Since the doldrums of the NFL offseason are upon us, I feel it's a good time to look at the contract situation for 2013. The Miami Dolphins are very close to the cap right now, thanks to some big contracts at the end of their term, plus $13.22 million in dead money from previous contracts. However, the Dolphins should be sitting very pretty with their salary cap in 2013. The Dolphins should be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50+ million under the cap space next season thanks to the lack of dead money and the amount of expiring contracts the Dolphins have. Fans should not expect a wild free agency shopping spree though. For one thing, the team has already adopted the ‘build through the draft' strategy and rightfully so, as that's how good teams are built. This means most of the available cap space will be used to resign the team's own free agents.
The Dolphins have over 30 contracts that will expire in 2013. Most of these contracts are for guys at the bottom of the roster. Some of these players will be resigned at minimal contracts, so I am not going to discuss them. However, there are some key players that will be free agents and the Dolphins will have to make tough decisions on who to resign and who to let walk. I'm going to break this down into 3 categories: who they will resign, who they should resign, and those who will need to earn that new contract this year.
WHO THE DOLPHINS WILL RESIGN
This is a no brainer. The veteran left tackle is one of the best players at his position in the entire NFL. You don't let guys like that walk. Jeff Ireland has already stated that he intends to keep Long in Miami for a long time. The only drawback to resigning Long to an extension right now is injury issues. He played hurt most of 2010 and was placed on IR last season for the first time in his career. It is not the precedent in the league to extend players coming off of an injured filled season. The team will wisely wait until later in the season and gauge how Long is holding up. I don't think Long's injury history will preclude the team from resigning him, but it will determine the price. If Long stays healthy and plays at an All-Pro level and will earn a contract that will most likely make him the highest paid tackle in the league once again. If Long has more injury issues, he will likely have to take a smaller contract with incentives. Fans should expect a deal around 5 years with an average of $12-14 million dollars per year (that should put him over the Joe Thomas contract in terms of money per season).
This is also a no brainer. Like Jake Long, Fields is one of the best players in the league at his position. His ability to flip field position is vastly important, given how our offense has struggled over the past few seasons. His averages for overall yardage and net yardage rank up there with the top punters and his contract will likely reflect that. His value to the team is understated and I don't think the Dolphins let him walk.
WHO THE DOLPHINS SHOULD RESIGN
Starks has been a Pro Bowl player for the Dolphins and one of the more consistent forces along the defensive line. Some fans would think he deserves to be on the ‘will resign' list, but it comes down to one thing: value. Starks has had the majority of his success as a 3-4 defensive end. Even though the Dolphins plan to use a hybrid defensive scheme, it appears they are transitioning to more of a 4-3 base. This means that Starks will play more 4-3 defensive tackle as opposed to end. The question there is how much of an impact he will have on the defense. Will he be able to hold up against the run? Can he generate a consistent pass rush from the interior? Will he be as effective at DT as he was at DE? Also, there is a possibility that another player like Odrick or McDaniel could step up and take playing time away from Starks. Perhaps a young player like Kheeston Randall or Ryan Baker steps up and becomes more of a force on the line. As things stand right now, Starks will be resigned. He is too important to the defense to just let him walk. If he plays as expected, he will return to the team. However, if he struggles, or another player outperforms him, the team will have a tough decision on Starks. He is making close to $5 million this season and one would think he would ask for a contract similar to that. If the team doesn't feel he is worth that much based on performance, they could let him walk. All that said, I fully expect the team to bring back Starks.
Fasano is another player who will fall into the value category with it comes time to resign. Fasano doesn't fit the current mold of athletic tight ends that can make plays downfield. However, his blocking ability is invaluable to the offense. He is a good, but not great all-around tight end. The main thing here is monetary value. Coach Philbin comes from a team that kept five tight ends on the roster last season, so Fasano is secure in that regard. But he is making over $4 million dollars this season. It is possible, though doubtful, that Fasano will ask for a contract that will price him out the Dolphins desired range.
PLAYERS ON THE HOT SEAT
Reggie Bush was a revelation last season, quieting doubters with a 1000 yard season at a 5.4 YPC average. There are several factors in this situation, working both for and against Bush. Bush is arguably the face of the franchise right now. He has one thing the Dolphins sorely lack: star power. Bush also has speed to burn and will be a versatile weapon on the offense, lining up in the backfield and as a receiver. He is a very hard worker and a leader on and off the field. He could possibly earn a role as a team captain in 2012. On the flip side, Bush has only played one season as the feature back for a team. He has a history of injuries. The team drafted Lamar Miller, who by the sounds of it, was drafted to be the feature back of the future. His contract demands may not be conducive to the plans of the team. As you can see, there are a number of factors that can affect whether Bush returns or not. Ryan Tannehill ‘should' eventually become the face of the franchise and give the team star power. If Miller develops quicker than expected, he could make Bush expendable. Bush, however, could have another good season and if elected as a team captain, could make it difficult for the team to let him walk. I think the team will resign him, but it's not a given.
The much maligned Brian Hartline may or may not be resigned. Ok, rhyming aside, this is a perfect case of ‘produce or get out'. Hartline is by no means a fan favorite, and is by no means a superstar receiver. But looking at the overall picture of the offense since he got here, you can argue that his production was limited by ‘other' factors. In any case, Brian Hartline is due for a breakout year. The truth is he must if he wants to remain with the team. Hartline has shown flashes in his three seasons, but has never been consistent enough to become a real threat. He has made some highlight reel catches, but has had issues with drops. He has made some plays, but not enough. 2012 is the make or break year for Hartline. He should get more opportunities in the new offense, one that utilizes multiples receiver sets. He should be able to have more production this season. Also, there are some young players that could push him off the roster, guys that bring certain things to the table that Hartline doesn't. Roberto Wallace and Jeff Fuller are bigger targets. Marlon Moore and Clyde Gates are quicker and faster. Rishard Matthews is faster and has value as a punt returner. Anyone of these players could develop and force Hartline off the roster. Whatever happens, Hartline will have to have a marked increase in production if he wants to remain with the Dolphins in 2013.
Sean Smith began his career as the first rookie cornerback to start all 16 games for the Miami Dolphins. It looked as though Smith was on his way to become a lockdown corner. He struggled in 2011 and his running mate Vontae Davis surpassed him on the depth chart. Smith has devastating size for the corner position, but has never played as physical as a player of his size should. His struggles with catching the ball have plagued him, though he did have two interceptions in 2011. He sometimes struggles with flipping his hips in coverage and some think he should move to safety. Smith will undoubtedly get the starting job in 2012, but could easily lose it if he struggles. Nolan Carroll showed improvement over the course of last season and between he and Richard Marshall could push Smith out of a starting role. Smith's size makes him a good choice for covering tight ends, though he needs to play more physical. That will likely keep him on the roster, but his spot isn't safe by any means. Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle has worked wonders in Cincinnati with players others thought were busts. I believe he can bring out the potential in Smith and make our cornerback tandem very good.
Clemons is a core special teams player and former starting free safety for the Dolphins. He somehow fell out of favor with the previous coaching staff and did not start in 2011. He is not a playmaker at the safety position, but neither is he a huge liability either. Under Coyle, Clemons may be able to resurrect his career and become a starter once again for Dolphins.
McDaniel is a good backup defensive lineman. He is a good backup lineman making starter money. His over $4 million cap hit in 2012 makes him a prime candidate for getting a visit from the Turk. With Baker and Randall in the fold, McDaniel and his contract might not be necessary. However, if the team does keep him in 2012, it's doubtful they will resign him in 2013. He will have to have a major production increase for that to happen.
PLAYERS WITH CONTRACT ISSUES IN 2013
Dansby has the biggest contract on the team right now. He has a cap hit of over $12 million in 2012. That number will rise to over $13 million by 2014. Dansby is a good linebacker, but is on the other side of 30 years old. He will be 31 at the end of this season. Dansby is a team leader and the best overall linebacker on the team. However, if his play diminishes or a younger player steps up, then Dansby could be in trouble. His contract and age will make him difficult to trade and could be a cap casualty in 2013.
Incognito is an average NFL guard. He's not an All-Pro, but he's not a liability either. The issue with him is whether or not he can adjust to the new zone blocking scheme that Philbin wants to use. Zone blocking requires linemen who are quick, athletic, and can move in space. Incognito is your typical huge power blocking guard. If he has a tough transition, he could be on the hot seat. He will have a cap hit of about $4 million in 2013, which makes him a possible cap casualty. (P.S. Offensive guard is one of our biggest needs in the 2013 offseason).