The Future of Jake Long and the Miami Dolphins

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Miami Dolphins have nearly $50 million in cap space this offseason, but they also have a large number of potential free agents, some of whom will be re-signed. One of the key players is left tackle Jake Long, and no one stirs more debate than Long and what the Dolphins should do with him.

The Miami Dolphins are in for a key offseason. This round of free agency and April's draft will determine the direction of this franchise for years. But, it might be what happens before free agency that sets the direction for the team during the offseason. While the Dolphins have nearly $50 million in salary cap space, they also have nearly 20 players scheduled to be free agents this year. What do they do with all of them? Who can they re-sign? Who should the re-sign?

No one brings up more debate this offseason than Miami's left tackle Jake Long. Long was the first overall pick in 2008, coming to a Dolphins team in shambles after the 1-15 debacle lead by former head coach Cam Cameron. Bill Parcells, Tony Sparano, and Jeff Ireland selected Long, looking to build a dominating offensive line with Long as the anchor. While the offensive line may never have reached the level they hoped it would, Long did.

Long was selected as a reserve to the 2009 Pro Bowl following his rookie campaign, then was a starter for the league's all-star game in 2010, 2011, and 2012. He was also named to the All Pro Second Team in 2009, then the First Team in 2010.

Long started every game from 2008-2010 for the Dolphins, but missed the last two games in 2011, then missed four games this past season, ending both years on Miami's injured reserve list. His play over these last two years has fallen from its former elite level, and he has had to deal with injuries to his knee, back, triceps, biceps,

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Long was the 47th ranked tackle this season. He was 21st last year, after being second in both 2010 and 2009. He was the 10th ranked tackle his rookie season in 2008.

Long's rookie contract ends in March when the league year ends. He is one of the last number one overall draft picks to receive the enormous salaries common under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. If the Dolphins were to use the franchise tag on Long, they would have to pay him 120% of his current salary, or a little over $15 million.

Can the Dolphins afford to wrap up $15 million guaranteed in Long, who could have already passed his prime? Or, at 27, has Long simply had a couple of bad seasons, and could return to his former elite level?

Long is expected to ask for a contract similar to the one Joe Thomas signed in August 2011. Thomas signed a seven-year, $84 million contract, with $44 million guaranteed. Long, at his top level, is worthy of that kind of contract, and there could be a team out there who will give it to him if he hits free agency.

But, ending the last two seasons on injured reserve, and having the worst statistical year of his career, will not make Miami jump at offering him that kind of money.

Add in the addition of Jonathan Martin in the second round of last April's draft, and Long could be on his way out the door. While he played right tackle most of these season, Martin moved to left tackle when Long was lost for the year, returning to the position he played throughout his college career at Stanford. He struggled at times, but he was also a rookie, switching back to a position he had not even practiced at the NFL level. He was purely relying on instinct from his college career.

Could Martin effectively replace Long with a full offseason to relearn the footwork needed for the position?

Long's status is going to be a hotly debated one between now and the Dolphins re-signing him or him signing with another franchise. What is best for the Dolphins? What does Long really expect this offseason? Is there a way for the two sides to work out an incentive laden deal to make everyone happy?

What do you think the Dolphins should do with Long? Vote in the poll below, and discuss in the comments.

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