Ndamukong Suh, the prized defensive tackle who is generally regarded as the NFL's best at his position, didn't sign his six-year, $114 million contract with the Dolphins on Tuesday, the first day free agents could sign with teams.
The Dolphins had other matters to handle, such as figuring out how to configure their salary cap numbers to more comfortably accommodate Suh, whose deal includes $60 million in guaranteed money, the most ever given to a defensive player in NFL history.
There's a chance Suh, the No. 1 free agent on the market, signs Wednesday.
The Dolphins, who are projected to have between $6-7 million of cap space right now, can afford Suh but they wouldn't have much more available money.
The Dolphins are bracing for the possible loss of tight end Charles Clay, who could get a multi-year contract offer from Buffalo. The Dolphins designated Clay as their transition player, which ensures him a $7 million salary for 2015. If Buffalo, or any other team, signs Clay the Dolphins would have his $7 million available to spend immediately. But they'd also have a major hole to fill.
The Dolphins cut two players Tuesday — linebacker Philip Wheeler and guard Shelley Smith (saving $2.75 million) — and restructured punter Brandon Fields' contract, saving another $1 million.
But more financial breathing room might be desired. The Dolphins have already released wide receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, Smith and fellow guard Nate Garner, Wheeler, and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
It's expected they'll release linebacker Dannell Ellerbe soon and designate him a June 1 cut. If that happens, that move, combined with Wheeler's release and eventual June 1 cut designation, clears an additional $11.45 million in cap space ($8.45 million for Ellerbe and $3 million for Wheeler). But that money wouldn't be available until June 2.
It's not yet known what will become of starting defensive tackle Randy Starks, who will count $6 million on the salary cap.
It's also not known what will become of disgruntle wide receiver Mike Wallace ($12.1 million on the cap), who could be traded or released.
With all that going on the Dolphins went to work repairing other parts of their team Tuesday as they re-signed linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and safety Michael Thomas, and extended a second-round restricted free agent tender to defensive end Derrick Shelby ($2.35 million). That means the Dolphins have the right to match any offer they get for Shelby and if they lose him they get a second-round pick as compensation.
Shelby would fortify the defensive line, which is the early favorite to be the strength of the team once again. Shelby, who plays mostly end but also can shift inside to tackle, had a career-best three sacks last season after posting 2.5 sacks two years ago. The three-year veteran is viewed as a rising prospect whose best asset is his passing-rushing ability.
He'd provide depth to a line that will include Suh and Earl Mitchell at tackles and Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon at ends.
Sheppard and Thomas will likely be mostly special teams players although Thomas has a chance to contribute from scrimmage. Sheppard, an inside linebacker, started 31 games in 2011-13 for Buffalo and Indianapolis and there's a small chance he could push middle linebacker Koa Misi for playing time.
Thomas, who has appeared in 21 games for the Dolphins over the last two seasons, can play safety and slot defensive back in the nickel formation. Last season, he appeared in eight games and made two starts.
With starting safety Louis Delmas a free agent (and coming off a knee injury) and starting nickel Jimmy Wilson also a free agent, there could be a chance for Thomas to compete for a starting job or remain a key reserve.
The AFC East has been active so far. Buffalo traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to acquire running back LeSean McCoy from Philadelphia, acquired quarterback Matt Cassel from Minnesota and signed ex-Dolphins guard Richie Incognito. And the Jets traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall.