INDIANAPOLIS – Football teams don’t often have the kind of ammunition the Miami Dolphins have heading into free agency and the draft, which is precisely why General Manager Jeff Ireland is treating this week’s NFL Scouting Combine like no other.
“We brought every single person in the building, so we’ve got eyes on every single player at the Combine,” said Ireland during his turn at the podium in front of the media. “I think we brought 55 personnel and coaches to the Combine so we’ve got a lot of eyes on a lot of different guys. It doesn’t change the process as we’re trying to prioritize who we’re looking at and what we’re looking at but this is an information gathering process. No firm decisions are made at this stage, but this is the first time as a general manager that I’ve brought every single person because this is a critical period for us.”
So much of the draft strategy is impacted by what is accomplished during free agency, so there is a delicate balance between what Ireland and his contingent observe this week inside Lucas Oil Stadium and how they will construct their draft board before April arrives. With his background as a scout, Ireland hasn’t really wavered from his approach.
A lot of the necessary homework on this year’s draft class has already been completed, as the scouts and personnel people were gathering important facts during the college football season at games. That’s why Ireland has typically prepared for the Combine a little differently than other general managers.
“I always say that if you’re doing your job you’re making decisions based on what they do while they have pads on,” Ireland said. “So we try to put a grade on them at the end of December or by the end of February on players that we just got through meeting on. That doesn’t change when you get the results from here. You just try to analyze what they are and certainly the higher draft choices you want the ability on the field to marry to the ability in shorts and certainly the later draft choices in my opinion you’re looking for upside so you’re looking for more athletic ability. At least that’s what I’m looking for.”
The art of building a roster is special, and Ireland is thrilled to be in the unique position of having nine draft picks and five among the top 82 overall while also sitting comfortable under the salary cap. Free agency begins on March 12th with March 9th the deadline to sign his own unrestricted free agents, so the sixth-year GM will be working on two different fronts while in Indianapolis.
Some of the free agents that will become available from other teams will command a high price and that’s where the negotiations take on even more importance. Ireland works for an owner in Steve Ross who has made it clear that he is willing to spend whatever it takes to turn the Dolphins into a winner and a perennial playoff participant, while also being wary of overspending and Ireland has a strong theory and philosophy on how to handle that aspect of roster building.
“You’re always looking for value and certainly to get production you hope it matches the value for what you’re going to get,” said Ireland, who got the Dolphins so far under the cap and rich in draft picks with careful planning. “Everybody wants a bargain and if you’re going to play in free agency there’s not just a ton of bargains out there, especially if you’re playing at the top of the market. So you’ve just got to feel confident that what you’re paying for is what you’re getting, and that’s always been a philosophy of mine, is that the value in the production and the value in the ability, they match, and that you’re not overpaying for a lesser talented player. I don’t really feel the pressure to sign a name guy. If that particular player we think is going to help our football team move forward and take a big step, that’s our first and foremost primary reason to sign the player. If he has a big name, great.”
In terms of the quality of this draft class, Ireland feels there is good depth and some difference makers at every position. He and his scouts have already identified most of those difference makers, but typically somebody jumps out during the on-the-field drills to impact the draft board. Sometimes the interviews also leave an impression and help sway an opinion or two because Ireland and Head Coach Joe Philbin place a high priority on character.
This is the time, between now and the start of OTAs and minicamp, that Ireland, Philbin and the rest of the staff can better assure the roster will mirror the standards they have set. Interviews with potential draft choices along with talks with their own free agents are critical and that is something Ireland is not taking lightly.
“Character and makeup I talk a lot about and I’ve always talked about it and it’s been a part of my philosophy since I was in Dallas,” he said. “I certainly like guys that are highly competitive, that can learn, that are dependable and are highly passionate about football. So that’s always going to be a part of my player procurement process and Joe certainly wants those dependable guys in the locker room. … I’m proud of the team that we’ve assembled. I’ve got a great, strong locker room that is youthful and that gives you the best opportunity to succeed when you have a good locker room with good chemistry and can continue to grow as a group.”
Thanks to the amount of eyes he will have on the prospects this week, Ireland should have an excellent chance to add to that chemistry.