Tomorrow, February 16, is the first day NFL teams can designate franchise or transition tags on players. And that is important to the Miami Dolphins because they have a decision to make on defensive end Olivier Vernon -- the only player scheduled to hit free agency that is even remotely worthy of a tag.
This is not an easy question. Indeed, it is a hard question the Dolphins' braintrust -- led by executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum -- has been pondering for a while. The question is apparently vexing enough that one Dolphins source recently asked me in passing, "What would you do?"
"I don't know."
(Yes, I'm a genius.)
Actually, the reason I don't know what the Dolphins should do now is because if I were managing things, we never would have reached this moment and this offseason of intrigue with Olivier Vernon in the first place. I would have signed the kid (he's only 25) to a contract extension before last season that would have paid $10-$12 million per season. I wrote last June that $12 million APY was the floor for Vernon.
It would have been proactive to get a deal done then.
The floor is no longer $12 million per year. He's going to land in the $14-$15 million per year range APY one way or another -- either by signing a deal with the Dolphins, signing a deal with another team in free agency, or getting tagged.
If the Dolphins had any desire to keep Vernon, they should have shown it last year and done so at a much cheaper price. If they want to keep him now, it'll cost them approximately $10-$12 million more over the life of a five-year deal than it would have then. That's just the facts of NFL business. The salary cap doesn't go down (it was flat in 2011, but didn't go down) and players, particularly pass rushers, don't get cheaper with time when they're about to hit free agency in their prime.
Indeed, if the Dolphins are considering a franchise tag for Vernon, that will come in around $15 million guaranteed for one year. And unlike the cap hit for a multi-year deal that would have been cheaper a year ago and would have been prorated over four or five years, the franchise tag's $15 million would pile up on the team's salary cap in one lump sum.
And aside from being an ugly wart on the team's cap situation, the franchise tag has other joyless repercussions.
First, if the Dolphins tag Olivier Vernon, he will not report to any of the team's offseason OTAs, conditioning program or camps, other than what is mandated by the NFL. The Dolphins know this. Everyone knows this. And although Vernon plays a position that does not require a grand amount of scheme knowledge and study, the fact is the Dolphins have a new head coach, a new defensive coordinator and a new defensive scheme (sort of).
So Vernon would not be melding into Adam Gase's culture, he will not be learning Vance Joseph's defense, he would not be part of the locker room -- with the exception of a three-day minicamp -- until late July.
So, it's settled then, right? The Dolphins should immediately re-sign Olivier Vernon to avoid the franchise tag drama.
But the truth of the matter is I'm not sure the Dolphins want to keep Vernon. According to multiple sources, they have had no significant contract discussions with him or his agent David Canter since the season ended.
And, yes, they were kind of busy hiring Gase and letting the new staff study the roster to see how to proceed next. But it doesn't take that long for coaches to figure out if they want a player or not. It doesn't take that long to put a club value on a player. That's like a three-day assignment. So that work should already be done. And, still, no significant contract offer. Also, no insignificant contract offer.
All those signs point to the Dolphins showing no desire to work with Vernon toward getting a deal done.
By the way, I reached out to Canter, and the usually loquacious agent wanted nothing to do with this topic.
Yeah, something is going on where no one is talking to each other.
So what if the Dolphins are willing to walk away from Vernon?
It would immediately put a demand on them drafting a defensive end in the upcoming draft and doing so early enough that the player immediately is able to become a starter to replace Vernon. (Don't consider how Dion Jordan figures in all this because he's not even eligible for reinstatement from his drug suspension for another couple of months).
Meanwhile, Vernon will get signed in free agency. There's no doubt about that. He's going to get paid one way or another. He is by no means the best pass rusher on the market, if he gets there. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, you'll recall, is scheduled to be available and he would be the best available going away. But everyone knows Miller will get signed or franchised for sure. And that's more good news for Vernon, along with Jason Pierre-Paul and Mario Williams. So maybe teams such as Atlanta, the New York Giants, San Francisco, Oakland, Indianapolis, Chicago -- all needing to upgrade their pass rush -- will be interested.
Some of those teams are flush with cap space.
And what would they get? What might the Dolphins lose?
Vernon has 29 sacks in four years. He has 25.5 sacks the past three years -- an average of 8.5 per season. He lead the team in sacks two of the past three seasons. He also had a ton of quarterback hits last season.
The Dolphins must have a value for that kind of production. They must have a projection of what Vernon can become when he hits his prime during the next contract.
Has that compelled them to try to get a contract done with Vernon over the past year, even as the market price for pass rushers kept rising? No.
Might they deem Vernon's price tag is too steep and let him walk? The signs suggest that's the case.
So, given all that, is Vernon worth a franchise or transition tag, despite the obvious salary cap hit?
Maybe. But it definitely doesn't feel like it was the best possible solution. That would feel like the team would be trying to overcome past miscalculations.