Dolphins' rebuild: Get out of salary-cap hell, prepare for spending in 2020

The Miami Dolphins took a different approach this offseason, one that didn't include big-splash signings or overpaying mediocre players to fill glaring holes in free agency. Instead, they focused on ridding themselves of past free-agency mistakes and searching the market for short-term value signings.

Miami began the cutting earlier this month by trading quarterback Ryan Tannehill and releasing receiver Danny Amendola, defensive end Andre Branch and guards Josh Sitton and Ted Larsen, moves that saved nearly $30 million in salary-cap space.

A trade (or release) of defensive end Robert Quinn -- who led the Dolphins with 6.5 sacks in 2018 -- looks likely as well, and it could save Miami up to another $11 million in cap space depending on whether the Dolphins eat any money to make a deal happen.

The message to fans from management is to be patient. The first step of the rebuild is underway, and the main goal is getting out of salary-cap hell and rebuilding around a young core. In 2020, the Dolphins will be prepared to spend again after shopping in the bargain aisle.

As of Friday afternoon, the Dolphins had approximately $27 million in cap space after recent free-agent transactions. That number ranked among the top 12 of NFL teams, as the Dolphins have been one of the smallest spenders in free agency so far. Miami knows it will need to spend big again eventually -- most notably at the most expensive positions where the cupboard is largely barren (quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and cornerback).

There was a lot more cutting than adding in this period. This rebuilding process will take multiple years. Miami will not field a championship-contending -- or even a playoff-contending -- roster in 2019.

Like first-year head coach Brian Flores said at his introductory news conference, there will be some pain to get where Miami needs to go. The pain is largely necessary because of the Dolphins' past money mistakes in the Mike Tannenbaum era (2015-18), such as:

-- Making Ndamukong Suh the NFL's highest-paid defensive player with a six-year, $114 million deal with $60 million guaranteed in 2015. Miami then restructured $20 million of his deal in 2016 to create more cap space, which in turn kicked bigger cap hits into future seasons. The Dolphins released Suh in 2018 after three seasons, despite him playing well, after his cap hits became untenable. The Suh deal cost $22.2 million in dead money on the Dolphins' salary cap, spread over 2018 and 2019. The dead money for Suh is $13.1 million in 2019, the second-highest figure on the team.

-- Restructuring the contracts of Tannehill and safety Reshad Jones -- two players with deals that Miami regrets at this point -- last offseason to create cap space. These moves were shortsighted. The Dolphins paid Tannehill a $5 million signing bonus to get a 2020 fourth-round pick out of Tennessee. After all was done, the Dolphins take an eye-opening dead cap hit of over $18 million from Tannehill's contract. Jones' restructure also kicked the cap issues down the road. Jones seems likely to return because his 2019 contract is guaranteed. Plus, he can't be traded and it won't save Miami any cap by releasing him. And he's still a good player. But having a 31-year-old safety with a cap hit larger than $17 million is an example of poor cap management.

-- Signing defensive end Andre Branch to a three-year, $24 million deal. This was just a free-agency whiff. Branch was released in early March after two seasons and six sacks.

This is a large reason the Dolphins have the NFL's largest dead-money figure (approximately $35 million) in 2019, per ESPN's Roster Management.

The Dolphins' salary-cap struggles and poor contracts of the past play a significant role in why Tannenbaum was ousted as executive vice president of football operations at the end of the 2018 season. Ridding the books of bad Tannenbaum deals is the first step of the Dolphins' rebuild.

Quinn looks headed out, and when that is done, Jones will be the only player on the roster with a salary and/or cap hit over $10 million. His deal essentially guarantees him to see that contract through 2019, but he could become a cap casualty in 2020.

Just about all of the Dolphins' moves have been made with the future -- and specifically 2020 -- in mind.

Quarterback remains the biggest question mark and that seems set to be solved in the 2019 or 2020 draft. Miami has done a good job of setting up its salary cap for 2020, when it intends to start spending significant coin again. As of now, the Dolphins are projected to have over $100 million in cap space in 2020.

Extensions for cornerback Xavien Howard and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, two cornerstone players of the new Dolphins' era, will be costly but worthwhile. Adding in the draft and keeping their own won't make this a championship roster; that's where smart spending comes into play.

A source with knowledge of the Dolphins' inner workings told ESPN that the new brass is already clearly different from the previous regime in how it conducts business with players. There are fewer people in the room when talks are had, fewer apparent hidden agendas and stealth strategies, and general manager Chris Grier and Flores are clearly the central power players.

Vice president of football administration Brandon Shore has taken a bigger role in negotiating contracts for the Dolphins, so he'll get a chance to improve on past mishaps. If the Dolphins succeed in this rebuild, Shore will deserve praise right alongside Grier and Flores.

Building better trust with players, agents and other NFL executives will help the Dolphins as they move along this rebuild. But first, they have to get out of salary-cap hell and start spending correctly in 2020.