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Keep their own. Grow from within. Continue to bring stability to a franchise that has lacked stability for far too long. That was the primary mission heading into the offseason and, as free agency began, the Miami Dolphins clearly put those words into action.
Two of their own impending free agents –
You can talk all you want about what the Dolphins need to bring in this offseason and they’ve gotten off to quite an impressive start, finding answers to almost every need in a wild first 24 hours or so. But that’s not how you build sustained success. You do it by keeping the fabric of this football team intact and that’s exactly what these moves helped achieve.
How many times in the past have we seen promising players head elsewhere? How many former Dolphins have we seen play their best football on other teams? Those days are apparently now in the past. From Owner Steve Ross to Vice President Mike Tannenbaum to General Manager Chris Grier to Head Coach Adam Gase, there is a message being sent about loyalty and consistency and a team that is intent on recognizing what it already has in place.
They promised that approach only a few weeks ago and now they are delivering.
You get to 10-6 by doing a lot of things right. You stay there, and build on it, by keeping your nucleus in place. No more one step forward, one step back. That doesn’t get you to the playoffs and certainly doesn’t keep you in the playoffs.
Stills was coming off his best season. He is 24 years old. There were whispers that he would be one of the most coveted receivers on the free agent market. But the Dolphins never let it get to that. They went on offense, a hurry-up offense, and came to terms with Stills on a three-year contract only hours before he would have found himself on the open market. Sure, the Dolphins have some quality depth at receiver. They could have gotten by without Stills. But merely getting by is not the objective.
Branch also had an excellent 2016 season. He is 27 years old. Defensive ends are a valuable commodity and I’m sure Branch would have signed a lucrative contract only a day or two into free agency. But just like with Stills, the Dolphins would have none of that. They saw a player in Branch who started the final 12 games of the season and it is no coincidence that the Dolphins went 9-3 in those games. He is a player whose best days are undoubtedly ahead of him and the Dolphins made sure those best days would be in aqua and orange.
Jones missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, but there is no denying that at 29 years old he remains one of the best, if not the best, safety in this league. There is no doubt he is a pivotal part of this team’s future. The Dolphins made sure of that by extending his contract on Thursday, reportedly through the 2021 season. Go ahead and check off another box, a huge box.
Keep in mind, these are all two-way decisions. The Dolphins couldn’t have re-signed Stills and Branch or extended Jones if they didn’t want to return, if they didn’t see how firmly the arrow is pointing up. That’s the beauty of the bandwagon effect Gase helped create a season ago. Nobody wants to jump off. Everybody wants to see how far Gase can take this.
“I felt that we’re building something special,” Stills said. “That’s exactly why I’m back.”
“This is where I want to be,” Branch said, sitting by his locker after the playoff loss to the Steelers.
You respect your coach, you believe in what he is doing and how he is doing it, and you see how your teammates have bought in, and it’s truthfully difficult to turn your back on that. So as much as the Dolphins went hard after Stills and Branch, as much as they have always coveted Jones, they didn’t have to sell those players on what they already knew. I imagine Stills and Branch could have gotten more money if they went elsewhere. But these are no longer yesterday’s Dolphins. The players are smart enough to realize that.
Where free agency goes from here is impossible to predict. So much has happened already.
We know about the trade for tight end
But the statement the Dolphins made even before free agency began, signing two of their own and extending another, was as important as anything they will do this offseason. It is a sign of changing times, an undeniable indication that the brain trust of this team is committed to a long-term plan that starts with identifying their most valuable assets and making sure they don’t get away.