At this rate, he's a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee.
But if Long is indeed enshrined in Canton, he might not enter as a Miami Dolphin.
Long is currently in the final season of his five-year, $57.75 million rookie contract. Following this season, he'll enter unrestricted free agency, and there's no guarantee he'll re-sign with the 'Phins. In fact, there's a very real chance that he'll don a different uniform in 2013.
Ultimately, the Dolphins have to decide whether or not Long is worth the monstrous—and possibly record-setting—contract he'll demand, which could cost the team anywhere between $10 and $15 million dollars a year.
That's a monumental investment for any player, let alone one that has struggled with back, knee, shoulder and bicep injuries inthe last three years alone. Not to mention, Long isn't playing like a blue-chip player right now. Pro Football Focus ranks him 34th amongst offensive tackles—11th in pass blocking and 55th in run blocking.
Despite his checkered injury history, Long insists he's perfectly healthy (via Omar Kelly, Sun Sentinel):
"This is the healthiest I've felt in a while. I feel like I'm moving well and getting better every single game," said Long, who battled nagging injuries last season and missed the final three games because of a biceps tear in his right arm.
If Long is actually healthy, then his struggles are even more concerning.
Either way, is an injury-prone, under-performing player really worth $13 or $14 million a year?
In some respects, absolutely.
Despite his recent struggles, Long has been one of the league's preeminent players since he entered the league in 2008. He is a captain and vocal leader for the NFL's 12th-youngest team, which just invested a top-10 draft pick in a quarterback. The Dolphins cannot jeopardize Ryan Tannehill's health and security, and that alone might sway Jeff Ireland into paying Long.
You can argue that no offensive lineman is worth that kind of money, though. The Packers and Steelers both recently won Super Bowls with shoddy offensive lines that surrendered 84 sacks combined. However, those dilapidated lines have come back to haunt both teams and single-handedly thwarted subsequent title runs.
On the other hand, the Dolphins could survive without Long.
Jonathan Martin starred as Stanford's starting left tackle for four years. Part of his early NFL struggles can be attributed to the learning curve he's facing from the transition to right tackle. Putting Martin back in his comfort zone could propel his play, and, to his credit, he has made huge strides since the preseason.
By next year, Martin could be a perfectly capable and consistent starting offensive tackle. However, in October, Jeff Ireland addressed Long's future and Martin's arrival (via Izzy Gould, Sun Sentinel):
I have plans to keep Jake Long here for a long time. So, let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves. …We drafted Jonathan Martin to be a tackle on this football team, a right tackle on this football team. Let’s don’t speculate any further than that.
Take Ireland's words with a grain of salt. If Long overprices himself, then it won't matter what plans Ireland has.
Financially, the 'Phins would obviously benefit from saving that $10 to $15 million a year. Miami has 24 players slated for free agency next season including Randy Starks, Reggie Bush, Sean Smith, Brian Hartline, Anthony Fasano and Chris Clemons. Letting Long walk would allow the Dolphins to re-sign whomever they want back and chase some big names on the free agency market.
There's a hole in that logic, though.
Joe Philbin has made it clear that he wants to overhaul this roster, bring in his own guys and build through the draft. So, he won't feel inclined to re-sign some of those aforementioned names (all of whom were brought in under Tony Sparano's watch). Instead, Philbin may opt to bring in role players, build through the draft and shell out the money to protect his franchise quarterback.
Unless Long agrees to give Miami a hometown discount, there's no perfect solution to this conundrum. Both scenarios have pros and cons, but Long's performance in the remainder of this season could dictate which stance the Dolphins take.
Ultimately, Long will most likely ink a long-term extension this offseason. With Ryan Tannehill on board and cap space to spend, the Dolphins have the motivation and resources to keep him in Miami for a long time.
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