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Miami Dolphins Free Agent Tight End Dustin Keller Will Be Ready for Next Season, Per Agent

Dustin Keller's agent has been spreading the word that the free agent tight end's rehab is progressing well enough for Keller to return to the NFL by the start of the 2014 season

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Brent Grimes was a high profile "low-risk, high reward" signing by former Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland last year. After suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in 2012 while playing under the Atlanta Falcons' franchise tag and then agreeing to a 1-year deal with the Dolphins in 2013, Grimes had a superb offseason that drew rave reviews from coaches, players, and beat reporters for his performances in practice. Grimes then more than met expectations during the 2013 regular season by earning a Pro Bowl selection and being ranked as the second best cornerback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Unsurprisingly, Grimes was recently rewarded with a 4-year deal from new Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey. However, Grimes was not the only 1-year signing with great potential last offseason.

Dustin Keller was a lower profile "low-risk, high reward" signing by Ireland. He was a former first round pick of the New York Jets in 2008, and from 2008 to 2011, he had 4 straight seasons of playing all 16 regular season games while averaging roughly 53 catches, 640 yards, and 4 touchdowns per season despite playing in a "ground-and-pound", run-heavy offense with Mark Sanchez as his quarterback. Keller had a down season in 2012 due to a combination of injuries limiting him to 8 games and increasingly erratic quarterback play, and unfortunately for Keller, that was his contract year. Thus, when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2013, he expected to get paid for his production from the first four seasons of his career, but teams were concerned about his durability and production in 2012.

Most NFL players are uncomfortable playing under the franchise tag because of the lack of long-term security of a 1-year deal. However, Keller turned down a lowball multi-year offer from the Dolphins last offseason because he was convinced that putting up big numbers in the Dolphins' pass heavy offense would allow him to land a big free agent deal in 2014. He instead chose to accept a 1-year deal, and he had a superb offseason that like Grimes drew rave reviews from coaches, players, and beat reporters for his performances in practice. Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald predicted that Keller, not Mike Wallace, would have the most production of any Dolphins pass catcher based on the chemistry he quickly developed with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Unfortunately, Keller was injured on a low hit to his right knee in a pre-season game against the Houston Texans. The injury was initially feared to be career ending, but it was later found that while Keller had torn 3 ligaments in his knee (ACL, PCL and MCL), he did not suffer nerve damage nor any cartilage damage. Ligaments can be surgically repaired and rehabbed, but nerve damage is more difficult to treat, so avoiding nerve damage greatly improved his odds of making a comeback.

Today, Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald reports

Agent Eugene Parker said tight end Dustin Keller will be ready to play next season after his horrific knee injury, but the Dolphins haven’t indicated if they’re interested in re-signing him.

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First, a note of caution. As Keller's agent, Parker has a huge incentive to project a lot of optimism. Even if Keller is doing spectacularly well in his rehab, he wouldn't be completely cleared to play without any restrictions for another few months. Adrian Peterson's miraculous comeback took around 9 months, and his knee had suffered less damage than Keller's. Meanwhile, it's only been 7 months since Keller's injury, so there's still a risk of a setback in his rehab. However, given that there were some concern that Keller's injury was career-ending, the fact that Keller's agent thinks a return this season is feasible is good news, even if it's too early to know for sure whether he'll be ready.

Second, it's not surprising that neither the Dolphins nor likely any other team has expressed high interest in signing Keller at this point given that he's still in the middle of his rehab and will be turning 30 years old this upcoming season. Teams looking to address the tight end position this offseason will first try to make a move in free agency targeting healthy players, and if that's unsuccessful, they will likely then try to address the need in the draft. Injured players often have to wait until after the draft for a needy-team with limited options at that point of the offseason to offer the player a short-term "prove-it" deal. However, given his history of production up until his injury-plagued past 2 years, and his draft pedigree as a former first round pick, Keller should be on an NFL roster in 2014 so long as his agent is correct about Keller being cleared to play football by the start of next season.

Keller would likely prefer to make his return to the NFL by joining a team where he could re-establish himself as a number 1 tight end, so the Dolphins are less likely to be an ideal spot for him given the breakout season Charles Clay had in 2013. However, if no team with a wide open competition for a starting tight end spot offers Keller a contract, Keller returning to the Dolphins on a cheap 1-year deal is very possible.