A lot of choices to make in the next few months - Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
An In-Depth Look at how much it could cost to keep all of the Miami Dolphins' impending free agents and what alternatives are available in the free agent market
This is a follow-up piece to my article, The Complete 2013 Miami Dolphins Offseason Guide (click here). In that article, I went over the players the Dolphins already have under contract for 2013, as well as their salary cap hits and length of contracts. I briefly went over Miami's impending free agents, as well as the team's draft picks in 2013 (9 or 10 total) and remaining cap space (around $43 million by my calculations, though that's subject to change as the Dolphins could easily cut players, sign free agents who were on the team this past season, and restructure deals of players currently under contract).
That article did not go over how much keeping the Miami Dolphins' impending free agents would cost, but that's an important topic to discuss. The most important things to consider when discussing NFL contracts are annual salary, contract length, and amount guaranteed compared to how much is earned by meeting incentives.
Based on researching recent contracts giving to similar-caliber players in the past 3 years, here is my forecast for average annual cap hits to keep each of these players in Miami next year. For the sake of simplicity, all these numbers are average per year cap hits starting in 2013. It's very hard to predict contract length, signing bonus size, amounts guaranteed versus in incentives, etc. so I didn't bother trying, instead focusing on cap hits. So these are rough annual salary ranges.
Marquee Free Agents
Jake Long - $10 million ($8-12 million)
Jake Long is coming off a 5 yr(s) / $57.8 million deal, averaging $11.6 million per year. I don't see Long taking less than $8 million a year - Demetress Bell is a left tackle with injury issues who has never had the "name brand" of Jake Long but still got a $7 million per year deal from the Eagles in 2012 to serve as Jason Peters' injury-replacement. Jake Long at full strength is a top-2 tackle in the NFL, so even if he's viewed as an injury risk, his number is $8 million or (more likely) more.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - CLE LT Joe Thomas ($12 million per year), HOU LT Duane Brown ($8 million per year), NYJ LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson ($9 million per year), PHI LT Jason Peters ($10 million per year). Comparison - KC RT Eric Winston signed a $5 million per year deal last offseason, which shows that top-tier right tackles are half the cost of top-tier left tackles.
-->Similar 2013 free agents - DEN LT Ryan Clady, KC LT Branden Albert, ATL LT Sam Baker.
Comparison - NE RT Sebastian Vollmer and CIN RT Andre Smith are top tier right tackles that will be free agents.
Sean Smith - $7 million ($5-10 million, potential franchise tag target)
Sean Smith is coming off a 4 yr(s) / $3.1 million deal, averaging $779,000 per year. However, that was his rookie deal, and he's due for a pay-raise as an established starter. His inconsistency makes him very hard to price. One reason why I suggest we might use the franchise tag is that Smith has a long been inconsistent, which makes giving him a long-term deal risky, though the franchise tag would increase his cap hit to north of $10 million.
If you're Jeff Ireland, what do you pay a guy who can match-up reasonably well against All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald one week but then gets burned by no-name receivers the next week? That issue has popped up in negotiations already, with Miami and Smith's agent disagreeing significantly on how valuable Smith is.
"A source said the two sides are far apart, with Smith seeking a deal similar to the one Tennessee gave cornerback Jason McCourty in August (six years, $43 million, $20 million guaranteed) and the Dolphins valuing Smith at much less." - Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post, read here
My guess is that Ireland is reasonably okay with the $7 million per year demand, since he gave Richard Marshall $6 million per year in 2012. However, Richard Marshall had to accept a 3-year deal, while Smith wants a 6 year deal. Ireland would likely prefer to pay him less annually if he's going to demand a long-term deal.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - HOU CB Johnathan Joseph ($9.5 million per year), KC CB Stanford Routt ($6 million per year), NYG CB Terrell Thomas ($7 million per year), TEN CB Jason McCourty ($7 million per year), DEN CB Tracy Porter ($4 million per year)
-->Similar 2013 free agents - ATL CB Brent Grimes, PHI CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SD CB Quentin Jammer, NE CB Aqib Talib
Randy Starks - $6.5 million ($5-8 million)
Randy Starks is coming off a 5 yr(s) / $20.1 million deal, with an average salary of $4 million per year and a base salary of $3.7 million last season. He's a ProBowl alternate this season who has shown he can play at a high level in a 3-4 defense (ProBowl in 2010) and a 4-3 defense (this season) who has never missed significant time due to injury. He also is one of the active leaders among DTs in interceptions, largely thanks to Mark Sanchez.
The fact that he's 28 still means teams can expect 3-4 more years of elite production, so if Miami doesn't give him a big offer, somebody else will. I would want to keep Starks, but Ireland may be tempted to let Starks leave, have Jared Odrick start next to Soliai next year, and use that money elsewhere.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - SEA DE/DT Red Bryant ($7 million a year), STL DE Kendall Langford ($6 million per year), NO DT Brodrick Bunkley ($5 million a year)
-->Similar 2013 free agents - CHI DT Henry Melton, KC DE/DT Glenn Dorsey
Reggie Bush - $5 million ($4-6 million)
Reggie Bush is coming off a 2 yr(s) / $9.8 million, averaging $4.9 million per year deal that he signed after the Dolphins traded for him. Since then, he's shown improved durability, and he has averaged over 1,000 yards rushing over the past 2 seasons. He's become a team-leader and has become one of the (very) few stars on the team. Suffice to say, his value has gone up a bit, but at the same time, I don't think any other teams in the NFL would make him a feature back. No team, given Bush's injury history and relative underproduction, would pay him anywhere near Ray Rice or Arian Foster money ($8 million a year). I think he earns at best a very small raise and stays in Miami, but Bush is a complicated case given his injury history, star power, and unique role in Miami in 2013 as a starter.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - CHI RB Matt Forte ($7.5 million per year), CHI Backup RB Michael Bush ($3.5 million per year): Reggie's annual cost will likely fall in between those 2 numbers
-->Similar 2013 free agents - STL RB Steven Jackson, PIT RB Reshard Mendenhall, DAL RB Felix Jones, KC RB Peyton Hillis, NE RB Danny Woodhead, NYJ RB Shonn Greene
Mid-Tier Free Agents
Brian Hartline - $5 million ($4-7 million)
Brian Hartline is coming off a 4 yr(s) / $2.3 million deal, averaging $563,744 per year. However, like Sean Smith, that was his rookie deal, and he's likely due for a significant raise as an established starter. Hartline's value is hard to place because his production was basically equivalent to a below-average #2 WR (mostly 500-600 yards per year) for his first 3 seasons, but this season he finished with 74 catches (tied for 22nd in NFL) on 128 targets (21st in NFL), 1083 yards (16th in NFL), and 1 TD (tied for 147th in NFL). Those are above-average numbers for a #2-WR but also below-average numbers for a #1-WR.
The closest blueprint for Hartline is the case of former Dallas Cowboys WR Laurent Robinson, who is a veteran wide receiver who had several quiet years in the league before a breakout season after being given a bigger role during his contract year (sounds a lot like Hartline), except Robinson hit 858 yards and 11 touchdowns his final year in Dallas before getting his current deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. I think other teams would target Hartline to be a #2 WR, but Hartline stays with Miami unless the Dolphins decide to pursue a big-name WR.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - JAC WR Laurent Robinson ($6 million per year), BUF WR Stevie Johnson ($7 million a year), SF WR Mario Manningham ($4 million per year)
-->Similar 2013 free agents - STL WR Danny Amendola (most similar to Hartline because of his statistical explosion this year). Hartline + Amendola will be on the tier just below the "Big 4" of WR free agents - GB WR Greg Jennings, KC WR Dwayne Bowe, PIT WR Mike Wallace, and NE WR Wes Welker.
Anthony Fasano - $4 million ($3-5 million)
Anthony Fasano is coming off a 3 yr(s) / $8.8 million deal, averaging $2.9 million per year, with a base salary of $3.6 million last season. Fasano has played under multiple different offensive coordinators and QBs while in Miami. He's a very consistent 300-500 yards per year receiver and decent redzone threat, whose best talent is his blocking. I don't think he's ever going to be a threat who regularly approaches 700+ yards per year, but he is a solid complimentary tight end in today's NFL.
Unlike Hartline, he's unlikely to be able to demand a huge raise because his production as receiver has been unremarkable this season (332 yards, 5 TDs). Like with Hartline, I think Fasano stays unless Miami targets an outside free agent. Young potential replacements such as Charles Clay and Michael Egnew have been disappointments in 2012.
--> Similar recent free agent deals - MIN TE John Carlson ($5 million), BUF TE Scott Chandler ($3 million), KC TE Kevin Boss ($3 million a year)
-->Similar 2013 free agents - TEN TE Jared Cook, NYJ TE Dustin Keller, SF TE Delanie Walker, PIT TE Heath Miller
Matt Moore - $3 million ($2.5-$4 million)
Matt Moore is coming off a 2 yr(s) / $5 million deal, averaging $2.5 million per year with a base salary of 2.75 million last year. Moore's value took a hit after a very bad 2012 pre-season, but he has put together plenty of nice regular-season gametape the past 2 seasons. He's likely to leave if offered a chance to compete to start somewhere else. Otherwise, Moore could return to Miami on a discount if he his only other options are to settle for being a backup elsewhere.
-->Similar recent free agent deals - DAL QB Kyle Orton ($3.5 million per year), CHI QB Jason Campbell ($3.5 million per year)
-->Similar 2013 free agents - IND QB Drew Stanton, BUF QB Tavaris Jackson, CHI QB Jason Campbell, on a tier below BAL QB Joe Flacco
Chris Clemons - $2 million ($1-3 million)
Chris Clemons is coming off a 4 yr(s) / $1.9 million deal, averaging $478,125 per year, but that is his rookie deal as a former 5th round pick, meaning like Hartline and Smith, he is due a raise after becoming an established starter. He's listed as a SS, but he's used as a FS, specifically as Miami's last line of defense. While Miami's safety play has been at times poor in 2012, I think Miami will most likely keep Clemons unless the team plans on using a pick in the first 3 rounds at safety to find a rookie starter.
Tony McDaniel -$3 million ($2-4 million)
Tony McDaniel is coming off a 2 yr(s) / $6 million deal, averaging $3 million per year, with a base salary of $3 million last year. McDaniel is a good backup DT who I only see staying on the Dolphins if Starks leaves in free agency. If the Dolphins keep Starks, the team will likely let McDaniels walk (and slide Odrick to the DT full-time) as well as use 2012 7th round draft choice DT Kheeston Randall more.
-->Similar 2013 free agents - CHI DT/DE Israel Idonije
Nate Garner -$2 million ($1-3 million)
Nate Garner is coming off a 2 yr(s) / $2.2 million deal, averaging $1.1 million per year, with a base salary of $1.4 million last year. Garner is a versatile backup OG/OT who is most likely allowed to leave so long as the coaching staff trusts Will Yeatman to serve as backup OT next year. Given Garner's price tag, Miami would most likely prefer to draft a mid-to-late round guard to serve as a backup than continue to pay Garner $1+ million per year.
Other Free Agents
That leaves guys like Marlon Moore, Jonathan Amaya, Austin Spitler, Will Barker, Patrick Brown, Tyron Culver, Pat Devlin, Ray Feinga, Bryan McCann, and R.J. Stanford on the list of minor free agents, but Miami can easily sign those guys to small contracts, so they don't affect the cap picture too much.
The Dolphins are in a good cap situation, but the team is not really in a position to go on a free agency spending spree like the Philadelphia Eagles have done the past 2 years without either cutting guys under contract (which would then create new holes on the roster) or letting top-tier impending free agents like Jake Long leave.
Expect Miami to turn more to the 2013 draft rather than free agency to address most needs because every outside free agent we (over)pay for leads to holes elsewhere. Team sources insist that the team will be aggressive in free agency, but I would be shocked if Miami acquired more than 2-3 new starters via free agency. The Dolphins have until March 9 to negotiate exclusively with their free agents. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. March 12. Hopefully, the team works out deals with current Dolphins players early to make clear how much cap room will be set aside for outside free agents.
Sources for you to come up with your own estimates:
Player Contract Information: http://www.rotoworld.com/ (search for players using the search bar to the top-right, then click, "View contract information" after you bring up their profiles)
Alternative - http://www.spotrac.com/
Recent Free Agent Deals (listed by position): http://walterfootball.com/freeagents2012QB.php
Miami's salary cap situation next year: hhttp://nyjetscap.com/Dolphins/dolphins2013.php
Impending 2013 NFL Free Agents, listed by position: http://www.footballsfuture.com/freeagents.html