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Miami Dolphins, Olivier Vernon headed toward franchise tag decision

The Miami Dolphins and agents for their pending unrestricted free agents met in Indianapolis over the past few days to discuss what it will take to keep the players, and those talks include the club and the agent for defensive end Olivier Vernon.

The team and agent David Canter met Saturday and have remained in contact beyond that meeting. But no deal for Vernon was imminent as of this writing and it seems the team will indeed have to decide whether or not to use the franchise tag on him by the deadline Tuesday at 4 p.m. Placing the tag on Vernon means the team extends a guaranteed $15.7 million tender on him that hits the salary cap books immediately so that he cannot sign with another team without draft compensation coming back to Miami.

The team is keeping its intents on using tag a secret although it seems Miami must tag Vernon short of getting a deal with him to avoid the ramifications of having him hit free agency. Here are the scenarios the Dolphins are looking at if no multi-year deal is struck by the tag deadline of 4 p.m. Tuesday:

  1. Tag Vernon and keep him. That's expensive in that Vernon immediately goes on the salary cap books for $15.7 million or a 1,000 percent increase on his 2015 pay of $1.5 million. The Dolphins are unlikely to use the exclusive franchise tag which prevents any teams from negotiating with the player but is determined by the top five highest salaries at a position. The non-exclusive franchise tag, a more likely scenario for Vernon, is less expensive and allows other teams to negotiate with the player. The Dolphins could then match any contract offer Vernon receives or let him walk and get two first-round picks in return.
  2. Tag and trade. As no team is likely to agree to give up two first-round picks for Vernon, the Dolphins could tag Vernon with the intent to trade him. They would indeed place the tag on him and signal that he is nonetheless available for compensation less than the two first-round picks. The team's initial asking price would likely include at least one first-round pick but it is possible Miami might take less -- such as multiple second rounders, for example.
  3. Tag with intent to remove. This is the nuclear option that assures mutual destruction. The Dolphins could tag Vernon now to keep him from going to the market. They could hope that bides them time to negotiate a long-term deal. If no long term deal is struck -- and none was struck since last August when the team and Vernon first talked about a new deal -- then the team could simply remove the tag in June or July. That would make Vernon a free agent at a time most NFL teams have already allocated most of their salary cap space and don't have room to add a $14-$16 million per year player. Vernon's choice would be to sign a lesser deal with another team, sign a lesser deal with Miami, or sit out the season. This option is onerous for the player but also the team in that it would be allowing Vernon to take up approximately 10 percent of its 2016 cap space for several months during free agency -- preventing them from making other moves and still ultimately risking losing the player. I doubt this happens as it would anger Vernon and send a bad message to other players in the locker room about how the team treats players. The only reasons this is included here is because, well, it is a tactic, regardless of how terribly unlikely.   
  4. Do not tag. This would happen under two instances, and that would be the Dolphins refuse to take $15.7 million in cap space on Vernon immediately but are certain they could sign him to a long-term contract between now and the opening of the league year on March 9. Or the Dolphins would be confident that Vernon would go to the market and give them a chance to match any offer he receives from another team to decide whether to keep him or not. The Dolphins have been told Vernon would be willing to give the team that courtesy.
  5. Walk away. The Dolphins could simply not tag Vernon, decide he's too expensive compared to the value they've placed on him internally, and then they have another hole to fill this offseason.

It would be dumb to simply walk away. Pass rushers are hard to find and those about to hit their prime -- Vernon is 25 years old -- are the most valuable ones. Vernon is also the best pending free agent the Dolphins have. So they would try to keep lesser players but let the better player walk? That would not be a good signal.

It would be unwise to not use the tag in some form and hope to match a contract another team offers. Although the Dolphins are confident Canter would give them the chance to match an outside offer, it seems strange to let another team negotiate a deal for you. It puts your salary cap situation in another team's hands.

Tag and trade makes sense in that if the Dolphins do not believe Vernon is worth $15.7 million for one year, they can try to add a first-rounder or multiple second rounders in exchange for him. In a year the cap has been raised to $155 million, some teams are flush with salary cap space and might be willing to part with compensation for a pass rusher.

The "tag and keep" option helps the Dolphins kick the can down the road on a Vernon deal. It keeps him on the team in 2016. It also swallows 10 percent of the team's available 2016 cap, which is not great.

I look for the Dolphins to tag Olivier Vernon by 4 p.m. Tuesday. I cannot imagine letting young talent at a premium position walk.