A look at Jeff Ireland’s first round picks with the Dolphins should give Miami fans some insight into where he will go with the 8th pick in the draft. Ireland is historically conservative in the first round. While many believe a skill position player would be the proper course, the names Jake Long, Vontae Davis, Jared Odrick and Mike Pouncey, provoke only a modicum of splash.
Fans in Miami will make whatever uninspiring assessment they want from these names, but one thing is certain, Jeff Ireland doesn’t care. He cannot make his decisions based on ratings compiled by amateur draft nicks who inundate the sports talk shows with recycled scouting reports and mock draft boards for the sake of entertainment. That is what the draft has become, a prime time extravaganza.
Professionals like Ireland look at it completely differently; to them it is a planned execution of months and sometimes years of work from scouts all over the country. By staying conservative, Ireland has been able to parley his four 1st round picks into 5 starters. A GM will not last long if the players he picks in the first round do not start early in the NFL.
Many fans wonder why teams like NE have cap space and the Dolphins do not. The term “build through the draft” is often misconstrued to be synonymous with being a younger team. It is actually more about cap management. A rookie contract is always less than a player’s 2nd contract, if the player performs in the league. Teams that draft well and trade down to the 2nd round (Billichick) have a lower salary base because most of their contracts are rookie contracts.
These teams sign their star players, but as these players age and their performance begins to wane, they trade them for more draft picks before they become free agents. They continue to keep a lower payroll because most of their players are on rookie contracts. These teams are able to keep their playmakers because they aren’t stuck with 2nd contracts on marginal starters or back-ups. This is what it means to “build through the draft.”
The Dolphins have obviously made some errors in salary cap management. It stems back to the wildcat induced 11-5 season, which seduced Sparano and Parcells into thinking they were closer to the Promised Land than they truly were. Because of the illusion, they spent more on free agent 2nd contracts and less on rookie 1st contracts, even if those free agents were the Dolphins own players.
In 2009 for instance, Vernon Carey signed a six year, $42 million deal with $15 million guaranteed. That means the Dolphins spent $5 million for 3 years on a player who was a marginal starter. The Patriots would have traded Carey for draft picks prior to him becoming a free agent and drafted his replacement. This is an example to demonstrate how a team builds through the draft.
The change in strategy is apparent in the dealings with Kendall Langford. The Rams signed Langford to a 4-year $24 million contract with $12 million guaranteed. It was Langford’s 2nd contract and he was looking for his payday. Unlike Carey in 2009, the Dolphins did not pay the money for a marginal starter. Langford is a good player, but after 4 years, it was apparent Langford was never going to be a dominate force at DE.
The Dolphins made a mistake by not trading Langford last year for draft picks. That leads to the second half of the "build through the draft" equation, self-assessment of the roster and predictive analysis of a player’s potential. By correctly determining a player’s long-term success, a team can understand which players to trade, and when the time is right.
Not much has been heard from Richard Seymour since NE traded him to the Raiders for a 1st round pick. Seymour was in the final year of a contract that paid him $3.685 million when the Patriots traded him. Seymour then signed a 5-year $37.5 million deal with the Raiders. The Patriots traded a waning player with a high salary demand for a first round pick, this is how a team uses predictive analysis to build through the draft and maintain the salary cap.
The Green Bay Packers build almost exclusively through the draft and Joe Philbin has publicly stated his intention to do the same in Miami. Even a player like Brett Favre has to figure into the equation and Green Bay traded Favre for a 4th round pick to the Jets before he became a free agent.
When a team has not had much success in recent years, it is not easy for fans to be patient, but there is no easy solution. Teams that flounder year after year are a product of not understanding the personnel game, they pay out 2nd contracts and trade draft picks for players.
This may sound like an indictment of Jeff Ireland’s performance, but that is due to short-term thinking. Even if the Dolphins had every pick in the last 4 years, that would only equal 28 players and only 12 of them would have come in the 1st three rounds of the draft. This means that building through the draft is an agonizingly slow process that most fans do not have the patience for.
This is the reason teams like Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New England remain at the top of the league year in and year out. They have an established organization, with an established plan and they stick to it. The protesters outside Dolphin headquarters in Davie have not thought through the ramifications of firing Jeff Ireland and going through the process of starting the organization all over again.
Stephen Ross has been called many things but in time, he will have justified his reasoning for the way he has built the Dolphins. He has more insight than many have given him credit for and by keeping Ireland, who has done a good job in the draft, he has shown that he is not a man who makes impetuous decisions. He sees the teams in this league that have been successful over time and he is emulating their formula.
The problem for Ross and Ireland was created over a 10-year period of one-player-away thinking that cannot be cured without another 10 years of making the proper decisions. In 10 years a team will draft about 70 players, which means it takes 10 years to build a team and during that time half of those players will have come up for a 2nd contract. When Ross says Rome was not built overnight, it is much truer than most fans understand.
A QB will cure a lot of ills they say, but organizations built from the draft, that trade marginal starters and aging players, then pay only the true stars, are the teams that have continued success in the NFL. It may not seem like it to many fans, but perhaps the Dolphins finally have it right, those fans will need patience but in the end, success will return to Miami.