New Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Pat Flaherty had been on the job maybe 10 days when he already knew he liked young tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James.
“They are young guys and they have a high ceiling,” Flaherty said of the duo. “When you have a high ceiling and they haven’t arrived yet, they’re pretty dang good, and when you have that type of caliber of player, as an offensive line coach you get fired up. You really do. I’m excited for those guys.”
Flaherty is definitely going to work with Tunsil in 2019 because the left tackle is under contract. And the veteran line coach said he’d like the chance to work with James despite the player’s uncertain contract situation — James is a pending free agent — “if we’re able to retain him.”
So Miami’s line coach is on board with James. And on Wednesday, general manager Chris Grier also got on board with retaining James.
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“We drafted him here, and he’s a good, young player,” Grier said. “We’d like to have him here. And we’ll see what the market [is] and what he’s looking for as well.”
And this is where we begin to have issues.
James is a 2014 first-round draft pick. He wanted to come to Miami because he loved it when he visited then-GM Dennis Hickey and his staff prior to the ‘14 draft. The Dolphins have decided they want him back.
And so the obvious question is what has been done to get that done?
Have the Dolphins talked to the agents who ably represent James?
”No, not yet,” Grier said.
So, why not? What are the Dolphins waiting for?
James is Miami’s player. NFL rules allow the Dolphins to speak to his agents and re-sign James right now if the sides can agree. No one has to wait for free agency to begin March 13.
No one has to wait for anything else, really.
That’s an advantage — negotiating with one’s own free agents before the 31 other vultures begin circling in free agency and affect the situation. The Cleveland Browns used that advantage this week by re-signing left tackle Greg Robinson before he hit the free agent market.
So why haven’t the Dolphins, having apparently decided they’d like James back, done the same?
“Ja’Wuan just got married last weekend as some of you guys know,” Grier explained. “We’ll probably engage him probably at some point after the Combine because at this point, after getting married, there’s so much going on in his mind so we’ll do it after the combine.”
And that marriage explanation on its own makes zero sense. Because, again, James has agents. He pays them to mind his contract situation when he’s otherwise doing something else — like enjoying a honeymoon.
There has been nothing keeping the Dolphins from talking to the agents.
Except this …
The Dolphins seemingly want to see what the market for James will be. But they obviously do not wish to set that market. And offering James a contract now, hoping he would sign it, would do exactly that if it’s not exactly what the player’s agents want for their client.
So forget all this marriage malarkey. This is a money issue. A business issue.
And it is a dangerous two-edged sword.
If the Dolphins want to indeed see what the market for James looks like, they obviously understand the player’s agents will be talking to teams during this Combine to see what tangible interest there would be in a 27-year-old (in June) right tackle who’s started 62 games his first five seasons.
Following this Combine, James and his agents will know exactly where they stand with other teams. And the irony is they may not yet know where they stand with the Dolphins.
Eventually, one supposes, the Dolphins will enter the fray and either decide the market is enough to their liking that they will compete. Or the Dolphins will decide they don’t agree with the market.
In which case, the Dolphins will continue to do nothing and let James go test his worth when free agency actually begins.
The Dolphins have choices now. And they’re using those.
But the sharp, angry, other edge of the sword is James has more choices. And because not a lot of starting caliber tackles hit free agency, he might very well command a significant offer.
And because there are over a dozen teams that need offensive line help and will have much more cap room than Miami when free agency begins, one of those teams might be able to freeze Miami out.
That’s the danger of laying back and letting James test the market by initially talking to teams this week and perhaps test it some more when free agency begins March 13.
The Dolphins are gambling.
Ready for another layer of the onion to be peeled back?
Teams typically are willing to let their own players test the market when they like, but don’t love them. They value them, but not as much, perhaps, as the players value themselves.
So the home team gambles other teams will agree with their assessment of the player and not agree to pay more for him than they’d be willing to pay.
The New England Patriots use this tool all the time. They let free agents test the market all the time. And they keep costs down using this tool.
But the Dolphins are not the Patriots. They cannot entice anyone with playoff bonuses and championship rings and Tom Brady at quarterback or Bill Belichick as the coach.
The Dolphins have to pay more to get the same players. Because it is not 1973-1999 anymore.
So Miami cannot entice with a promise of a Super Bowl appearance or a championship-caliber QB.
The problem is the Dolphins probably need to pay more to compete for quality players but, again, have less cap room than many teams who also may value the same player.
That’s a tough spot to be in.
So where does that leave Ja’Wuan James? Well, despite the fact the Dolphins believe he’s good and would like him back, the Dolphins obviously have chosen not to utilize their current advantage to keep him.
And that advantage probably disappears once the Combine ends and definitely will be gone when free agency begins.