We're nearing the end of the candidate list, but that will be perfect timing since free agency is just over a week away. As it seems in most seasons, I expect the excitement to last for approximately two weeks before big name free agents sign with new teams and the signings slow down as we start focusing on recapping Pro Day workouts and again focus on the NFL Draft in April. By mid-April, we're going to be sick of talks about Robert Griffin III and I'll be counting hours and minutes until the Colts finally make their pick. I'm starting to drift here so let me slap myself and get back on topic...
There is a bit of mystery as how Miami's LB corps may look because they're expected to still use both the 3-4 and 4-3 defensive alignments. With that being the case, I am going to look at both the MLB and OLB positions. Miami could go in either direction and choose to move Karlos Dansby to OLB, his original position in the 4-3, if they plan to use formation predominantly. If not, they could target an OLB for their 3-4 formations. With news that Miami plans on moving Koa Misi inside, I believe it is less likely we'll see a free agent signing of a MLB. Let's get to the candidates.
Curtis Lofton, MLB: He is a solid LB and was fifth in the NFL in tackles in 2011 (147), but he will be signed at a hefty price. While he would form an outstanding trio with Dansby and Kevin Burnett in the 4-3, he's likely not on Miami's radar because of the price it would take to sign him.
Joe Mays, MLB: He's not as great a LB as Lofton, but he did well for the Denver Broncos last season and would come at a cheaper price. The chances he becomes a target for the Dolphins will rely on their intentions in setting up the defense. He's a more likely candidate than Lofton, but I still think the chances Miami pursues him are slim.
Stephen Tulloch, MLB:Reminds me a lot of Zach Thomas in size, but the Detroit Lions are going to make a heavy push to bring Tulloch back. It's unlikely he'll field offers from Miami. Like Lofton, he will also come at a hefty price.
Chase Blackburn, MLB: He made a name for himself with his Super Bowl performance, but he'd still be a bit of a risk to sign as a starter. He was signed by the Giants late in the season and didn't make an appearance until December.
E.J. Henderson, MLB: He's had concerns about his injuries over his career, but he rebounded well in 2011. He's solid in run and coverage, but not much of a blitzer. He will probably receive a higher offer than Mays, but not quite as high as Tulloch or Lofton. At the age of 31, it would probably be better for Miami if they went with someone a bit younger as well.
Manny Lawson, OLB: Could be a potential candidate as he spent last season with Kevin Coyle in Cincinnati. He only has 16.5 sacks in six seasons and had a career high of 6.5 sacks in 2009 with the San Francisco 49ers. I wouldn't be surprised to see Miami pursue Lawson as they can probably choose to use him as their 3-4 OLB as well as their 4-3 DE. Lawson came out of North Carolina State as a defensive end, but has strictly been an OLB in the NFL.
Jarret Johnson, OLB: He's a candidate I believe is underrated because of the presence of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Like Lawson, he's been an OLB for his entire NFL career, but came out of college as a DE. It's possible the Dolphins could also use Johnson in both positions if they use a hybrid system. I don't think he's as likely a target as Lawson because I believe the New York Jets will make a hard push for him. Rex Ryan has been vocal about Johnson this past season and he's familiar with him from his days with the Ravens.
Anthony Spencer, OLB: The Cowboys would love to bring him back and there has been rumors they may choose to use the franchise tag on him. Spencer hasn't lived up to the hype, but he has remained a solid 3-4 OLB. He would likely be the most coveted 3-4 OLB in free agency if he gets to test the market. He is solid in run support and has averaged more sacks per season than both Spencer and Lawson. Of course, Spencer had a player named DeMarcus Ware playing opposite of him that teams were forced to focus on. He wouldn't be a bad signing for Miami, but Dolphin fans would probably have to temper their expectations in how many sacks they would expect of him.
Other notable free agent LB's: Clark Haggans, Bryan Thomas, Xavier Adibi, Darryl Blackstock, Stephen Cooper, London Fletcher, David Hawthorne, Dan Connor, Quentin Groves, Tavares Gooden, Geno Hayes, Channing Crowder, Barrett Ruud, and Ben Leber.