Seven free agents Dolphins should target to stay in contention

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The Miami Dolphins are shedding. General manager Chris Grier has made difficult decisions in the past few weeks by releasing cornerback Xavien Howard, linebacker Jerome Baker and edge Emmanuel Ogbah, among others. The Dolphins also elected not to franchise tag Christian Wilkins, arguably their best defensive player.

And guess what?

They’re still about $20 million over the salary cap, according to 

They can wiggle their way under the cap over the next week by restructuring the contracts for Tyreek Hill, Bradley Chubb and Jalen Ramsey. A long-term extension for Tua Tagovailoa should help, too.

Once that’s done, the Dolphins might actually be able to fill the holes in their roster. And they do have plenty of holes. Left tackle Terron Armstead might retire. Their three starters in the interior — guards Isaiah Wynn and Robert Hunt and center Connor Williams — are set to hit free agency. Howard, Baker and Wilkins were starters. 

There’s a lot to do and not a lot of money to do it with. But let’s look at who they’ll want to retain and who they might bring in.

Robert Hunt, guard, Dolphins

The Dolphins have a talented offensive line that performed at a high level last season. But I can’t help but wonder if Tagovailoa’s time to throw (a 2.36-second average), which was the fastest in the NFL, has something to do with clean seasons for the OL. That’s what makes it a tricky task when renewing a big name like Hunt, who is likely to get a lot of money on the open market.

The Dolphins will have to balance his need for a major deal alongside the team’s ability to alleviate their offensive line concerns with their quick passing attack.

Will Tua Tagovailoa get an extension amid uncertain Dolphins offseason?

Will Tua Tagovailoa get an extension amid uncertain Dolphins offseason?

Connor Williams, center, Dolphins

The Dolphins might have to wait it out with Williams, who is set to slowly play free agency after suffering an ACL injury. But given how well he played, it should be worth the wait.

“I do think that we’re going to be very methodical and take our time relative to the contract,” agent Drew Rosenhaus told AM 560 Sports WQAM. “A lot of it may be predicted on how Connor is feeling physically. He may not be a player that signs at the very start of free agency. He may take more time based on how he’s feeling physically.”

It’s a little risky to rely upon Williams as the starter after his injury. But given the state of the Dolphins’ salary cap, they will likely be begging Williams to return on a team-friendly long-term deal — or even a one-year prove-it deal. Of course, Williams won’t want either. That’s why he and his agent are trying to play the market with patience. But ultimately, he may not get the deal he wants, given how many good centers are set to be free agents. (It’s a really deep group.)

Jadeveon Clowney, edge, Ravens

He counted as just $4.5 million against the cap for Baltimore last year. Why can’t Miami work out a deal that looks similar? They’ll have new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver, who was the defensive line coach in Baltimore for the past three years, to recruit Clowney.

On paper, edge looks like one of the Dolphins’ best positions. But it is also the most depleted by injury. Bradley Chubb tore his ACL in January. Jaelan Phillips tore his Schilles in November. And Andrew Van Ginkel, who is a free agent I think they should re-sign, ended the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. A cheap veteran like Clowney, who can begin as a starter and move back into a rotation when everyone is healthy, is exactly what the Dolphins need.

The other edge with a connection to Weaver who bears watching: Brent Urban. He’s a pending free agent, who might follow Weaver to Miami on a veteran minimum deal.

How the Dolphins proved they were “frauds” vs. Chiefs

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Jon Runyan, guard, Packers

Miami can likely get a starter in Round 1 of the draft at a few positions, including guard or cornerback. And you’ll notice that I’ve picked (lowish budget) starting caliber players at both positions on this list. But given their issues and departing free agents, the Dolphins might have to address both positions in the draft and free agency.

Runyan has played 3,000 snaps for the Packers from 2021 and 2023. He might not be the type of player who ends up making the Pro Bowl, but he’s trustworthy, which is more than the Dolphins could say about Isaiah Wynn, who was injuryprone coming to Miami and missed most of the season with a quad injury. Runyan should have some familiarity with Mike McDaniel’s system as it comes from the Shanahan tree, just like that of Packers coach Matt LaFleur.

Adoree’ Jackson, CB, Giants

The Dolphins will need a returner and some cornerback depth. Jackson checks both those boxes. He was on a massive deal with the Giants, but it didn’t properly reflect his value. He struggled in man coverage, particularly when on an island. It’s likely that his market ends up being quite small when he hits free agency. That would be great news for the Dolphins, who probably plan to pair Ramsey with second-year cornerback Cam Smith. But he barely played in 2023, and it’s fair to wonder whether they shouldn’t have a Plan B on the perimeter. Jackson might be the type of CB3 that would fit Miami, particularly if they get a two-for-one deal and they fill their hole in the return game. (Receiver Braxton Berrios is set to hit free agency.)

Calais Campbell, DT, Falcons

The Dolphins aren’t just set to lose Wilkins. Their starting nose tackle, Raekwon Davis, is set to hit free agency, too. So they need to start thinking about whether they’re going to replace both. Campbell, who’s 37 and a 16-year NFL veteran, is an interesting one. Miami might keep flopping in the postseason, but it is — for so many reasons — an appealing place to play.

And so the Dolphins need to sell players like Campbell on 1) Super Bowl hopes and 2) quality of life. Because their offers certainly won’t look great in terms of dollars. But Campbell has earned a lot of money. He might listen, even if the Dolphins don’t offer a competitive number. Another player who might be in the same boat: Fletcher Cox. At 33, he is aging but played at an extremely high level this year with the Eagles. He’d be worth the Dolphins exploring on a one-year deal.

[READ MORE: 2024 NFL free agent rankings: Top 50 led by Chris Jones, Kirk Cousins]

Deshon Elliott, safety, Dolphins

As much as Elliott was a good-not-great player, it’s not the time to upgrade at safety unless the right value presents itself. And the value could be there, given the way the NFL has tamped down the cost of safeties (like running backs). Maybe somebody will shake free that Miami didn’t expect. And they just need a home. For example: Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn. He had a tough season but might be a potential upgrade. But the risks are obvious, namely that he isn’t the fit that Elliott was. 

Bottom line is, when bargain shopping, the devil you know is usually better than the devil you don’t. And Elliott wasn’t even “a devil.” So they should try to get him back in the defensive backfield alongside Jevon Holland.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.

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