Miami Dolphins Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors
Same problems, different year.
The Miami Dolphins just completed another disappointing season, leaving its fanbase frustrated and frazzled. And, yet again, the Dolphins are under the direction of a new head coach searching for a franchise quarterback.
Is it just me, or does this feel like Groundhog Day?
Nevertheless, with another offseason comes hope that the Dolphins will finally install all of the right pieces and propel themselves into contention.
Tracking Free-Agent Signings, Re-Signings and Roster Moves
Initially, I was completely puzzled by this trade. But, in light of Marshall's most recent run-in with the law, and the cap space freed up by his departure, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to protest. Marshall was a headache off the field and dropped 12 passes last season. Now, the 'Fins can allocate his money to filling out the roster with a slew of quality free agents.
Mar. 13, 2012: Finally some non-Peyton Manning related news out of Miami.
The team announced today that they will not tender Lex Hilliard, so he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Meanwhile, the 'Fins also announced the retainment of Lydon Murtha, Phillip Merling, Austin Spitler and Jeron Mastrud.
Feb. 16, 2012: The Miami Dolphins signed Quinten Lawrence, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs. Lawrence was drafted as a wide receiver in 2009, but transitioned to cornerback. The 6'1", 175-pound defensive back has an unflattering resume and doesn't project as anything more than a camp body.
Lawrence spent most of the last two years on Kansas City's practice squad and has registered just three tackles for his entire career.
Feb. 15, 2012: The Miami Dolphins signed Jerome Messam, formerly of the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. Messam, who boasts a massive 6'3", 245-pound frame, last season became the first CFL player to rush for over 1,000 yards since 2000. He also earned most outstanding player of the year honors.
This signing has made national headlines, but let's tame our expectations. Messam certainly has the physical tools to thrive in the NFL, but he'll probably just inherit Lex Hilliard's short-yardage and blocking responsibilities.
Salary Cap Status
UPDATE: After tendering four players, the Dolphins are left with $9.8 million in cap space, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel.
Dolphins' 2012 Cap Room
According to information obtained by the Palm Beach Post, the Dolphins currently have $111,836,173 worth of contracts that will count against the 2012 NFL salary cap. Inflation and revenue increases generally bump that up a few million dollars. Assuming it increases by, say, $5 million (to $124 million), then Miami should have roughly $16 million to spend this offseason.
That might sound like a great deal of cap space, but it's not. After the Dolphins re-sign their own free agents and sign a quarterback (likely Manning or Flynn), that number will dwindle. There should still be room for a few other free agent signings, though.
Problematic Cap Hits
One of the only contracts that really sticks out is Yeremiah Bell's. Even though he is a team captain and a Pro Bowler, he is overpaid. Bell might be a tackling machine, but he isn't particularly dynamic in coverage—and the Dolphins can't pay $4.3 million to such a one-dimensional player.
Tony McDaniel is another player whose contract outweighs his production. Miami gave McDaniel a two-year, $6 million deal last summer, but he wasn't particularly productive. McDaniel is entering the final season of his contract, but he might have to restructure it.
Brandon Marshall, Karlos Dansby and Jake Long all have obscene cap hits, but unless any of them are willing to restructure their deals, don't expect any movement.
Bar none, Miami's best value contract is Cameron Wake. The 30-year-old sack artist has already established himself as one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the NFL, yet is slated to rake in only $815,000 next season.
Sean Smith's $565,500 salary is very cap-friendly as well.
Breaking Down Last Year's Holes
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Midway through the 2011 season, the Dolphins were an abomination. They were flat-out embarrassing to watch. But, Matt Moore and Reggie Bush led a resurgence after Week 8, salvaging some pride from a disastrous season.
Offensively, the 'Fins finished 22nd in yards per game and 20th in points per game—bad, but not abhorrent. Defensively, they ranked 15th in yards per game and 27th in points per game.
Matt Moore exceeded everybody's expectations in 2011, but he simply lacks the physical traits of a franchise quarterback. He doesn't have a particularly strong arm and started to commit turnovers at an alarming rate toward the end of the season.
The Dolphins have made their intentions to pursue a quarterback in free agency abundantly clear. Stephen Ross is infatuated with Peyton Manning, but Matt Flynn should be considered the early front-runner. He has a long-standing relationship with Joe Philbin and already knows the offense that Miami will run.
The Saints have Jimmy Graham, the 49ers have Vernon Davis, the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Texans have Owen Daniels, the Packers have Jermichael Finley. All but two of the NFL's playoff teams feature a seam-threat tight end on their rosters.
Will Jeff Ireland ever get a clue? Anthony Fasano doesn't measure up to any of the aforementioned players, and Miami needs to invest in a tight end. Plain and simple.
Right Guard/Right Tackle
Vernon Carey and Marc Colombo are both slated for free agency this offseason, which leaves the Dolphins with holes at right guard and right tackle. Upgrading the offensive line is a top priority, especially after it yielded 52 sacks last season—third most in the NFL.
Regardless of whom they sign to replace Carey and Colombo, the Dolphins can't afford to whiff. The offensive line has been a liability for eons, and no quarterback will be able to succeed without a fortified front.
Cam Wake is the only pure pass-rusher on the roster, so Miami desperately needs to add another one. Whether the team switches to a 4-3 or retains their 3-4 hybrid, adding a second pass-rusher will be a top priority.
In all likelihood, the Dolphins will use one of their first two draft picks on a defense end/outside linebacker.
Behind Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, the Dolphins' cornerback corps is quite shoddy. Will Allen is slated for free agency, and Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson are too unproven to play significant roles.
Miami has to add at least one quality corner this offseason. Teams around the league are becoming more and more pass-happy, and the Dolphins must bolster their secondary in order to keep up with these evolving offenses.
Free safety was widely acknowledged as a need for the Dolphins last summer, but the team chose to neglect it. There were more pressing needs at the time, namely center and running back, and Chris Clemons figured to improve in his second season as a starter.
However, injuries derailed Clemons' season, and his replacement, Reshad Jones, played miserably throughout much of the season.
Listing the Dolphins' 2012 Free Agents and Restricted Free Agents
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Here is Spotrac's list of Miami's unrestricted free agents. These players will be free to negotiate with other NFL teams unless the Dolphins agree to new contracts with them before March 4th (first day of free agency).
DE Ikaika Alama-Francis
CB Will Allen
OT/OG Vernon Carey
RB Steve Slaton
QB Chad Henne
DE Kendall Langford
QB J.P. Losman
LB Marvin Mitchell
NT Paul Soliai
The following players are restricted free agents this summer. Essentially, the Dolphins can offer these players a one-year tender, but other teams are still allowed to pursue them. Those other teams can offer an RFA more money than his tender pays.
Miami is allotted time to match the other team's offer, but if it chooses not to, then it will receive draft picks in exchange for the player. The Dolphins can also try to negotiate a long-term deal with their RFAs.
RB Lex Hilliard (Not offered a tender. Will become a free agent.)
TE Jeron Mastrud (Retained)
DE Phillip Merling (Retained)
OT Lyndon Murtha (Retained)
Determining Contract Value and Worth for Every Miami Free Agent
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Save Paul Soliai, there aren't many big names slated for free agency in March. Instead, Miami's free agents are mostly role players. This is both a blessing and a curse for the 'Fins.
While they won't suffer any earth-shattering losses, they also must find a way to replace the players who do the little things and the dirty work, which isn't always as easy as it sounds.
Ikaika Alama-Francis: $720,000 (Estimated)
There's no reason to believe Alama-Francis will receive a pay raise after his uneventful 2011 season. Despite Koa Misi's struggles, Alama-Francis was only active for five games and registered one measly tackle. Alama-Francis raked in $640,000 last season, but that number will increase as a result of the new CBA and its elevated veteran minimums.
Will Allen: $1 million (Estimated)
Somehow, Will Allen keeps finding ways to stay valuable. Despite missing almost two full seasons with lower-body injuries, the soon-to-be 34-year-old cornerback played a big role for Miami's defense last season. He ended the season as the team's starting nickelback, and his veteran savvy should help catalyze the growth of the Dolphins' young secondary.
Vernon Carey: $2 million (Estimated)
Carey took a paycut to stay with the team last year, but he now has a chance to hit the open market and field other offers. The 30-year-old offensive lineman made $2.5 million last season, but that number probably won't increase after an inconsistent and unspectacular year.
Steve Slaton: $685,000 (Estimated)
In the final year of his rookie contract, Steve Slaton raked in over $720,000. That number is guaranteed to go down. Slaton hasn't been relevant or productive since 2008, and did little to re-establish himself with the Dolphins last season. If anybody offers him a contract, it'll be for the veteran minimum.
Chad Henne: $750,000 (Estimated)
At this point, it's safe to call Chad Henne a bust. But, he could still make for an excellent backup quarterback, and that should keep value at its status quo. Henne made $771,500 in 2011—the final year of his rookie contract. He clearly doesn't deserve a pay raise, but his half-decent play at the start of the season should prevent him from receiving a reduced paycheck.
Kendall Langford: $3.5 million (Estimated)
Kendall Langford isn't flashy. In fact, few people outside of Miami probably know who he is. But, he has been one of the Dolphins' most reliable and consistent players since the team drafted him four years ago. Langford made $1.6 million in the final year of his rookie deal, but he is definitely due for a promotion.
J.P. Losman: $810,000 (Estimated)
Losman will be lucky to play in the NFL next season. He threw only 10 passes last season and did nothing to warrant a contract extension or pay raise. Like Slaton, if anyone offers Losman a contract, it'll be for the veteran's minimum.
Marvin Mitchell: $1.4 million (Estimated)
The Dolphins signed Mitchell to a $1 million contract midway through the preseason last year. He racked up 30 tackles and made an impact on special teams and defense. Mitchell deserve a slight salary bump, but not a drastic one—he still has plenty to prove.
Paul Soliai: $8 million (Estimated)
Last summer, the Dolphins slapped the franchise tag on nose tackle Paul Soliai. He raked in over $12 million. Now, Soliai is due for another hefty payday, this time in the form of a long-term deal. Massive nose tackles like Soliai are nearly impossible to find, so his value could be inflated. There should be at least one team out there willing to give Big Paul some big money.
Lex Hilliard: $750,000 (Estimated)
Lex Hilliard has enjoyed several impressive preseason performances and even a few solid regular-season outings. However, he seems to have reached his potential. Hilliard's rookie deal has expired, and his mediocre resume doesn't warrant a lucrative deal.
Jeron Mastrud: $525,000 (Estimated)
Mastrud has caught one pass in two NFL seasons. If he is offered a contract next season, it'll be for the veteran's minimum.
Phillip Merling: $1 million (Estimated)
The former 33rd overall draft pick has been a monumental disappointment both on and off the field. Merling made $2.3 million last season, but his unproductive play suggests that his cap hit will diminish next year.
Lydon Murtha: $800,000 (Estimated)
Murtha missed all of last season with a toe injury, but should still be due for a pay raise this summer. He impressed during the 2011 preseason and definitely deserves more than his $480,000 contract from last year.
Projecting Which Free Agents Will Be Re-Signed and the Contracts They'll Get
The NFL draft has already engulfed Miami's attention, but Jeff Ireland and Joe Philbin have plenty of work to do before April 26th. Miami must decide which of its own free agents to retain, and which to let walk.
Ike Alama-Francis: Re-signed
Alama-Francis was relegated to special teams duty for most of the last season, but he still has upside. He just turned 27 and nearly earned a starting job with the 'Fins two years ago. The Dolphins' pass rush needs all of the help it can get, and Alama-Francis can, at the very least, help solidify the backend of the depth chart. Alama-Francis needs to start showing that he is capable of becoming a difference-maker before he garners a long-term deal, though.
Projected contract: one year, $720,000
Will Allen: Re-signed
Allen is about to turn 34, but age is just a number, right? He ended last season as Miami's starting nickelback—a very impressive feat for an aging cornerback. Allen will come at a very low price, and the Dolphins can only benefit from keeping a veteran around their young secondary.
Projected contract: one year, $1 million
Vernon Carey: Released
When the Dolphins moved Vernon Carey from tackle to guard last summer, it seemed like a strange, abrupt decision. But Carey's inconsistent play throughout the year justified the team's decision. Carey is about to turn 31, and unless he's willing to take a severe pay cut to stay in his hometown, then he'll have to find a new employer.
Steve Slaton: Released
At the ripe age of 26, maybe Steve Slaton still has time to resurrect his career. It just won't happen in Miami. Slaton appeared in just three games for the 'Fins, but was mostly ineffective. Even a decent Week 17 performance won't help his quest for a new contract.
Chad Henne: Released
If the Dolphins re-signed Chad Henne, the fanbase might literally revolt. There are literally no scenarios in which Miami re-signs Henne.
Kendall Langford: Released
It always hurts to see homegrown players bolt for greener pastures, but the Dolphins probably won't be willing to pay Langford the money he desires. Langford has been so consistent and so reliable, but he has never been outstanding. Hence, the 'Fins should be able to replace him with relative ease.
J.P. Losman: Released
Losman will be lucky to play in the NFL next season. Either way, he won't be playing for the Dolphins. Miami added him as an insurance policy midway through the season, and Losman made only one appearance.
Marvin Mitchell: Re-signed
Mitchell specialized as a special teams ace last season, but he also saw quite a few reps at linebacker toward the end of the season. It seemed like Mitchell always made plays when he was on the field, and at age 27, might be coming into his own. Mitchell's potential and coverage skills should persuade the 'Fins to give him a new contract.
Projected contract: three years, $4.2 million
Paul Soliai: Released
If the Dolphins want to add a quarterback and fill out the rest of their roster with solid free agents, then they won't be able to re-sign stud nose tackle Paul Soliai. It looks like both parties have already accepted that Big Paul will depart.
Lex Hilliard: Released
Update: It's official, Hilliard is a goner.
Hilliard might be the most resilient player on Miami's roster. Drafted in the sixth round of the '08 draft, Hilliard has managed to carve out niches for himself every year. Whether it be on special teams or short-yardage running situations, he always delivers. But, he's about to turn 28 and doesn't have much room for growth. Jerome Messam might be Hilliard's replacement.
Jeron Mastrud: Released
Mastrud is just one of the many run-of-the-mill tight ends Miami has employed over the last few years. The team has to—and probably will—bring in a legitimate tight end this offseason, and there might not be room for a player who caught one pass in two seasons.
Phillip Merling: Released
Year after year, we waited for Phillip Merling to break through and become the dynamic defensive end the Dolphins thought they drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft. It never happened. Merling struggled mightily on and off the field, and his days in Miami are likely over.
Lydon Murtha: Re-signed
A few days ago, new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman alluded to "hidden talent" on Miami's offensive line. In all likelihood, he was talking about Murtha.
The third-year offensive tackle looked very impressive in the preseason, and had he not been sidelined by a toe injury all season, he could've challenged Marc Colombo for the starting right tackle job. Murtha has far too much potential for the Dolphins to let him go. He should compete for the starting right tackle spot next year.
Projected contract: three years, $2.4 million
Projecting the Dolphins' Cap Space After the Re-Signing Period
Assuming the 2012 cap number settles somewhere around $125 million, the Dolphins should enter free agency with roughly $12 million to spend. Miami has committed about $4 million to Ike Alama-Francis, Will Allen, Marvin Mitchell and Lydon Murtha.
This leaves the Dolphins with little flexibility.
They still have room to lure in a quarterback like Matt Flynn and Peyton Manning, but they must be very shrewd with the rest of their free-agent acquisitions.
Biggest Needs After Re-Signings
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Nothing changes here. Henne and Losman are gone, and the Dolphins will engage in pursuit of Manning and Flynn.
Jeron Mastrud's departure will prove largely inconsequential to Miami's offense. The Dolphins still have to find a seam-threat tight end that can provide an upgrade from Anthony Fasano.
Right Guard/Right Tackle
With Vernon Carey on the outs, the Dolphins have to find a starting-caliber offensive lineman in the draft or via free agency. Lydon Murtha warrants consideration for the starting right tackle job, but Miami can't commit to such an inexperienced and unproven player. The Dolphins might have to acquire a right tackle and a right guard this offseason.
Pass Rusher (Defensive End/Outside Linebacker)
Like quarterback, nothing changes here. Acquiring a pass-rusher will be one of the Dolphins' top priorities in the draft (there are not many realistic options in free agency).
Re-signing Will Allen provides some insurance in case the Dolphins can't acquire another quality cornerback. But, rest assured, they're still going to look for one. Miami's best bet is to hunt for an under-the-radar veteran who won't break the bank.
Neither Chris Clemons nor Reshad Jones appear capable of starting here, so the Dolphins have to find another solution.
Identifying Potential Free Agents the Dolphins Could Sign
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Go here for an updated and in-depth look at which free agents the Dolphins should pursue.
It's a two-horse race: Matt Flynn vs. Peyton Manning. Both come with a great deal of promise and caveats, but both come from opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum. Flynn's familiarity with Joe Philbin should make him the front-runner, but he is still largely unproven. Meanwhile, Manning is a megastar who will sell out the stadium and make the 'Fins a contender, but concerns about his neck, age and flexibility are disheartening.
Don't sleep on players like Jason Campbell and Kyle Orton, either.
Now that Brandon Marshall is out of the picture, wide receiver becomes a huge need for the Dolphins. According to Omar Kelly, the 'Fins are pursuing former Cowboy Laurent Robinson to help fill the void. Expect the team to target another wide receiver in free agency or early in the draft.
Jermichael's Finley price tag eliminates him from contention. Instead, there are two low-risk, high-reward tight ends for Miami to target: John Carlson and Martellus Bennett. The Dolphins could address this position in the draft, but they need an upgrade now—waiting for a youngster to develop is an unfavorable option.
There's an abundance of big-name offensive guards slated for free agency this year, but Miami's limited cap space will force them to target an unknown.
Two names to consider: Jake Scott and Dan Connolly. Both are rock-solid linemen who would immediately bolster Miami's line. It's tough to gauge their price tags, but if neither are ludicrous, then both should be on the Dolphins' radar.
The Dolphins will probably draft an offensive tackle in the first or second round of the draft, but there is a chance they opt to address it in free agency. Miami could look for a short-term solution like Kareem McKenzie or Jeff Backus, or could roll the dice on an injury-prone player like Jared Gaither.
Recently released Eric Winston and Packers veteran Chad Clifton are also likely to draw interest from the Dolphins.
Pass-Rusher (Defensive End/Outside Linebacker)
This is another position the Dolphins will probably address within the first two rounds of the draft. The crop of pass-rushers in this year's free-agency class is underwhelming. Miami could gamble on players like Manny Lawson, Erik Walden or Aaron Maybin, but it's highly unlikely.
With Vontae Davis and Sean Smith in the fold, the Dolphins won't be looking for a big-name cornerback. Instead, they will probably target a player who can play nickelback and help bolster the league's 25th-ranked pass defense. Jarrett Bush, Terence Newman and Greg Toler are two names worth monitoring.
For some reason, the Dolphins can't seem to solve their free safety woes. Gibril Wilson was a monumental bust, Chris Clemons inexplicably disappeared, and Reshad Jones played poorly in the role last year. There aren't any standout safeties in this year's draft class and the Dolphins don't have the resources to sign a prestigious free agent.
Instead, the 'Fins should target a modestly priced, undervalued veteran like Reggie Nelson, who thrived under Kevin Coyle's watch last season.
Projecting Contract Values for Dolphins' Free-Agent Targets
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Over the next few weeks, we'll hear countless rumors about players interested in the Miami Dolphins and vice versa. But, here are the select free agents that should be the team's ultimate targets in free agency.
QB Matt Flynn
If Peyton Manning is open to playing for the Dolphins, then it'll be nearly impossible for the Dolphins to resist. But, the most likely and sensible scenario is for Miami to sign Matt Flynn.
Anyway, there are two historical examples we can use to gauge how much Flynn will cost: Matt Schaub and Kevin Kolb. Neither had substantial NFL experience, yet Schaub received a six-year, $48 million deal from Houston and Kolb received a five-year, $63 million deal from Arizona. Kolb's disappointing season might help lower Flynn's price tag.
Projected contract: six years, $55 million
TE Martellus Bennett
Ex-Cowboys are always candidates to sign with the Dolphins. Even though Dallas drafted Bennett after Ireland departed for Miami, the GM must still maintain close ties within organization.
Bennett never found a role in the Cowboys' offense, but he is an athletic freak who might only need a change of scenery to break through. (I've been calling for the Dolphins to go after Bennett since last year, and he's a perfect target. Come on, Jeff Ireland. Give Bennett the second chance he needs)
Projected contract: three years, $8 million
RG Jake Scott
Scott would be an ideal acquisition for this cash-strapped team. He's a proven starter and won't break the bank. The Titans will probably try to re-sign Scott, who has been durable and reliable for the entirety of his eight-year career, but if he makes it into free agency, then the Dolphins should bid on him.
Projected contract: three years, $13 million
CB Jarrett Bush
Anytime a Green Bay Packer becomes a free agent, there's bound to be speculation that he land in Miami with Joe Philbin. Jarrett Bush is a promising young cornerback who became overlooked in the Packers' crowded secondary. He would fit in perfectly behind Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, can help in special teams and has experience as a team captain. The Packers paid Bush $1.7 million last year, but the Dolphins will have to increase that number if they wish to acquire him.
Projected contract: four years, $11 million
FS Reggie Nelson
Up until last season, Nelson was widely regarded as a bust. But in his second season with the Bengals (first as a starter there), he was reborn. Kevin Coyle (Miami's new defensive coordinator) was Nelson's defensive backs coach last year.
Perhaps Nelson will follow his coach and return to his home state. The Bengals paid Nelson just under $1.6 million last season, and there's no doubt they'll try to keep him. Considering Nelson is due for a pay raise and the Dolphins must outbid the Bengals, this contract could become inflated.
Projected contract: two years, $7 million
Analyzing the Dolphins' Draft Strategy, Positions of Need
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Miami's draft strategy hinges entirely on how free agency unfolds. More specifically, it hinges on how the quarterback roulette plays out.
If the Dolphins sign Peyton Manning, they'll target an offensive tackle in the first round. If the Dolphins sign Matt Flynn, they'll target a pass-rusher in the first round. And, finally, if the Dolphins miss out on both Flynn and Manning, then they might trade up for Robert Griffin III.
The most likely scenario, though, is the second one. Flynn has a long-standing relationship with Joe Philbin. Plus, he already knows the offense Philbin will install. Flynn's inexperience and price tag make him a gamble, but he is the most sensible option for the Dolphins.
As for the rest of the draft, expect Miami to draft an offensive lineman and a pass-rusher in the first and second rounds. After that, look for the team to draft a cornerback and a wide receiver between rounds three and five.
It's impossible to predict how the last few rounds of the draft will unfold, but Miami will probably look to add offensive and defensive line depth there.
Draft Names to Keep an Eye on
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Cordy Glenn: The Dolphins are going to draft an offensive lineman early, but no situation would be more ideal than grabbing Glenn in the second round. Glenn meets Miami's size criteria and, more importantly, can play both right guard and right tackle—two of the team's most pressing needs.
Brandon Boykin: Another Georgia Bulldog for you to keep an eye on. The Dolphins really need to add another quality cornerback to their secondary. Jimmy Wilson and Nolan Carroll are the only two cornerbacks under contract besides Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, and both are still too young and unproven to play significant roles. So Miami could try to add Boykin—one of this year's most electric and dynamic prospects—and hope he can soon become the team's nickelback.
Marvin McNutt: If Joe Philbin wants to model Miami's offense after Green Bay's, then he's going to need more fast, reliable and, most importantly, physical wide receivers. Since wideout isn't a particularly pressing need, the Dolphins can wait until the middle rounds to addess it. McNutt is 6'4", 215 pounds and enjoyed a highly productive at Iowa. And guess where Miami's new wide receivers coach worked last year (Answer: Iowa).
Aaron Henry/Trenton Robinson: Jeff Ireland has already whiffed on a pair of middle-round safeties, so he might be discouraged from drafting another one. But, Aaron Henry and Trenton Robinson are two well-rounded, experienced players who might draw Miami's interest. Both were team captains at their respective Big 10 schools, and, at the very least, could help bolster the Dolphins' improving special teams units.