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The Miami Dolphins have a tough decision to make with impending free agent Olivier Vernon

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Miami Dolphins Oliver Vernon is entering the prime of his career at just 26-years-old. The bad news is that he is an impending free agent and will command a lot of money on the open market. Should the Miami Dolphins negotiate with him on a long-term deal, apply the franchise tag or let him walk? There are numerous implications for each of them and the Dolphins are currently struggling with their final decision.

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The Miami Dolphins have a tough decision to make with impending free agent Olivier Vernon. The 26-year-old defensive end was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft after spending his high school and college career in South Florida. As we headed into that draft, NFL.com listed his scouting report along with several strengths and weaknesses.

Vernon is a strong and powerful athlete who gets good leverage to set the edge. He is solid against the run and can play from different alignments. He also is a very competitive player who is capable of working sideline to sideline.

Vernon is limited simply by his inexperience. Hasn't had many opportunities to cover in man and really struggled the few times he was asked to cover faster players.

This report was based off a projection that he would be best suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. However, the Dolphins drafted him to be in a 4-3 scheme and kept him at defensive end. After he was drafted, Mike Mayock wasn't afraid to show his excitement for the kind of player that Vernon could develop into.

"Out of all the underclassmen that came out this year, and I didn't think many should have, Vernon is one that I banged the table for. He's a solid 4-3 defensive end who can get edge pressure on the quarterback."

Fast forward four years and 29 sacks later and Vernon is still a work in progress. One of his biggest weaknesses is that he struggles setting the edge and stopping the run. To be fair though, he has improved each year in that area and can be considered above-average when it comes to that skill-set. Then, there are his dumb and untimely penalties from time to time and you start to wonder just how much he is worth. Yes, he always seems to be near the quarterback and gets a lot of pressure, but sometimes is just a half-step too late.

Nonetheless, his impact is still felt even when he doesn't sack the quarterback. Indeed, one of his biggest traits is the fact that he's so versatile. Earlier this season, former head coach Joe Philbin said that Vernon can do almost anything that is asked of him.

"Well you've seen him. He can put his hand on the ground and he can function. You can put him in a two-point stance and he can function. Then as he grows as a player you can maybe move him around to a couple different spots and that creates what we call targeting issues for the offense and identification issues."

Because of his skill-set and ability to rush the passer, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported that Vernon and his agent, David Canter, are looking for a yearly salary in the range of $15 million dollars per year, which is also the price of the franchise tag for a defensive end.

Over the past three years, he has 25.5 sacks, which is an average of 8.5 per season. This past season, he had 61 tackles and 7.5 sacks. However, despite what that says, he had a tremendous campaign in the last year of his rookie contract. In fact, he graded out as the number one ranked 4-3 defensive end by Pro Football Focus.

Do you see why the Dolphins are struggling with this decision? So, the question becomes whether or not the Dolphins should negotiate with Vernon on a long-term deal, slap the franchise tag on him or let him walk. Believe it or not, the Dolphins decision-makers are debating that very thing and no, they haven't made any type of final decision. Yesterday was the first day that teams could apply the franchise or transition tag but in all reality, any tags would come just prior to the deadline on March 1 at 4 PM EST. That is because a lot of negotiations take place at the NFL Combine, which kicks off late next week.

If the Dolphins tag Vernon, the two sides will have until July 15 to sign a long-term contract. If they don't, Vernon will make approximately $15.5 million dollars in 2016 on a one-year deal. Then, it's back to the drawing board after the season. The circumstances behind applying the franchise tag can have various implications.

ESPN reports that only half of the 38 players tagged since 2012 have signed long-term deals by the July 15 deadline. The other half, of course, played out the season under the tag, which many of them were unhappy with. The reason for that is because the franchise tag is a one-year deal with no long-term security. If a player suffers a season-ending or even worse, a career-ending injury, they will see their future money instantly vanish.

ESPN also reports that setting aside quarterbacks, more offensive linemen have been tagged than any other position. Of the 29 offensive linemen tagged since 1993, 23 of them were tackles. The next position is defensive end, specifically pass-rushers, at 25 players.

So, the chances that Miami tags Vernon are pretty good, right? Don't be so sure. I have been told by two different sources that the Dolphins are looking to target a defensive lineman in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. Of course, that will depend on how free agency plays out but the current plan for Miami is to target at least two cornerbacks and one linebacker next month when the new league year begins. While a decision would need to be made on Vernon before then, the Dolphins will have a much better idea of where they stand with impending free agents as well as Vernon once the NFL Combine has concluded next weekend. Yes, the Combine is the unofficial start to the illegal tampering period, which runs rampant throughout the league.

Keep this in mind as well - if the Dolphins do decide to pay Vernon or even apply the franchise tag, they will have a ton of money invested in the defensive line with big contracts being given out to Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Even if they re-structure Wake and Suh this season, they are just simply kicking the can down the road and it will catch up with them. Will they be able to fill other positions while paying that much money to just three players up front? That is something that will have to be considered as well.

It's all a fluid situation but we should know much more when the entire NFL world invades Indianapolis and a lot of behind the scenes work is done. Stay tuned, because the information will come fast and things could happen quickly, especially as deadlines get closer.

This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter!