Among the messy souvenirs left by former coach Adam Gase’s Miami Dolphins regime, there’s this two-point study of lessons learned in signing free agents:
1. Use caution signing former players you coached.
2. Double that caution if they’re old, and scratch them altogether if hurt.
That’s background to the Dolphins’ completed signings in free agency and, specifically, in gathering some of Brian Flores’ former New England Patriots. Familiarity matters to coaches, because systems matter in football. How a player fits. What a coach expects.
Gase’s failed, free-agent signings speak to a coach wanting to recreate some success with players. But those players weren’t there anymore by the time they signed with the Dolphins. Guard Josh Sitton, who was 32 and fighting injury, lasted one game with the Dolphins.
Tight end Julius Thomas, who was 29 but repeatedly injured, never played with the impact Gase saw in their Denver years. Quarterback Jay Cutler was brought out of retirement at 34, but his game didn’t come out of retirement with him.
Two of Gase’s former players, both smaller investments, worked out fine. Ageless running back Frank Gore, at 37, provided all you could hope, and guard Jermon Bushrod, 32, filled a role on the offensive line when no one else on the roster could.
The prime motivation? Money, of course. The stated motivation?
“I signed here because of the coach,” Sitton said in March a few years back. “He’s smart, keeps things fun — great guy to play for.”
“My No. 1 reason is Coach Flores,” linebacker Elandon Roberts said last week after signing with the Dolphins. “He just made me feel so comfortable with coming down. Just knowing how good of a leader he is on and off the field, how much he cares about you as a player.”
But look at why the signings by General Manager Chris Grier and Flores are different. While Gase signed former players of ages 29, 32, 32, 34 and 37, Flores’ former players are 25, 27 and 28. Throw in 26-year-old Eric Rowe last year, and you see a purposeful pattern of change that went across the rest of this free-agent class.
Players age quickly in football. Bodies crumble. It’s a violent game and players can get hurt at any time. Older players get hurt more often, though. Grier and Flores surely took that into good consideration with their 10 signings, headlined by 27-year-old cornerback Byron Jones.
Look at the former Patriots. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, at 28, is the oldest and biggest investment of the three signed former Patriots at three years and $51 million. He’s also played 35 of New England’s 36 games the past two years (playoffs included). So injury wasn’t an investment concern.
Guard Ted Karras, 27, and Roberts, 25, each signed the kind of one-year contract that Rowe did last year. Rowe did well enough to fill a role in the secondary and earn a three-year, $16.5 million deal by the end of last season. Karras and Roberts have similar chances.
As it stands, this Dolphins’ regime isn’t repeating the mistake of age or injury of its predecessors. Familiarity can be another false move. Nick Saban, for instance, drafted players out of the Southeastern Conference he played against and recruited at LSU.
His two, first-round picks, for instance, were Auburn running back Ronnie Brown and Tennessee safety Jason Allen. The thinking was Saban had an advantage in picking these players. He knew them. But there was an equal disadvantage in that he didn’t know the rest of the nation as much as the SEC. He was comfortable in a familiar pool of talent.
The formula in free agency is half the signings don’t work as hoped. That probably holds with the 10 free agents the Dolphins signed. But they had a lot of money and spent it as wisely as possible from an age, injury and position standpoint.
They set up their next moves. The draft is in just over two weeks. That’s full of even bigger and more expensive lessons for this regime to sidestep.
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