Barry Jackson: The big financial chess move that awaits the Dolphins and why there’s no need to rush it

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The Miami Dolphins — who always like to enter a season with a salary cap cushion to fill needs that arise during the preseason or regular season — are down to a mere $8.16 million in cap space, per the NFL players union.

Not only is that less than the $11 million needed to sign their draft class, but it’s less than the cap space of all but 10 teams in the league.

In order to have a preseason cushion of at least $7 million and sign both a draft class and practice squad, the Dolphins — during the next three months — realistically need to create at least another $10 million in cap space.

Keep in mind that any unused cap space can be carried over to the following offseason; that $8.16 million figure for Miami’s current space includes unused 2020 space.

While teams must always stay at or below the cap, the Dolphins don’t need to create room to sign a draft class until they actually sign their draft class, which could be done in June or July instead of May if they wish, an NFL spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

(Some teams need to have a $660,000 cap hold for each draft pick when they enter the draft if they don’t have 51 players earning more than that amount, as the NFL explained. But that doesn’t apply to the Dolphins because they have 64 players under contract who are scheduled to earn more than that, and only the top 51 count against the cap at any time.)

Not to make your head explode, but for cap calculations purposes, the top five Dolphins’ draft picks (if Miami stays in its current draft slots) will sign contracts worth a combined $11.2 million in cap allocations, which replaces the salaries of players 47 through 51 on the roster, which adds up to just over $4 million.

Bottom line is the Dolphins have plenty of time to consider how they want to carve out more cap space.

The Dolphins instantly could create another $9.7 million in space by restructuring cornerback Byron Jones, $4 million by restructuring guard Ereck Flowers, more than $4 million by restructuring linebacker Benardrick McKinney and $2.7 million by restructuring safety Bobby McCain.

Of course, doing so would increase the Dolphins’ cap burden for any of those players in 2022.

But if the Dolphins decide to wait until after the draft to create cap space to sign their draft class, that would be a smart and justified approach, because the players selected in the draft could determine which players on the roster are deemed most expendable.

Let’s say the Dolphins select two receivers in the draft. Then the Dolphins could feel more comfortable releasing Albert Wilson; Miami would save $2.85 million against the cap if he’s a post-June 1 cut.

There would be a $1.2 million post-June 1 cap savings with Allen Hurns, though $1.25 million of his $1.875 million 2021 salary is guaranteed.

Let’s say the Dolphins add a top returner in the draft. That could jeopardize Jakeem Grant; releasing him would result in a $4 million post-June 1 cap savings. We should note the Dolphins like Grant and have given no indication they’re considering parting ways.

But if the Dolphins, hypothetically, take UF tight end Kyle Pitts at No. 6, an edge rusher at 18, a running back at 36, another edge rusher at 50 and a center in the third round, then a case could be made to go to camp with all 12 receivers currently under contract and create cap room using other avenues.

Let’s say the Dolphins select a safety on Day 2 of the draft. While I don’t expect either to be cut, keep in mind that there would be a $6.4 million post-June 1 cap savings by releasing McCain and a $5.5 million post-June 1 cap savings by cutting Eric Rowe.

Under any scenario, safety Clayton Fejedelem remains at risk; Miami wipes out his entire $2.5 million cap hit if he’s released.

There is a $3.6 million cap savings on offensive lineman Jesse Davis if he’s a post-June 1 cut, but moving on from the versatile Davis wouldn’t make sense; his ability to play most any position on the line is valued.

Among players with cap savings of at least $1 million if they’re released, I’m not sure there’s another player on the roster who would be at risk of being cut beyond some of the aforementioned ones.

Receiver DeVante Parker — who is already guaranteed $7.75 million this season — obviously isn’t being cut, though NBC’s Peter King has speculated a trade isn’t out of the question.

Keep in mind that there would be a $4 million cap savings on Parker if he’s traded before June 1, but a $9.4 million savings if he’s traded after June 1, per overthecap.com.

We have heard nothing to suggest Parker will be traded, but to elaborate on King’s hypothetical, dealing him after June 1 for a 2022 draft pick would create far more 2021 cap space than trading him before.

Releasing Jones, due $14 million guaranteed this season, would actually increase his 2021 cap hit from $16.1 million to $22.1 million and create a glaring need at cornerback.

And what if the Dolphins draft Pitts and trade Mike Gesicki? The cap savings on Gesicki would be $1.4 million whether the trade is made before or after June 1.

What would be the incentive to clear the cap space now as opposed to waiting until after the draft? For the Dolphins, there really aren’t any compelling reasons.

If there are players the Dolphins know they intend to cut, doing it now instead of in June would be doing them a favor. But that type of gesture rarely motivates NFL teams to act, and the labor agreement gives no incentive for teams to do that.

The easiest path to clearing out space remains the simple restructure of Jones, Flowers and McKinney.

But whichever course the Dolphins choose to create cap space, one thing the Kyle Van Noy release should tell everyone is to expect the unexpected.