Duke's Miami Dolphins Offseason: Post-Combine Edition

The NFL offseason is in full swing with the NFL Scouting Combine wrapping up this week and the free agency frenzy just around the corner. The next two weeks are going to run wild with speculation about free agents, draft picks, and so on from the insiders down to the most casual fans. Fans everywhere are going to dream about getting the big free agents and drafting all the right rookies. Who can blame them? This is an exciting time of the football year.

For the Miami Dolphins, this offseason has the chance to redefine the franchise from perennial also-ran to perennial contenders. Fans are growing more restless and desperate waiting for their beloved team to field a winner. The lack of attendance at home games is the most obvious indicator of that. While owner Stephen Ross has tried a variety of tactics to increase attendance, he knows the best way is to put a winning product out on the field. And after 3 underwhelming seasons, he is becoming as restless as the fans. As a result, this offseason seems to carry more importance than in previous years. Therefore it is important for this franchise to finally get it right, and put a consistent winning team on the field.

The biggest question amongst fans is just exactly how that is going to happen. This post is my opinion on how the Dolphins will retool the team this year.

NEEDS

Quarterback, Pass Rusher, Offensive Line, Safety, Nickel Cornerback, Tight End, Defensive Tackle, Wide Receiver

I listed these needs in order from greatest to least need. At some point this offseason, each of these needs will have to be addressed and they should be addressed in the order listed.

RESIGNING PLAYERS

Here is a list of players that the Dolphins should resign to the team.

Will Allen, CB: He’s an older player toward the end of his career, but provides some veteran leadership and savvy in a young secondary. He’s only a stopgap solution to the nickel position, but unless Wilson or Carroll steps up, he fills a need. He shouldn’t command a large contract, so he should be a cost effective option.

Vernon Carey, OG/OT: Another older player who still has a place on the team. He’s not a great blocker anymore, but he still has value as a backup and can start at RG if necessary. He won’t get a big contract offer anywhere, so he would likely return for a cost effective contract.

Kendall Langford, DT/DE: This will be a tough choice, but the team should try to resign Langford if possible. He has been a starter at DE in the team’s 3-4 alignment and would move inside to DT in the new 4-3 front. Langford isn’t a great pass rusher in terms of sacks, but is effective collapsing the pocket and generating pressure. I’m not sure how he would hold up against the run in the 4-3, but he is definitely worth resigning to have a solid rotation on the defensive line. The issue with him is money. He played well in 2009 and 2010, but struggled in 2011, his contract year. However, his agent may feel that he deserves a big contract and price the Dolphins out. If Langford buys into what coach Philbin and DC Coyle is selling, he may stay for a "hometown discount". However, if he seeks the big money, he might have to venture elsewhere to get it.

Phillip Merling, DE: Merling was a top tier DE prospect entering the 2008 draft. However, he has been miscast in the former 3-4 alignment and has never realized his potential. He was forced to gain weight to play 3-4 DE, and lost some explosiveness as a result. Merling could reach that potential if he trimmed down to his college weight and played at LE in a 4-3. He’s a restricted free agent, so he could be brought back fairly cheaply. This depends on how the coaches view him. If they think he can drop some weight and move to end, the return might be worth the investment.

Lex Hilliard, RB/FB: Hilliard is an under-utilized back on this team that has enough talent to stick around. He’s a decent short yardage back and is a punishing blocker in the run game. Hopefully, coach Philbin will understand how to use him better than the previous regime did. Hilliard has some value and is a restricted free agent. However, the Dolphins might do better financially to offer him a small extension. Hilliard’s return will depend greatly on how the team feels about Charles Clay at FB. If they think Clay can be a better FB, then Hilliard won’t be needed as much. As it stands now though, Hilliard is worth bringing back.

Lydon Murtha, OT: Murtha played well during the preseason, filling in for the injured Jake Long. However, Murtha was inexplicably placed on IR for what seemed like a minor injury. As a result, Marc Colombo was forced to start the entire year, which was a mistake. Not only that, but guard John Jerry was pressed into duty at LT for a few games, which worked out, but wasn’t the ideal choice. Murtha’s value is that he can be a valuable backup who can play both tackle positions if need be. It’s very possible that he can win the starting RT position in camp. It seems that Ireland see the value in Murtha and will be brought back. He too is a restricted free agent, but don’t be surprised to see him get an extension, with some incentives if he earns a starting role.

KEY PLAYERS THAT ARE LEAVING/COULD BE RELEASED

Paul Soliai, DT: This will be a tough decision for the FO, but Soliai probably won’t be back next season. He has been a key player in the Dolphins 3-4 run defense, making that unit one of the best in the NFL over the last two seasons. However, his contract issues will make it cost prohibitive to resign. Considering that he only played less than 40% of the defensive snaps last season and that we are shifting to a scheme where he might see less snaps, he won’t be worth the money. If we stay in a 3-4 base, he will need to be replaced via the draft or with a cheaper free agent like Sione Pouha (distinct possibility). It should also be noted that Soliai’s best two seasons came in "contract" years. You should always be wary of players like that. Their production tends to drop off once they’ve signed that big deal. The most likely landing spot for him is Kansas City as they have the need for a NT and the cap space to give him the big contract.

Tony McDaniel, DT: McDaniel is a candidate to get a contract reworked/extended. He is a decent backup DT who has value in the 3-4 or 4-3. However, at over $4M, he has a HUGE cap number for a backup player. If Langford is resigned, McDaniel will be pushed down the depth chart and may not be needed at his current contract value. If he doesn’t rework his contract, he could be released.

Yeremiah Bell, SS: Bell is another candidate for the restricted contract deal. He has been a valuable player in the secondary for the past few years, usually ending the season as one of the team’s leading tacklers. However, he is getting older and he is becoming a liability in coverage. The combination of age and cap number might spell the end for Bell’s tenure in Miami if a new deal cannot be worked out. Coyle has done well with the Bengal’s secondary and might see some potential in Jones and Clemons that the previous coaching staff was unable to being out. I wouldn’t mind seeing Bell restructure a deal so he can stay. But I also wouldn’t mind seeing an upgrade there either. It would be tough to see a team captain get released, but this is a business and Bell could be a salary cap victim.

RESTRUCTURED CONTRACTS/CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

I’ve mentioned some restructure candidates in the previous segment. However, these next players are in no danger of getting released, so they get their own segment.

Jake Long, LT: The Dolphins struck gold with Long in the 2008 draft. He has become the anchor of the offensive line and when fully healthy, is the best LT in the league. He is in the final year of his contract. Being the #1 overall pick in 2008 meant he got a large contract. Having increased his worth over the last 4 seasons will make his next contract even larger. However, offering Long an extension will allow the Dolphins to keep their franchise LT and lower his 2012 cap number in the process. It’s going to be expensive to keep Long, but I fully expect the FO to make sure he stays a Dolphin for his entire career.

Randy Starks, DT: Starks has been the best defensive lineman on the team for the past few seasons, highlighted by a Pro Bowl berth in 2010. He should be a part of Miami’s long term plans going into the future and will be a key starter in the new 4-3 defensive front. Starks also has cap number of $5M this season, in the final year of his contract. I believe he will be given an extension in order to keep him here as well as lower his cap number for 2012.

Brandon Marshall, WR: Marshall has had his ups and downs for the Dolphins. He struggled in 2010, only catching 3 TDs. It seemed he never developed the right chemistry with Chad Henne. In 2011, he struggled with some drops, but still had a Pro Bowl season with over 1000 yards receiving and 6 TDs. He seemed to have a better connection with Matt Moore than with Henne and his play seem to pick up. Fans have mixed feelings about Marshall, but the truth is he makes our offense go. Without him, we wouldn’t have a chance on offense. But it is also truthful to say that Marshall is getting paid like one of the top WRs, but doesn’t always play like that. When his game is on, he is one of the hardest WRs to defend. He just needs to play that way all the time. After his Pro Bowl performance where he earned MVP honors, it might be hard to convince him to take less money. However, Miami might convince him to restructure his deal if they bring in a certain QB from Indianapolis.

Karlos Dansby, LB: Dansby has been about what we expected of him since we signed him in 2010. He has made some plays and made our defense much better. Having said that, I think we overpaid for him. Whether you agree with that or not, the fact is Dansby is set to make over $11M this year, which is a MASSIVE hit to the cap. Hopefully, Dansby and Miami can work out a restructured deal so Miami can free up some cap space to pursue free agents.

KEY FREE AGENT TARGETS

Miami, like many teams, will work on restructuring deals, offering extensions, and releasing players to open up some cap space. The Dolphins aren’t in bad shape, but they could still stand to use some wiggle room. After everything is said and done, I believe the Dolphins can get to around $15M-$20M of cap space. That gives us some room to get a few free agents. Here they are:

Peyton Manning, QB: Manning Watch is in full effect and there will be no end of speculation until he signs or retires. If Manning is healthy (big if), it is expected that the Colts will part ways with him. He will be the biggest free agent to ever hit the open market. And the best landing spot for him is Miami for a number of reasons. I’m not going to get into those reasons as others have covered it in depth. What I am going to discuss is the situation with the team. Aside from Manning, the other options for QB are questionable at best. Matt Moore played well at times last season, but also struggled as times. The FO likes Moore, but they don’t seem to feel comfortable moving forward with him as the starter. The only other free agent worth discussing besides Manning is Matt Flynn and he has plenty of question marks. The draft class is WEAK at QB, after many thought this class would be the best since 83. After Luck and Griffin, the prospects drop off precipitously and there are no QBs worth taking with the 8th pick. Unless the FO believes it can find the next Tom Brady in later rounds (not likely), or feels they can stomach the cost to trade up (also not likely), then the Dolphins are stuck… enter Peyton Manning. He would instantly make the offense MUCH better and would allow the Dolphins to address other needs in the draft if they chose. Since Manning is proven, you know what you’re getting, unlike Flynn who only has two starts. Plus, Manning’s age means the team can look to win now while also building for the future. And with Moore as the backup, we would actually have a great QB situation for the first time in years.

Demetrius Bell/Jared Gaither, OT: I am in total agreement with Mike Mayock when his said that drafting a RT at #8 overall is too high. As great as it sounds on paper, it’s just not a great idea in reality. I think too many fans have overreacted to the disaster that was Marc Colombo last season and as result, they think we need to get an elite tackle prospect for the right side. But I don’t think that’s a prudent idea. Elite RTs are great, but not a necessity. You can win with an average RT (which Colombo was not). We can utilize our resources better by addressing the RT position fairly well in free agency, and here are the two guys to do it. Bell and Gaither aren’t exactly household names and they aren’t the big name FA linemen like Nicks or Grubbs. They aren’t elite OTs who will earn multiple Pro Bowl berths. So what are they? They are effective OTs who have flown under the radar for numerous reasons. Gaither has had back injuries and off the field issues that have curtailed his career. But when his game is on, he has top 10 talent. He might not be willing to play RT, but his value should be low this offseason, thus he may take what he can get. Bell flies under the radar because he plays in Buffalo. However, he was part of a very good offensive line in Buffalo last season. As a team, the Bills only gave up 23 sacks, which was the lowest in the NFL. And Bell was part of that as the starting LT. If Bell hits the open market, I think that would be the guy I would target. He has experience at the much more demanding LT position and could excel at RT. He would immediately be an upgrade at RT (and really, who wouldn’t… aside from Wayne Hunter). He can probably come cheap which means we can cut our losses if he doesn’t work out. If Buffalo resigns Bell, then I would attempt to sign Gaither as a fallback plan. (Both Gaither and Bell are the 2 highest rated free agent OTs by profootballfocus.com).

Martellus Bennett, TE

I know what some of you are thinking: "Oh no, not another Dallas player!" Normally I would agree, but this is one former Dallas Cowboy worth pursuing. Bennett is an athletic TE who excels in blocking. He has the speed and ability to be a receiving threat, however he happens to play behind one of the best TEs in the league. With Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Laurent Robinson, and Jason Witten as the main targets in Dallas, Bennett gets left out. He will only be 25 years old when the season starts and he will want a chance to prove that he can be a starting TE. Coach Philbin understands the value of a good TE and Bennett would be a welcome addition to a team without a true receiving threat TE. I’ve read some comments on the site that suggest getting another TE means we aren’t happy with Clay or Fasano. But that’s not the case. Bennett would simply replace Mastrud in the lineup. Bennett would be another weapon for our QB and you can never have enough weapons. The fact that Bennett is a good blocker is a bonus. (Green Bay kept five, yes FIVE tight ends on the roster last season. So adding another TE is a very real possibility).

OTHER POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

Ben Grubbs, OG: If Miami doesn’t go after a RT in free agency, or decides that Murtha is the answer, or they decide to draft a RT, then a good target in FA would be Grubbs. He’s been an effective LG for the Ravens and would allow Incognito to move to RG. I’m sure the Ravens would love to resign Grubbs. But after resigning Yanda last season and having to deal with contracts for Flacco and Rice, Grubbs may be allowed to hit free agency. He will be somewhat pricey, so if we get him, we may not try to sign too many other players.

Reggie Wayne/Pierre Garcon, WR: If we bring in Manning, he may want one of his former WRs to throw to. Wayne would make a decent #2 in Miami, but he may get bigger offers somewhere else. Garcon would give Miami a somewhat reliable deep threat, though he too struggles with the dropsies. These are not guys I would throw the bank at, but I wouldn’t disregard them either.

Sione Pouha, NT: The coaching staff say they are going to use multiple fronts, but without Soliai as the NT, our 3-4 front will suffer. Pouha is an underrated NT who has been the key cog in the Jets run defense the past few years. With the Jets salary cap issues and their increasing dysfunctional locker room, Pouha may not resign with them. What better way to stick it to his old team than signing with a division rival. At 33 years old, he won’t get a big contract, so he can be somewhat cost effective NT until we can draft one. If the Dolphins veer away from more 3-4 sets however, Pouha won’t have as much vale to the team.

DRAFT PICKS

Round One: Trade Down

And with that you can hear the collective sighs of many Dolphins fans. But in my opinion, trading down would be a great move after the free agent moves made. We addressed the QB position with Manning and the RT position with Bell. Pass rusher would be our highest need now. There are some good players at 8, but none that I think the Dolphins will target. Coples would be a target, but there are serious questions about his drive and work ethic. Ingram would be a wonderful choice, but he doesn’t fit the "size" requirement that Ireland said he is sticking with (I know, it’s stupid, but it’s not my rule). I think we trade down with Chicago, Pittsburgh, or any other team in the lower first round that is in need of a LT prospect. A trade with Chicago would net us a second round pick and still keep us in the top 20.

After trading down, at 19 Miami selects: Nick Perry, DE/OLB USC

Perry just finished a strong combine and has moved into the discussion for a top 20 pick. He showed a lot of strength and athleticism, and has plenty of potential. At 6’3" 271, he can play DE in a 4-3 or OLB in a 3-4. He’s an intriguing prospect and it would be great if the Dolphins could move down and draft him while adding additional picks.

(Personally, I would love to see us draft Ingram, but Ireland has already said that he isn’t deviating from the size rule. I hope that is a smokescreen.)

Round Two, Pick One: Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame

There is a good chance that Smith will not fall this far. However, if he does, then Miami would be stupid not to draft him. Smith is an athletic safety prospect who could fit at either FS or SS, but might fit better here as a FS. He’s got the footwork, size, and speed to be able to cover slot WRs or TEs. He is a good tackler and makes plays in the secondary. He would be a welcome addition to the secondary and take some pressure off of our young CBs.

Round Two, Pick Two: Kelechi Osemele, OG/OT, Iowa State

Osemele is an EXTREMELY good value pick here. He is a player that can come in and start at guard or tackle from day one if needed. Osemele is a big tackle/guard prospect who had an impressive combine. He has long arms and decent footwork and is a good athlete for his size. The value with Osemele is that Miami can use him at RT or can move him to either guard position if necessary. He looks to be a better fit at OG right now, but with coaching, he can be developed into a starting RT. Osemele would give the coaching staff some much needed flexibility with the O-line for 2012, and by next season, should solidify a starting position for years to come.

Round Three: Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia

Even if the Dolphins resign Will Allen, they will still need to address the CB position at some point in the draft. Boykin is undersized, but fast with quick feet. He can learn the nickel position and take over for Allen next season, if not before. Boykin also offers value as a return man.

Round Four: Cam Johnson, DE/OLB, Virginia

I’m not entirely sure that Johnson will fall this far in the draft. But if he does, then we are getting good value in the fourth round. Since Ireland has been with this team, he has doubled up on positions in every draft. Since pass rusher is such a huge need, it makes sense to double up on that position. Johnson is a guy that the team can develop behind Wake and would fit well in a 4 man front.

Round Five: Andrew Datko, OT, Florida State

At this point, I’m just looking at different sites getting projections for players that could fall this low. Datko is a good RT prospect, but will fall in the draft due to injury history. If he is still here at this point, then Miami could get GREAT value if he can develop into a starting caliber tackle. He could also provide needed depth at the tackle position.

Round Six: Devon Wylie, WR, Fresno State

Wylie, a.k.a. "Wiggles" is a projected slot WR at the next level. He’s not a big guy (5’9" 187), but he is shifty and fast (sub 4.4). He also has value in the return game. Miami did talk with him at the East-West Shrine Game and would love to add some speed to the team. I doubt that Miami will look to draft a WR really early in the draft. Hartline isn’t the greatest #2 WR in the land, but with Manning throwing him the ball, he should be adequate enough. With Marshall, Bess, Hartline, Gates, Pruitt, Moore, and Wallace on board, and Wayne or Garcon being possible additions, Miami will probably only add a late round player like Wylie to see if he can bump one of the fringe guys off the roster. So as intriguing as Quick, Hill, Streeter and any other mid round prospect are, I wouldn’t get my hopes up about drafting any of them. (By the way, Julius Pruitt has earned a spot on this team for his special teams play alone.)

Round Seven: Jordan Jefferson, QB, LSU

Oh the irony… Joe Philbin goes from coaching one seventh round backup QB from LSU to drafting another seventh round backup QB from LSU. Jefferson is a tall, strong armed QB in need of some coaching. With Manning and Moore on the team, the Dolphins are set at starter and backup. They need a young QB to groom and develop (like Flynn in GB). Perhaps with coaching, Jefferson can be ready to take over for Manning when the time is right.

POTENTIAL UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

DeAndre Presley, CB/KR/PR, Appalachian State

Chris Owusu, WR, Stanford

Brandon Marshall, OLB, Nevada (just because)

Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, DT, Baylor

Blake Gideon, FS, Texas

Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Arizona State (yes, he might go undrafted)

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