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Dolphins free agent decisions may pit Lamar Miller versus Olivier Vernon

The Miami Dolphins should want to keep both running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Olivier Vernon from hitting the free agent market next month. The problem is, they may only be able to pick one.

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The Miami Dolphins have a lot of decisions to make between now and the 2016 season's kickoff in September. Two of the biggest determinations the team needs to make is what they are going to do with the impending free agency of running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Olivier Vernon. Both players hold key positions with the team and are entering their prime. Both players could command millions of dollars in the next contracts, and that is money Miami may not have.

The team can make around $40 million in salary cap space this offseason, but that also comes with money needing to be used on upgrading the linebacker positions, the cornerback group, the offensive line, and find some other individual starters. The Dolphins will have plenty of salary cap space once they re-work or release some contracts, but that money has to be properly used to make sure the team is putting a competitive product on the field in 2016.

Which means, the front office may have to choose between their starting running back and their starting right defensive end. Heading toward free agency, this could become Lamar Miller versus Olivier Vernon.

Miller, who will turn 26 in April, has run for 2,930 yards in his four-year career with the Dolphins, with 19 touchdowns and a 4.6 yards-per-carry average. He also has 887 career receiving yards with three touchdowns. He only ran for 872 yards last year, but the team also limited him to an average of 12 carries-per-game, down six carries-per-game from his 2014 performance, when he ran for 1,099 yards.  The Dolphins chose to limit Miller's carries in 2015, a season in which the coaches abandoned the run in the second half of most games. That limitation could lead Miller, who is seen as one of the top free agents this offseason, to decide he wants to try his game somewhere else in 2016.

Miller is not the only "top free agent" Miami has hitting the market, however, as Vernon is expected to draw a lot of interest, and could be seeking a huge new contract in free agency. The defensive end will turn 26 during the season, joining the Dolphins as the team's third-round draft choice in 2012, one round earlier than Miami picked Miller. In his first four seasons, Vernon has recorded 29 sacks and 189 tackles. After a slow start for the entire defense in 2015, Vernon recorded 7.5 sacks during the year, stepping up to become the main pass rush threat after the loss of Cameron Wake to an Achilles tear.

Vernon, like Miller, is entering his prime and he is going to have suitors if he hits the open market. Miller could ask for somewhere around $5 million per year, while Vernon's deal could move into the $10 million a year range, if not more.

According to a report from the Miami Herald's Adam Beasley on Monday, the Dolphins are "more bullish on Miller" than they are on trying to re-sign Vernon. Beasley continues, writing, "One source tells the Herald that the organization 'definitely' wants Miller back in 2016."

Does that mean the Dolphins will not make a play for both players? Of course not, but it does seem that the team is looking at Miller as their top priority in re-signings this offseason. The Dolphins could also consider re-signing Miller and, potentially, using the franchise tag on Vernon. The value of the defensive end franchise tag is likely to exceed $15 million this year, which would be tough for Miami to fit into their salary cap, but if a bidding war breaks out on Vernon, his $10 million-a-season value could quickly move into the $12-, $13-, or even $15-million-a-year range anyway. Placing the tag on Vernon, then trying to workout a long-term deal throughout the spring and into the summer could make sense for Miami.

There are options for the Dolphins to bring back both of their major free-agents-to-be, but the money may not allow it to happen. It sounds like the Dolphins are leaning toward Miller, but would like to bring back both players. Otherwise, the Miller versus Vernon offseason could become a reality.