After the Miami Dolphins penned cornerback Byron Jones to a massive five-year $82.5 million contract, they briefly had the two highest cornerback contracts in the league on their books. Darius Slay’s deal later in the week actually topped both of them following his trade from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles, but that does not change the fact that the Dolphins are taking a fascinating direction with their defensive plans. With two of the top-three cornerback contracts on their roster, the Dolphins have demonstrated their intent to build their defense from the back. Let’s take a look at why this plan is fascinating as well as digging into the contract specifics, and how the structure of them gives the Dolphins options in the coming years.
Miami Dolphins are following an unsurprising blueprint
It does not take a lot of digging to understand the inspiration for the Dolphins’ latest plan. Last season, we saw two defenses dominate the league in the early part of the year. The San Francisco 49ers domination came thanks to the strength of their pass rush, with a solid but unspectacular secondary behind them. However, the Dolphins division rivals, the New England Patriots, dominated opponents through the first part of the season thanks to the superb utilization of their secondary. The Patriots used their shutdown corner, Stephon Gilmore, to take away one option on the opponent’s offense, allowing the rest of their secondary to use double-teams on other receivers, as well as providing extra run support.
It should not be a surprise, given Brian Flores was a linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator of the Patriots in 2018, that the Dolphins have decided to use a similar plan to the Patriots. However, Flores and the Dolphins have decided to go one step further than the Patriots, who utilized one highly paid cornerback and then used a committee approach to the rest of their secondary. By putting two highly paid cornerbacks on the outside the Dolphins will be hoping they can focus the attention of the other nine defenders between the numbers, offering run support as well as shutting down slot receivers, tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield on passing routes.
We have seen the Dolphins further commit to this strategy by signing useful but by no means dominant pass rushers in free agency this past week, hoping they will be able to get creative with nine defenders on most plays. It is a really interesting strategy and one that requires both cornerbacks to play up to those contracts if the Dolphins are to see success.
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Jones reaps reward from a players market
The cornerback market this offseason had depth but it lacked top-end talent and that played into Jones’ hands. As free agency approached, a competitive market formed for Jones, with Pro Football Network Insider Benjamin Allbright reporting that multiple teams were hoping to secure the signature of the ex-Cowboys cornerback. In the end, the Dolphins created some surprise as they came out on top, but they had to set a new benchmark for the cornerback market in the NFL to do it.
Jones’ five-year contract has $46 million of the $82.5 million guaranteed at signing. That signing bonus is more than the total value of any other free agent cornerback contract signed this offseason so far. The contract includes a $15 million signing bonus which will spread across the contract as a $3 million cap hit per year. In the final two years of the deal, there are incentives to try and ensure Jones does not hold out, including $100k workout bonuses and $500k in per-game roster bonuses in both years. The fifth-year also has a $1 million roster bonus that will be activated on the fifth day of the 2024 league year.
Are these really two or three-year contracts?
The contract essentially breaks down as an initial two-year contract, with a likely third-year, and then the equivalent of two team options in the fourth and fifth years. At the time of signing no money is guaranteed beyond the third year, and only $6 million is guaranteed in that third year as well.
The first two seasons are fully guaranteed, with $11 million and $14 million in salary meaning that the first two cap hits are $14 million and $17 million respectively. To put that in context, that is 7.1% of the cap in 2020 and projects to be 7.9% of the cap in 2021. The third season is where the Dolphins really have to start making decisions. Cutting Jones in either of the first two years would actually result in far bigger cap hits than if Jones is on the team, meaning that unless something disastrous happens, Jones is on the team until at least the end of the 2021 season.
In the third season, the remaining $8.375 million of his salary becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. That means that prior to that date the Dolphins could cut bait for a $2.375 million cap saving in 2022. The cap hit in 2022 would still be $15 million as the remaining $9 million in signing bonus would be accelerated onto the cap alongside the guaranteed $6 million in salary.
Once Jones hits the fourth and fifth season, the team can cut him with just the remaining prorated signing bonus counting against the cap ($6 million in 2023 and $3 million in 2024). The only exception will be if they decide to cut him after he has been paid any roster bonuses or workout bonuses, in which case those will also count against the cap.
This contract is extremely cleverly structured for a Dolphins team who are likely looking at an initial window of 3-to-5 years to be Super Bowl challengers if things go as planned. If Jones is not performing after two or three years they can move on with limited damage to the salary cap. However, if Jones’ contract appears to be well structured, it is nothing compared to the wealth of options the Dolphins have with Xavien Howard’s contract.
Howard’s contract presents multiple exit points
In May of 2019, Howard put pen to paper on a five-year extension worth $75.25 million. It was reported that Howard’s deal included $27.18 million guaranteed at signing, including guaranteed 2019 and 2020 salaries as well as a $7 million roster bonus in 2019 and a $7 million signing bonus. Additionally, per Spotrac, on the fifth day of the 2020 league year (March 20th), $2.5 million of Howard’s 2021 salary ($12.075 million) became fully guaranteed. His full 2021 salary is also now guaranteed for injury, as is $6.775 million of his 2022 salary.
The way the contract has been structured presents wonderful flexibility for the Dolphins, as long as Howard is healthy at the end of the 2020 season. Due to the nature of this being an extension, the $7 million signing bonus is prorated across 2019 to 2023, with nothing set to count in his final season in 2024. Additionally, the cap hit for the 2020 to 2023 seasons from that signing bonus is just $1.4 million per year. What that means is that if Howard is healthy and is released in the offseason following the end of the 2020 season and beyond, the cap hits are minimal. Those cap hits would be $6.7 million in 2021, $2.8 million in 2022, $1.4 million in 2023 and $0 in 2024.
There are workout and per-game bonuses that could complicate those numbers if they cut him in season, and it becomes harder to move on if Howard is injured, but the contract is brilliant for the Dolphins. If putting two cornerbacks on an island in 2020 does not work how they envisaged, they can move on for very little. Or if they decide to make it a two-year experiment, then it is a relatively small jump in cap hit to keep Howard on the roster in 2021. Additionally, with the way Jones’ contract is structured, they could decide to move on from him after 2021 and then focus their attention on building around Howard again.
Finally, if things do not work out with either player then the Dolphins could move on from both Jones and Howard after the 2021 season for a combined cap hit of $17.8 million. In 2022, they could move on from both for a cap hit as small as $7.4 million. Complications could come in the form of Howard’s nagging knee injuries, or if his recent arrest for domestic battery leads to a suspension or a re-opening of criminal charges. However, to some extent, those are factors that are out of the Dolphins’ hands right now.
The Dolphins have put themselves in a great position with these contracts. If it works out then they could have two lockdown cornerbacks and their defensive scheme can be extremely versatile up the middle. If things do not work out then they can get out from two large contracts with relatively little fuss following the 2021 season. The defensive backfield is going to be extremely interesting to watch take shape in 2020 and these two cornerbacks could be the building blocks of the defense that the Dolphins rely on to take them back to the glory of the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl. However, if they are not the Dolphins still have a chance to correct things at a relatively small price.