Can Dolphins replace several key defenders if Fangio, Grier want new ones? What to know

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If this Dolphins defense remains this disappointing — 26th in yards allowed, 28th in points permitted — you can be sure that Vic Fangio will ask for personnel changes next spring, provided he sticks around as the NFL’s highest paid defensive coordinator.

But do the contracts of Dolphins defenders allow the team to make significant changes after the season? To an extent, yes. Exploring the roster flexibility at each position:


With Raekwon Davis and Christian Wilkins set to be free agents in March, there will be opportunities for the Dolphins to replace either or both if they choose.

Paying Wilkins $25 million a year (or the projected $20.9 million franchise tag) is something that would be hard to justify if his play this season doesn’t improve from “OK” (as his defensive line coach, Austin Clark, said Thursday) to difference-making.

But losing Wilkins without receiving any compensation — preferably more than a compensatory pick — would be equally difficult to stomach, because his career body of work is good and because replacing him with a quality player wouldn’t be cheap, either. Keep in mind that the Dolphins are $23 million above the 2024 salary cap.

So this looms as a potential conundrum. Even after Wilkins set new historic standards for tackles by a defensive tackle the past two years, the sides couldn’t reconcile their financial differences in many months of negotiations.

With just one sack, one tackle for loss and 15 tackles in four games, Wilkins hasn’t made a case for Miami to improve its contract offer. Talks have been tabled until after the season.

Davis (seven tackles, one for loss) is off to a quiet start, and it wouldn’t be shocking if Fangio and general manager Chris Grier opt to bring in a new starting nose tackle next March. A month into the season, PFF rates Davis 83rd of 129 NFL defensive tackles.

Zach Sieler assuredly will be back; his $8.6 million salary next season is guaranteed.


Jerome Baker stands very much in peril next spring if his play doesn’t improve. His $10.8 million 2024 salary is fully non guaranteed, and his $14.9 million 2024 cap hit drops to $3.7 million in dead money on Miami’s 2024 cap if he’s cut next offseason, either before or after June 1.

PFF rates Baker 72nd of 81 inside linebackers through four weeks.

There will also be an opportunity to move on from David Long Jr. after this season if the Dolphins decide to do so; his $4.5 million 2024 salary is fully non guaranteed, and his $6.7 million cap hit in 2024 drops to $2.2 million if he’s released next spring or summer. But Long has graded out well against the run, per PFF.

Duke Riley’s $2.25 million 2024 salary also is non guaranteed and there’s a minimal dead money hit ($585,000) if he’s cut.


There’s some flexibility here, beginning with Emmanuel Ogbah. To help solve their looming offseason cap problems, the Dolphins are expected to release Ogbah after the season to eliminate his $14.9 million 2024 salary (all non guaranteed) and drop his $17.8 million 2024 cap number to a $2 million dead money 2024 cap hit.

Andrew Van Ginkel — who’s playing both inside and outside linebacker — can become a free agent in March and should command a bigger contract than the one-year, $2.6 million deal he signed with Miami in March.

Jaelan Phillips, now in Year 3 of his four-year rookie deal, remains cheap in 2024 ($2.6 million) and obviously isn’t going anywhere.

Moving on from Bradley Chubb after this season isn’t realistic, even if Miami wanted to.

His $19.75 million base salary is entirely guaranteed next season, and he has a 2024 cap hit of $26.9 million. If Chubb underperforms, trading him isn’t a realistic option for several reasons. Among them: his Dolphins cap hit would drop from $26.9 million to a way-too-much $22.7 million if he’s traded before June 1.

The Dolphins 2024 cap hit on Chubb would be just $6.3 million if he’s traded after June 1, but let’s be real: If the Dolphins were to become so unhappy with Chubb that they would look to trade him next spring, what team would possibly want that contract?

The Dolphins must hope that they get the two-time Pro Bowl version of Chubb more consistently.


Cap obstacles notwithstanding, Miami has the ability to find another player to pair with Jevon Holland if it deciides not to retain DeShon Elliott and Brandon Jones, who will both be free agents in March.


The fact the Dolphins haven’t trusted Cam Smith with any defensive snaps should temper any notion that Miami could move on from Xavien Howard and go with Jalen Ramsey, Kader Kohou and Smith as their top corners in 2024.

Ramsey, Kohou and Smith assuredly will be on the team in 2024. But moving on next spring from Howard, beyond hurting the team’s talent, wouldn’t be painless financially.

None of Howard’s $15.4 million salary in 2024 is guaranteed, and that’s a big deal. But his $25.9 million cap hit in 2024 would still be overwhelming for Miami ($23.1 million dead money hit) if he’s cut before June 1.

The Dolphins’ 2024 dead money hit on Howard would be $7.4 million if he’s cut after June 1. That’s a significant savings, but would the Dolphins want that big a cap hit for cutting the NFL’s interception leader since 2016? I wouldn’t, provided Howard plays well this season. Even with Ramsey back next year, that doesn’t necessarily make Howard expendable.

One quick Howard news item from Friday’s locker room: In the wake of Fangio having Kohou defend Bills Pro Bowl receiver Stefon Diggs, Howard was asked if he felt compelled to mention to Fangio that he is capable of shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver.

“I’ve been following top receivers for five years straight. They know what the [expletive] I can do around here,” Howard said. (Howard wasn’t angry or complaining but merely answering a question.)

Bottom line: The Dolphins have the flexibility to replace several of the defensive players that Fangio, Grier and Mike McDaniel might decide to replace next spring. But creating the cap space to sign quality replacements is the tricky part.


The Dolphins listed linebacker Jaelan Phillips (oblique) and center Connor Williams (groin) as questionable for Sunday’s game against the visiting Giants (1 p.m., Fox). Both were limited in practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after missing the Bills game.

Asked if he is physically healthy enough to play, Phillips said: “I don’t think I’m 100 percent but I’m capable enough to be able to perform and do what the team needs.”

He stopped short of saying he definitely will play: “I‘m making good progress. You guys will have to see on Sunday.”

He said there’s no way of knowing if the back injury that sidelined him in Week 2 contributed to the oblique injury that sidelined him in Week 4 but “a lot of the treatment for the oblique also kind of works for the back as well.”

Also, guard Lester Cotton (ankle) is questionable. The Dolphins likely will need to elevate one or two interior offensive linemen from the practice squad; center Alama Ulluave and guard Chasen Hines are the options.

Safety DeShon Elliott said he will play Sunday after missing the Bills game with two injuries. “We have to translate what we’re doing from practice to games,” he said of the defense.

Left tackle Terron Armstead (knee) was placed on injured reserve and is expected to miss four weeks or a bit more. Kendall Lamm will start at left tackle on Sunday.

Cornerback Nik Needham (who is on the physically unable to perform list) and guard Rob Jones (who is on short-term injured reserve) began practicing on a limited basis this week but were ruled out for Sunday.

As for the Giants, star running back Saquon Barkley (ankle) is questionable; he was limited in practice all week.

New York will be without two starting offensive linemen: left tackle Andrew Thomas and center John Michael Schmitz. The Giants allowed 11 sacks in a home loss against Seattle on Monday night.