In less than one week, the NFL will begin the 2016 league year and with that, free agency will begin. Of course, some can argue that free agency has already begun behind the scenes, dating back to the days spent at the NFL Combine where NFL teams and agents alike gauge the market for the various players set to reach this period in their career. For some players, they will cash in and secure their financial future (if they invest it the right way). For others, they will struggle to find work and settle for a lesser contract. Then, there are those who aren't signed and see their NFL career come to an end.
For this column, I'll bring you behind the scenes and make you aware of the chatter that is surrounding the front part of the defense in relation to the Miami Dolphins. What are their plans? Who would they like to bring in? Will they try to keep their own players? Let's dive in.
The Dolphins laid the transition tag on Olivier Vernon at $12.7 million, thus setting their price range for him. At this point, I do not expect Vernon back in Miami because there is a team that is out there that will offer him several more million dollars. Some names that come to mind are the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders. It would be a surprise if he stays in the place where he grew up but stranger things have happened.
Thus, the Dolphins must look elsewhere. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that Mario Williams was visiting Miami this weekend. I can tell you that the team has real interest in him. However, Williams is expected to visit a few more teams and a deal this weekend seems unlikely. Besides Williams, Miami is also interested in William Hayes of the Los Angeles Rams. Hayes is good against the run but he turns 31 in May so he won't be a long-term solution. However, there is mutual interest here and one of the top targets for the Dolphins to bring in. This has been reported by various sources, including several beat reporters that cover the Dolphins on a daily basis.
Besides those two, the Dolphins were also looking at bringing in Bruce Irvin of the Seattle Seahawks. While he played linebacker in Seattle, Miami would like to move him to defensive end, which he played in college. Irvin was a first-round pick several years ago and is a good player, but is inconsistent. Expect a bidding war for his services, with the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars as the main competition for Miami. I anticipate Miami dropping out of this race if the money gets too high, thus making Irvin an unlikely catch.
If Williams and the Dolphins agree to some sort of contract this weekend, they can rescind the transition tag. Some behind the scenes believe this move is to send a message to both Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, with more signals being sent to Vernon and his camp. This isn't new in the NFL as many teams do it but I don't think this will make Vernon think twice. He and his agent, David Canter, know what the market is for his services right now and he should do well in free agency.
In regards to defensive tackle, the Dolphins would like to move on from Earl Mitchell and there are questions internally about Jordan Phillips and whether or not he can make the leap in year two. Expect the Dolphins to explore the market at this position as there is some good value, although I have not heard of any specific plans as to who they may target.
To recap, the Dolphins have transitioned Vernon and have no problem keeping him if the price is right. The others they are interested in is Williams, Hayes and Irvin. After that, it becomes much muddier and I don't have any information on other guys that are out there. With that said, I was told there is a surprise name that the team could be interested in.
The Dolphins just re-structured the contract of Koa Misi and he is expected to be in their plans moving forward. The linebacker situation is a bit easier to sort out with the Dolphins going after Tahir Whitehead of the Detroit Lions, Vincent Rey of the Cincinnati Bengals and Danny Trevathan of the Denver Broncos.
The plan right now for Miami is to make Whitehead their number one target and then possibly move him inside. Whitehead is 25-years-old and started eight games in 2015. Not coincidentally, when the Lions made him a starter the second half of the season, their defense significantly improved. He is solid in coverage and very good against the run, making him a good fit in the Dolphins defense.
Trevathan is more of a question mark as he has been stuck behind Von Miller and Brandon Marshall in Denver's 3-4 defense. That's where more questions come in - can he make the transition to the 4-3 and still be as effective? He hasn't played three downs in Denver because of the superstars in front of him so that's another question that the Dolphins and other teams will have to figure out. Because no one really knows the answer to these questions, he will be getting paid based on his potential. The market is expected to be crowded for his services, thus probably kicking Miami out of the picture.
Rey is the one that is considered almost a lock to make it down to Miami. However, the Dolphins see him more as a rotational piece as someone who can come in and compete for the starting job at all three linebacker positions. He struggled last year at the outside linebacker position but there is great familiarity with him and the Dolphins coaching staff. His linebackers coach in Cincinnati, Matt Burke, holds the same position in Miami and Vance Joseph, the secondary coach in Cincinnati, is now the defensive coordinator. Expect this move to happen, unless he finds a better offer and opportunity to start elsewhere.
To recap the linebacker position, the Dolphins have Jelani Jenkins penciled in as one of the starters. Misi will be there to compete for a starting position and can provide valuable depth at all three spots. Neville Hewitt, the undrafted free agent who made some noise in 2015, will also compete for a starting job. Let it be known that Miami likes his potential. To round out the linebacker corps, the Dolphins will go hard after Whitehead to move him inside. They will also look at Trevathan if the price is right and they can't get Whitehead. Rey will likely come in to compete for a starting spot and provide depth at all three positions if he doesn't win the starting job.
Overall, there is a lot of work to be done for Miami, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They have holes all over the place and they will begin to aggressively attack these missing pieces once free agency opens. In the next column, I will look at the cornerback and safety position as there are questions about those positions and specific plans the team has to address it. For those asking about the draft, it is much too early as free agency will dictate the direction once all the smoke has cleared.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter! Follow @FinsInsider