Earlier this morning, we took a look at the curious case of defensive tackle Randy Starks, and the $6 million salary cap hit that could lead to the Miami Dolphins being forced to release the 11-year veteran. One additional variable in the decision-making process surrounding Starks could be fellow defensive tackle A.J. Francis, who is going into his third-year in the league.
Francis joined the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2013, coming out of Maryland. After an impressive training camp and preseason, he was among the last of the team's roster cuts as the NFL limit dropped to the in-season 53-man roster. The Dolphins and Francis appeared to have a practice squad deal in place, but he instead headed to the New England Patriots, who had claimed him off of waivers. A week later, the Patriots waived Francis, signing him back to their practice squad. Miami then poached him near the end of November, bringing Francis back to South Florida and onto a spot on the 53-man roster.
Francis continued to impress in the 2014 training camp and preseason, working his way into an apparent second-string position behind Starks and Jared Odrick, as well as getting work with the starters. He landed on injured reserve, however, as preseason came to a close, following a knee injury sustained in the team's preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Dolphins clearly think highly of Francis, and his training camp performances demonstrate a potential to become an impact player in the middle of the Miami defensive line. At 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, Francis is the biggest player on the Miami roster (trailing just Jason Fox, Ja'Wuan James, and Dion Jordan by one-inch in height) and could be exactly what the Dolphins need, replacing Paul Soliai (6-foot-4, 345) as a nose-tackle type of player.
Francis signed a one-year, $495,000 contract with the Dolphins last year. He is an exclusive rights free agent heading into this offseason, and, if the Dolphins really do think highly of him, they should submit a qualifying tender, ensuring he will be back in 2015. If they feel he is healthy, and is capable of filling a starting position on the team's defensive line, Francis could factor into the team's decision on Starks.
Francis is a player a lot of fans and a lot of coaches seem to like. Now it will be matter of the coaching staff and front office mapping out his future with the team, and seeing how that impacts other players, especially Starks.