Dave Hyde: Pay the man, right? Christian Wilkins’ negotiation with Dolphins shouldn’t reach the snarl-up stage

The Miami Dolphins could do nothing with Christian Wilkins. They picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, so he’s going to play for a bargain price this season. They could keep a big payday dangling in front of him like the honeypot to the bear.

Why would they do that?

Take you pick: Because they can. Because they’re negotiating. Because Wilkins is asking too much. Because they don’t believe Wilkins will turn down a treasure chest of a contract to roll the dice on one season.

There’s no suggestion the Dolphins want to do anything but sign Wilkins, and every indication he wants to sign a new deal. But here we are, a few weeks from the opener, and the first step of a snarl-up was taken this past week with Wilkins refusing to practice in team drills.

Pay the man, right?

His talent is obvious. The market looks set. He didn’t sit out of camp like San Francisco’s Nick Bosa or Kansas City’s Chris Jones (he’s a tier below their talent and accomplishments, too). For four years, Wilkins has developed into everything the franchise wanted. This isn’t telling the team anything it doesn’t know, by the way.

Wilkins matters in a pivotal way beyond his play, too. The past four years of the Tank Era have been a lesson in easy money around the Dolphins. A team that started rebuilding with draft picks had plenty of salary-cap money to spend. Look who got it.

Byron Jones became the game’s highest-paid cornerback (then Xavien Howard’s deal was bumped up in response). Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah got a high-end deal. Then came the flood of big paydays since the 2021 season: Terron Armstead, Tyreek Hill, Bradley Chubb and Jalen Ramsey.

All of those players were veterans who got their career payday with the Dolphins. All arrived with good talent — great, in Hill’s case — but creased wear-and-tear on their bodies, too. So, all except for Hill have suffered injuries in a game that typically tortures experienced bodies.

Jones missed an entire, expensive last season. Armstead has always missed an average of four to five starts in his career, repeated the idea his first Dolphins season, had knee surgery this offseason and was injured again this past week in a joint practice with Houston. Not badly enough for surgery, reports say. But it’ll be dodging raindrops with the left tackle every day.

Ramsey played at least 15 games in each of his seven seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before arriving to the Dolphins this winter. So, yes, it’s bad luck he suffered a training-camp knee injury. It’s also what happens to players with measured miles on the tread.

This is why is has an odd look to draw the hard line on the kind of homegrown player you need. Wilkins has played four NFL seasons. He’s entering his prime. He’s the type of player to invest in rather than the fragile upper-class they’ve already constructed.

Wilkins is also the first draft pick of the Tank Era who is due big money, too. Others decisions are coming, and soon, starting with the one on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa that will play out this season.

What’s Wilkins worth? Somewhere around $22 million to $24 million a year. That’s what the defensive-tackle market says. Wilkins isn’t Kansas City’s Jones, who had 15 1/2 sacks last season. He isn’t the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, or Quinnen Williams, the New York Jets’ disruptor who had 12 sacks and recently signed four-year, $96 million contract ($47.8 million guaranteed).

He’s in that next tier of players. Wilkins and Zach Sieler were also top 5 in the league in defensive tackle snaps last year. Sieler needs a new contract, too. These are the good problems teams with young talent have.

No one knows Wilkins’ value more than general manager Chris Grier. He made Wilkins the 13th pick overall in 2019. He then watched him develop to the point of sitting in his office one night last January talking with coach Mike McDaniel. They hard a noise on the field.

“It’s dark and the lights are on the field,’’ Grier said. “We see someone working out. ‘Who is it? So, (McDaniel) flashed the last pointer on him and he looks up and it was Christian out there by himself at 6:45 in the dark doing drills. That’s the type of person it is, how much he loves game and the leadership role that Mike and the players have empowered him in.”

So, Grier knows best what everyone knows well. Wilkins is a match prime-time talent and commendable work ethic. This team needs that. There’s no reason this deal won’t get done. The mystery is why it hasn’t already.