There is absolutely no doubt that one of the big reasons that the Miami Dolphins defense improved so much in 2010 was the play of the big man in the middle. When rookie defensive end Jared Odrick was lost for the season in September, the Dolphins were forced to move Randy Starks back to end, leaving no choice but to trust the middle of Miami's 3-4 defense to Paul Soliai.
Soliai was far from a sure thing. He had been relatively disappointing in his three previous seasons in the league, never quite developing like some thought he would. But Soliai stepped up his game in 2010, helping this defense rise from the 22nd ranked unit a year ago to the 6th ranked defense in the league. He was a dominant force in the middle of Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense, regularly eating up double teams and even finishing tied for 15th in the league in tackles for a loss. In fact, no nose tackle in the NFL had more tackles for a loss than Soliai's seven.
So it should be a no-brainer that the Dolphins would lock up this stud 27 year old nose tackle, right?
Well it hasn't happened yet and probably won't happen for some time. It seems like the Dolphins brass is a bit gun-shy of handing Soliai the kind of contract he's looking for. They do have a point, after all. Soliai was nothing more than a situational role player during his first three seasons. Then in a contract year, the big man kicks it into high gear and plays some ridiculously good football.
Who is to say Soliai's work ethic won't change once he gets his big pay day?
That's obviously a major factor holding the Dolphins back from giving Soliai the money he and his agent want. In his defense, though, the nose tackle position is the hardest position on the defensive side of the ball to learn. So it isn't a surprise that it took over three years for the light bulb to come on for him.
It's also the hardest position on the defense to fill. Quality nose tackles don't just fall from the sky. And that's why the Dolphins are taking a huge risk in letting Soliai test the open market.
On Armando Salguero's radio show, Soliai's agent David Canter made it very clear that somebody is going to give his client the money he wants and deserves.
"Let me tell you this and take it however way you want," Canter told Salguero, "If the Dolphins don't pay Paul Soliai, there will be plenty of other teams lining up to sign him as a free agent, I know that."
Canter did add that he has had talks with GM Jeff Ireland, who the agent was complimentary of, and even said the two plan to speak again at the Scouting Combine in a couple weeks.
But how much do the Dolphins have to pay Soliai?
Armando said that he's heard the Soliai camp looking for "$6 million per year average with (obviously) a large guaranteed bonus factoring into the math."
That doesn't necessarily seem outrageous to me when compared to some of the best nose tackles in the league. Vince Wilfork's deal pays him an average of $8 million a year. Casey Hampton gets roughly $7 million annually. Kris Jenkins averages a little over $6 million per year.
A good comparison to Soliai, though, is probably Dallas' Jay Ratliff, who also was a role player turned starter. He signed a 5 year, $20.9 million deal back in 2007. But if you were to prorate that deal and put it in terms of today's money, my best guess would be the deal would increase a couple million per year.
David Canter's point about somebody out there willing to pay his client should not be overlooked, either. He's absolutely right. A number of teams need a starting caliber nose tackle. And there are only three good options out there on the market - Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, and Soliai.
Some of the teams likely sniffing around these potential nose tackles probably include the Bills, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, and Redskins. You also have to assume that both the former teams of Rogers and Franklin (Cleveland and San Francisco respectively) will be in the market, too.
That's quite a few suitors. And all it takes is one team.
Here's to hoping the Dolphins know what they are doing.