter for the 2009 season by coach Tony Sparano. The bottom line: Stellar acquisition.

The player: OLB Charlie Anderson. The deal: Signed a three-year, 7.35 million contract on Feb. 29. The deal included a $2.5 million guarantee. The skinny: He was the starting weak side linebacker for about five minutes during training camp before the Dolphins realized he wasn't good enough for the duty. So Anderson instead was asked to become a special teams and pass-rushing specialist. As the special teams specialist, Anderson was Miami's third-leading tackler but led the special teams in penalties, including one that cost a touchdown. As a rusher, Anderson had 2.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. The bottom line: Anderson was OK but to say he played up to his contract is exaggeration.

The player: QB Josh McCown. The deal: Signed a two-year, $2.25 million  contract on Feb. 29. The deal included a $2.5 million signing bonus. The skinny: McCown would have been a good hire as a backup, but the Dolphins actually considered him starter material when they signed him. Bad call. McCown struggled in training camp and was actually playing no better, perhaps worse, than rookie Chad Henne when Pennington dropped from heaven. The bottom line: The luck in getting Pennington overshadowed the lack of insight in believing McCown could start. But the Dolphins should try to avoid living on the edge like that in the future.

The player: G Justin Smiley. The deal: Signed a five-year, $25 million contract on Feb. 29. The deal included $9 million in guarantees. The skinny: Smiley was confident he would be better than Alan Faneca, who signed with the Jets for a lot more gaudy numbers. That didn't happen even as Faneca declined somewhat. Smiley came to the Dolphins with something of an injury history and, through no fault of his, was injured when the team was making its final-month push for the playoffs. But Smiley was invaluable in helping rookie Jake Long. He was tough. He usually played well when he was healthy. He was an excellent locker room influence. The bottom line: This one won't be decided for another year or two. If Smiley can find a way to get, and stay healthy, this signing will prove wise. If he isn't on the field all the time the next couple of years, the Dolphins didn't get their money's worth.

The player: DL Randy Starks. The deal: Signed a five-year, $20.05 million contract on March 1. The deal included $7 million in guarantees, of which $5.75 million was a signing bonus. The skinny: Starks played and produced better in 2008 with Miami than he did in 2007 with Tennessee. So in that regard, he was what the Dolphins hoped -- a player on the rise. But Starks was also something of enigma in that he didn't produce as much as he had in 2005 and 2006, and he spent the entire season behind a couple of rookies in Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford. The bottom line: If this is the price of depth on the defensive line, it didn't come cheap.

The player: ILB Reggie Torbor. The deal: Signed a four-year, $14 million contract on March 1. The deal included $5 million in guarantees, of which $4 million was a signing bonus. The skinny: This signing will pay dividends (or not) this offseason. At that point, the Dolphins may feel good enough about Torbor to allow Channing Crowder to walk via free agency. But if the Dolphins make moves that ensure Torbor will continue being a fallback option at ILB, then his contract seems way too rich for a backup and special teams player. The bottom line: If this is the price of depth and special teams help, it was way too expensive.

The player: Boomer Grigsby. The deal: Signed a one year, $525,000 contract on March 5. The contract included a $5,000 signing bonus. The skinny: Grigsby was a victim of not having familiarity with the Dolphins coaching staff while also declining at the wrong time. He was replaced by Casey Cramer, who played for several Miami coaches in Carolina. Grigsby didn't help his cause by missing a key block in the season opener, but his fate seemed sealed even before that game was played. He did not sign with another team during the season. The bottom line: You win some, you lose some. The loss is mitigated by the nominal investment.

The player: S Keith Davis. The deal: Signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract on March 11. The skinny: Part of the Cowboyfication of the Dolphins, Davis seemed like a lock to make the team. But before the final preseason game he was cut even though Miami didn't need to make space on the roster. Davis was better on special teams than several players that remained on the roster. And later in the season coach Tony Sparano said Davis cut because he was behind other players at safety -- except the Dolphins then had to bring in less accomplished safetys such as Brannon Condren and Courtney Bryan to play on special teams. Davis re-signed with the Cowboys. The bottom line: The signing was a good one but waiving the guy was a mistake.

The player: Nathan Jones. The deal: Signed a two year contract with undisclosed terms on March 14. The skinny: Another former Cowboy signed primarily to play on special teams, Jones was valuable on special teams throughout the season and increased his value starting in Miami's nickel and dime package the final month of the season. The bottom line: Assuming he got about $1 million per year, Jones was a good addition.

The player: Chris Crocker. The deal: Signed a one-year, $1.15 million contract on March 31. The deal included $300,000 in guarantees. The skinny: It looked like a wise move for a while as Crocker took the free safety spot Jason Allen could not keep during training camp. And then the season actually started and Crocker was responsible for several busted coverages in the deep secondary. He was demoted, then released on Oct. 21. Interestingly, Crocker joined the Bengals and became a valued member of their secondary. The bottom line: You win some, you lose some. This was a loss.

The player: WR Ernest Wilford. The deal: Signed a four-year, $13 million contract on March 1. The deal included a $6 million signing bonus. The skinny: Wilford was inactive 10 of 17 games, including a playoff game in which the Dolphins felt more comfortable going with only three receivers than having him suited up. Wilford caught three passes for 23 yards and was labeled a, "disappointment," by an understating Ireland midway through the season. The bottom line: Miami's worst personnel move the entire season, including free agency, trades, and draft.

The player: TE Sean Ryan. The deal: Signed a one-year, terms undisclosed. The skinny: He was waived Sept. 12 when the team needed to make room on the roster for T Kirk Barton, who was claimed off waivers from Chicago. The moved proved fruitless all the way around as Barton was waived a month later. The bottom line: The Anthony Fasano trade erased the mistake of this signing.