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Tua’s tough task: Free agency losses are hurting Miami Dolphins as brutal AFC gets stronger | Opinion

This has been the craziest., costliest start to NFL free agency in history or certainly in memory. Teams with plenty of money under the salary cap are silly spending like drunk lottery winners, while financially strapped teams under the thumb of the cap — like the Miami Dolphins, for a totally random example — are priced out and bargain shopping.

When I say crazy, I am thinking of $100 million contracts given to a journeyman quarterback, Baker Mayfield, and to a just-pretty good guard, Robert Hunt, grossly overpaid by Carolina to leave the Dolphins. Then there was a proven QB, Russell Wilson, signing with Pittsburgh for $1.2 million, the NFL equivalent of a bag of peanuts and a kicking tee.

(Speaking of crazy, Aaron Rodgers reportedly is in talks to a be a running mate in the hopeless independent presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy Jr., whose famous family isn’t even supporting him.)

Except in the case of Wilson, who signed nearly for nothing because he’s owed more than $80 million by Denver for releasing him mid-contract, “free” agency is a splendid oxymoron. It also is the only time on the NFL calendar when team general managers turn into accountants beholden to budgets — when teams face the same economic decisions as everyday families, albeit on a grander scale.

Families who cannot afford filet mignon look to ground beef instead. Man gazes longingly through the showroom window at the Maserati, sees the price tag, and dejectedly hoofs across the street to the Kia lot.

So here came the Las Vegas Raiders right onto the Miami Dolphins lot and brazenly drove off with Christian Wilkins, a Maserati defensive tackle, because the Fins could not afford to keep him. I do not believe any NFL team has suffered a bigger early loss in free agency.

Neither could Miami afford to re-sign Hunt, or edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel.

Just like they also could not afford to keep Xavien Howard, Jerome Baker or Emmanuel Ogbah, all solid defensive players, all released outright for salary cap reasons.

In their place the Dolphins have signed a handful of sedans, all they can afford as they move money to somehow have enough left to lavish QB Tua Tagovailoa with a long-term contract expected to be in the range of or higher than the four-year, $180 million Atlanta just gave Kirk Cousins.

Big spending the past couple of years brought high-end talent like Tyreek Hill and Jalen Ramsey to Miami. It also plunged the Dolphins to around $25 million over the cap, the worst financial straits of just about any team.

As of Wednesday, Miami was $12.45 million under the cap, a net gain of some $37 million directly tied to releasing good players, not re-signing stars such as Wilkins and shopping the Kia lot instead.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, in an NFL free agency “winners and losers” story, singled out Miami as one of only two teams (with Carolina) he called a loser. He noted the exodus of Wilkins, Hunt and Van Ginkel, and called then moves to add players “confusing,” mentioning center Aaron Brewer from Tennessee and linebacker Jordyn Brooks from Seattle.

Adding Brewer will seem smarter if the Fins lose Connor Williams in free agency. Brewer is a solid run blocker though lousy in pass protection, a red flag for a team about to hand the keys to the future to Tagovailoa.

Brooks, who will replace the departed Baker, was bad in pass cover for the Seahawks last year.

What’s harsh about that “loser” rating is it didn’t mention that economics is driving every offseason decision with Miami.

It aches to lose Wilkins, whom Miami drafted in the first round in 2019. They should have extended his contract a year ago, didn’t, and now, in the midst negotiating a Brink’s truck deal with Tagovailoa, could not give Wilkins a four-year, $110 million deal like Vegas did.

You get what you pay for, and the biggest contract Miami has given this offseason is three years and 26.3 million to Brooks.

I like the signing of productive tight end Jonnu Smith. Miami has signed other players who might sound like big names, such as safety Jordan Poyer and edge rusher Shaq Barrett, but they ranked in the 80s on top-100 free agent lists, and came cheap on one-year deals.

“Loser” is harsh became Dolphins GM Chris Grier has made the most of a bad economic situation. They have spent big to get good and now are poised to spend even bigger to lock up Tua long-term as he comes off a healthy Pro Bowl season.

The casualties of that include Wilkins in a Raiders uniform. Because you can’t afford everything when you are beholden to a budget, and NFL teams know it just like families on your block do.

The hard reality for Miami and its fans is that Tagovailoa will be asked to be better than ever in 2024 for a team likely not quite as good.

Look around the AFC. What he will be expected to be better than is a brutal ask:

The Super Bowl champion Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, who just beat Miami 26-7 in the first round of the playoffs.

The division rival Bills and Josh Allen.

League MVP Lamar Jackson and a Ravens team that just added Derrick Henry.

Other returning playoff teams in the Texans with rising star C.J. Stroud, the Browns with a full season of Deshaun Watson, and the Steelers now with Wilson.

That’s not even mentioning the Bengals and Joe Burrow, the Chargers with Justin Herbert, the Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence, and the Jets with a full season of Aaron Rodgers — unless he’s working in the White House as U.S. vice president.

Good enough to beat all of them is what the Dolphins need Tua Tagovailoa to be, and what they are about to pay him to be.