At approximately 10 a.m. Thursday morning at an airport area hotel in Atlanta, 31 of the 32 NFL club owners (New England's Robert Kraft will not attend because his wife passed this week so his son will take his place) will gather with the intent of voting on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Unless I miss my guess, there will be complaining and wrangling and ultimately the owners will vote to approve the new CBA by the time the weekend is over. The meeting is actually supposed to last Thursday and Friday but because lawyers are involved, I'm thinking the actual documents might take a bit longer to put before the owners for them to approve.
That is the foundation. Now let's look at the start of the construction project that is the Miami Dolphins 2011 season.
Even as owners are going over the financial details of the new CBA, club executives will be getting a crash course in new salary cap issues caused by the deal. They will be told what the cap will be -- with reported projections hovering between $120-$124 million minus benefits that fans don't need to think about.
If there are new rules such as new ways of using franchise tags those will be covered. Call it a bigtime capology course. For the Dolphins, General Manager Jeff Ireland and Senior Vice President of Football Operations Dawn Aponte will be getting the lowdown on the cap. (I do not know Aponte as the Dolphins keep her shielded but for her sake she better be the star some have suggested to me she is on the cap front. Frankly, I still remember the Joey Porter cap fiasco of last year, where he had to be cut twice because the club made a salary cap mistake in trying to cut him the first time. So she gets that one pass. No more.)
I'm told once that course is over, Ireland and Aponte will return to South Florida and plug in whatever new rules apply to Miami's coming assault on free agency, the re-signing of vets, the signing of both draft picks and undrafted free agents, and the possible whacking adjusting of scheduled salaries to current players.
The latter of those is important because it seems the Dolphins will need to create some cap space to operate comfortably. Currently the team's 2011 cap commitment is approximately $109.5 million, give or take a million. That puts the Dolphins around $11-13 million under the expected cap before signing any draft picks or undrafted free agents. That figure suggests two things: The Dolphins will have plenty of room to make one very bold move in free agency. The team can even make two or three bold moves if it restructures the contracts of players such as Jake Long, Vernon Carey, or Karlos Dansby.
The club would be wise to negotiate with nose tackle Paul Soliai who is tagged as their franchise player and therefore is costing $12.476 million against the cap -- about 10 percent of that cap, which seems like a waste of cap space to me.
The team might also consider salary cuts to some players.
[10:05 update: I spoke to Eric Winston, who along with DeMeco Ryans, serves as player rep to the NFLPA for the Houston Texans. He was on Armando and the Amigo this morning. He told me the salary cap might be higher than is being reported and there are provisions in the agreement that would protect veterans from having to be cut by teams for cap reasons. Sure, teams can cut vets for non-performance or other reasons such as arrests and so forth. But Winston seemed positive there would be no veteran cap casualties as a result of the new agreement. He also suggested I was safe in assuming teams will have plenty of money to pay vets in free agency. Interesting.]
The strategy for that will be finalized in Davie over the weekend, I suppose. That will carry us to Monday or Tuesday. And then, by all accounts, the fun should begin. That is when the lockout is likey going to end. That is when teams will open the doors to their facilities and players can return to work out, talk to coaches, lift, pick up playbooks, maybe even get some walk-thru onfield work.
It is still unclear if or when clubs will get a window to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents. For the Dolphins, this period might not be as big a deal as it will be, say, for the Jets who have high-caliber free agents such as Santonio Holmes dangling on the verge of hitting the market.
Yes, I suppose the Dolphins could deal with Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown and Tyler Thigpen if an exclusive negotiating period is granted. But I would not be surprised if all three fail to sign during that exclusive period. Simply, the Dolphins want to upgrade from Williams and Brown in free agency so why re-sign them before trying to go after someone more dynamic? Also, I seriously believe both Williams and Brown are simply fall-back positions in case better options fall through.
Thigpen, meanwhile, apparently wants a chance to at least compete for a starting job, you know, be in the mix. Sure, no problem. He can compete for a starting job in Miami if Tony Sparano is eager to lose his job, which he is not.
Why sign Ricky or Ronnie if DeAngelo Williams or Ahmad Bradshaw might be available a day or two later? Obviously if both DeAngelo Williams and Bradshaw re-sign with the Panthers and Giants respectively, perhaps the Dolphins try to offer either Ricky or Ronnie a take-it-or-leave-it contract hoping one will bite.
(Before you mention Reggie Bush, let me say this: He is not an option as a running back, unless the Dolphins have something up their sleeve. The Dolphins need someone to split the workload with rookie Daniel Thomas. They need a 200-carry guy. The most he's ever carried the ball in a season was 2007 when he lugged it 157 times. He averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per rush that year. Bush is more suited as a third-down back threat. He is electric when he's healthy on special teams as a punt return man. But he has not been capable of being a workhorse in New Orleans. The only way Bush works for Miami is if the Dolphins have designs of using Lex Hilliard as their No. 2 RB. That plan would sound like something of a gamble to me. I'd rather have DeAngelo Williams, Daniel Thomas and Lex Hilliard than Thomas, Hilliard and Bush. I believe the Dolphins agree. Given the football reasons and the fact Bush likely wants a Brinks truckload of cash, I would not bet on Miami getting Bush. I have not been told that by any source but it seems logical.)
At some point -- either concurrently with the lifting of the lockout or between 24-72 hours later -- the NFL 2011 league year will begin.
Teams must be under the salary cap by that date. And then teams can begin signing their draft picks, their undrafted players which they all will have lined up, and likely new unrestricted free agents.
Most folks believe all out free agency would start July 28. There is conjecture training camps will also open on the 28th but I would not be surprised if practices don't actually begin until the 29th, a Friday, or the 30th, a Saturday. I'm sure coaches around the league will be wary about exposing their players to needless groin, hamstring, calf, and other nagging strains and pains so quickly after a long lockout.
And as camps are open, free agents will be streaming in as they sign. The big names will go first. The bargains will come thereafter.
Again, I think the Dolphins will get a chance at a big name or two. As someone texted me today, the Dolphins have their hammer and nails and duck tape ready to go as the building of the 2011 team gets ready to begin. "[We] just hope we get to use the hammer and nails more than the duct tape," the text read.
Hilarious! And also insightful because Miami obviously wants to push toward playoff caliber by building with top-grade materials rather than patching with whatever is left or discarded by someone else.
So what will that take?
The obvious priorities are quarterback and running back. But there might be others. What others? Who? This post is long enough already, don't you think? I'll post the answer to those questions later this morning. Check back.