Before I get into specifics, I just wanted to provide a brief note on free agency rules: The way free agency works is that NFL teams are currently allowed to negotiate with their own impending free agents, meaning players who spent the 2013 season on their roster who are set to hit free agency this offseason. At this point, it is against NFL rules for a team like the Dolphins to formally begin negotiating with agents of players who were not members of the Dolphins roster last year. Illegal "informal" negotiations often occur between teams and outside free agents during the ongoing NFL combine despite those rules because that's a natural meeting place for GMs and agents.
So most of the Dolphins free agency "leaks" between now and the start of "legal negotiating" with outside free agents on March 8 are likely going to involve current Dolphins players, not players from other teams. That does not mean the Dolphins have decided against targeting more outside free agents. It just means that negotiations are likely to go further with current Dolphins players who are about to hit free agency because those negotiations are the ones that are allowed within the rules.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here's what's been reported on key free agent Dolphin players so far.
Good news on Brent Grimes, for fans who like Brent Grimes (i.e., everybody who doesn't hate sunshine, puppies, and competent cornerbacks).
Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reports that cornerback is the Dolphins' top priority. In addition, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald talked to Brent Grimes himself today and tweeted this:
Brent grimes just said he is optimistic he will stay with dolphins but cannot be certain yet. Conversations continue— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) February 24, 2014
As has been reported by NFL Network's Ian Rappoport, the Dolphins are unlikely to franchise tag Grimes, and Grimes himself says that use of the tag hasn't come up in discussions yet. Grimes is likely the Dolphins' top priority.
Carroll improved in 2013 to the point that he was able to fill in competently as a #2 cornerback for several games due to Dimitri Patterson missing so much time in between interceptions due to injury. Carroll finished the year ranked as the 33rd best cornerback of 59 cornerbacks to play at least 60% of their team's snaps (starters). That was only one spot behind departed free agent cornerback Sean Smith of the Chiefs, which means Carroll was roughly average last year. Not elite like Grimes, but not terrible. While the Dolphins would like to keep Carroll, he's not going to be a high-priced priority like Grimes. Re-signing Carroll would improve CB depth and give the Dolphins even more leverage in trying to force Patterson to accept a paycut in the final year of his non-guaranteed contract. However, per Salguero, the Dolphins are open to looking for alternatives if Carroll's demands are too high.
It has long been speculated by fans on the Phinsider that of the 2 impending free agent defensive tackles, Paul Soliai will be the greater priority. That belief was due to Soliai's proven ability to play as a nose tackle in a 3-4 being crucial to giving the defense versatility in its alignments, and the fact that Jared Odrick's skillset allowed him to serve as a better potential replacement for Starks than for Soliai. Well, that speculation appears to be correct.
The Miami Herald reports that the Dolphins plan on making an offer to Soliai sometime within the next 2 weeks. A report written by Armando Salguero citing an "anonymous source" claims 5 teams have contacted Soliai informally at the combine to express interest, which puts pressure on the Dolphins to at least make an offer soon.
Of course, it's obvious to figure out who that source is. The only people in the world who would know if 5 outside teams had "illegally" contacted Soliai to express interest are Soliai and his agent because that's information teams would keep quiet.
In addition, the only people in the world who benefit from leaking that Soliai is a coveted free agent are Soliai and his agent because that information gives them leverage in negotiations with teams such as the Dolphins.
Therefore, it's very safe to assume that leak came from Soliai's agent. However, because of the rules against negotiations with outside free agents, everybody has to pretend the identity of that source isn't incredibly obvious because every team (including the Dolphins) violates those rules every year, and the NFL turns a blind eye so long as teams and agents do the bare minimum to "hide" what they're doing.
Starks was reportedly unhappy to play under the Dolphins franchise tag in 2013, and Jackson reports that the team has expressed interest in keeping Starks under a long-term deal. Unfortunately for Starks fans, the Dolphins at this point plan on letting Starks hit open free agency first to establish his market value before making their own bid to keep him. Starks market value is difficult to place because for the past 2 years, he's gotten off to incredibly productive or "hot" starts by making huge plays early in the year before "cooling off" in the second half of the season and becoming less of an impact player. That is a pattern that could make teams worry about Starks' age (turning 31 this upcoming season) and its possible effect on his ability to stay productive for a whole season in the future.
The Dolphins haven't ruled out making an offer before he hits open free agency, but for now, sources are telling the Miami Herald they plan on letting the market determine his price. That strategy increases the risk of Starks leaving if at least 1 other team can be convinced to outbid the Dolphins, and there are a lot of teams that could use a versatile interior defensive lineman who has made Pro Bowls at 2 different positions in his career - 3-4 DE and 4-3 DT. However, he could be back at a reasonable price if no teams make him a huge offer.
Despite rules against negotiating with outside free agents, it's being reported that the Miami Dolphins are looking at Chiefs LT Branden Albert as a top free agent target. As I wrote recently in my article about why to be optimistic about the 2014 offensive line, there are a number of good free agent offensive tackles this year whose teams are going to struggle to keep due to limited salary cap space. Having just franchise-tagged Albert last year before drafting Eric Fisher number 1 overall in 2013, the Chiefs are unlikely to either tag Albert a second time or give Albert the big free agent deal he seeks. Therefore, the Dolphins as well as the Arizona Cardinals were reported by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport as two teams that have made Albert a free agent priority. The Cardinals have roughly half as much cap room as the Dolphins, so the Dolphins likely could outbid the Cardinals if the Dolphins' front office valued Albert highly enough.
The successes and failures in free agency will go a long way in shaping the Dolphins' draft day goals. For example, successfully signing Albert drops offensive tackle as a need, while losing both Soliai and Starks would dramatically increase DT as a need. Rather than rely on intentionally vague answers in press conferences, fans will be able to get a sense of Dolphin GM Hickey's priorities in the next coming weeks by observing what deals are made between now and the draft.