The Miami Dolphins are currently in danger of losing a number of big name free agents this offseason, including Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Randy Starks, running back Reggie Bush, cornerback Sean Smith, and wide receiver Brian Hartline. The team has between now and March 9 to negotiate contracts with anyone they would like to return to the Dolphins next year before other teams can begin negotiations. But, why haven't any of these players already been re-signed? General manager Jeff Ireland was asked that exact question during his media availability at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"We're going through a process," Ireland explained. "I don't think we had to get them done at the first of January. There's no date. Right now the date that I have in my head is March 9th, to get those guys done before they get into that period. So we've taken on the evaluation of our coaching staff, we've been very thorough in that process, finding out what fits. When you have as many of them as we do you can't just make knee-jerk reactions on getting certain guys signed so we've taken a very thorough evaluation and we've met on it many times and this is the time period we're starting to talk to them and try to get some things done."
The Dolphins have the third most salary cap space in the NFL this offseason, largely because players like Long, who counted for nearly $12 million against last season's cap, are not under contract any more. How much of that money will the Dolphins use to re-sign their own players? Again, Ireland gives his thoughts:
"I haven't necessarily looked at it from a percentage standpoint. We know the guys that we want back on our team and we know the guys we are potentially go after in the market. We'll analyze it a little different than that. Right now, the plan is a strong plan to do a little bit of both and we'll see how it goes from there."
One option the team has is the franchise tag. Each year, a team can designate one player as their "franchise" player, paying him a one-year, fully guaranteed, contract worth the average of the top five salaries at his position. The Dolphins have only used the franchise tag once under Ireland (nose tackle Paul Soliai in 2011), but the GM would not rule out using it this season. "It's a resource, certainly," Ireland said of the tag. "You have to evaluate how negotiations are going with certain particular players but there's a lot of things that go into the franchise tag, a lot of different opinions, a lot of different aspects of when you use it, when you don't use it, why you use it. In terms of this year there's certainly a likelihood that we could use it. But on particularly who, right now we haven't made that decision yet."
Asked about the negotiations with Hartline, Ireland responded, "In terms of our free agents we're going to address every player that's a free agent. As it relates to anyone in particular I'm not really going to address how our negotiations are going at this point. But it's important to get the guys that we're trying to get back, it's important to get those guys done certainly before the 8th, there's no doubt about it."
However, Ireland was willing to talk about some of the players themselves, if not the negotiations. Asked if there was a role for Bush with the team and if he could see Bush returning, Ireland responded, "Certainly would. You'd love to have his skill set on the football team, Reggie has a unique set of skill sets, he's been a receiver, a primary running back, I definitely see a role for that type of skill set. We'll just have to see how things go, we've got a few more days of talking to our own guys and we'll see how things go."
Turning the discussion to the player with, potentially, the largest hit against the salary cap if he is re-signed, Ireland explained of Long, "We've talked with Jake, we've talked with his representative as well, we've made our desire to have him back on this football team known, but that's a tricky one as I said at the senior bowl. There's a lot of things that you normally don't have in that particular case, some of the details I don't want to get into, but it's just a complicated negotiation. I'd love to have him back, he's been a pillar for our football team since the day he stepped on campus. [As for his]injury history, I don't want to say it's an issue, it's something we look at, obviously we have more intimate knowledge of his health than anybody else, so it's something we're aware of."
Ireland was also asked about Starks, backup quarterback Matt Moore, and Smith. About Starks, Ireland said, "It's very important to have Randy back if we can get it done. I'm not really worried about where we're playing Jared Odrick, the fact of the matter is we have a very good defensive line and keeping that intact is a focus of mine, it's a strength. To build a strength is a focus of mine, I don't want to let that strength become just average. I like where it's at and keeping it as a mainstay is important to me."
Ireland then spoke about Moore. "There's a lot of reasons why you want Matt back on the football team," Ireland stated. "Matt's been an outstanding teammate, a good mentor for Ryan Tannehill, it was excellent when Chad Henne and him were in the room last year, so there's a lot of things of why you would want him back on the football team.
"Like every free agent we've talked about, there's a process in place, they're all great character guys, and it's a business decision, we have some tough decisions to make. I wish I could have them all back. I'm gonna be disappointed and maybe possibly one of those guys will be disappointed when it doesn't get done."
Finally, about Smith, Ireland explained, "I think there's several players that are our current free agents that would be an option for the tag. I have not ruled out Sean as being an option there, but we've got several more days left before we have to make that decision. We have a pretty good idea where we're going with it, but things could change daily, hourly. Continuity at the CB position is always something you're looking for, and certainly Sean's an option, and if we do use the tag, it's for continuity reasons."
Ireland was then asked if the team has leverage in the negotiations with Smith. "We have two guys that were injured, one didn't finish the season and one we ended up playing, Dimitri Patterson," Ireland replied. "But Sean has started almost every single game he's been in since 2008, so having that continuity back with Sean is important. We'll have to see how that thing goes. I guess [I'm] optimistic, we had a meeting the other day and I left optimistic, but we still have a long way to go."
The magical March 9th date is just two weeks from tomorrow. Will the Dolphins get any of their players re-signed before then, or will they allow everyone to test the free agent market? Will the franchise tag be lowered on anyone? It's going to be a fun two weeks as we all get ready for the madness that is free agency.