The Miami Dolphins are still in the thick of a playoff race in 2012, but that doesn't mean we can't project into the future a bit.
The Dolphins will face another important offseason in 2013. Miami has 10 draft picks in April's draft, with five of those picks coming in the first three rounds.
But more important than the draft picks is the salary cap situation the Miami Dolphins will be facing next offseason, which on the surface looks very favorable.
The salary cap set by the league for 2012 was $120.6 million. Miami has $115.2 million of that cap room tied up this season. For 2013 the cap is expected to increase to $120.9 million (per ESPN.com). Omar Kelly of The Sun-Sentinel reports that the Dolphins will have anywhere from $45-$50 million in cap room in 2013, but then stated:
That figure will fluctuate for a while because nobody knows what the cap figure will be in 2013, what bonuses will be met, or how much carry over cap space the Dolphins will have in 2013.
The Palm Beach Post's Ben Volin however states that Miami will have $60 million of cap room in 2013.
Despite the large cap numbers that will have fans salivating over what could be in 2013, most of that money will likely be tied up in re-signing key players. Here's a look at some of Miami's key impending free agents.
Randy Starks, DT
Randy Starks is having a great season, grabbing 18 tackles and 3.5 sacks, plus an interception. Alongside Paul Soliai, Starks has been a run-stopping force for the Dolphins, who possess the third-best rush defense in the NFL and have had yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.
At 28 years old, he will be a valuable commodity on the free-agent market, and is Miami's most important free agent (yes, more important than Jake Long). If Miami were to decide to franchise Randy Starks and not Jake Long, they would only have to pay him $7.9 million, which would be a bargain for what he brings to the defense.
It's likely though that Starks (who this season is making $3.725 million), will sign a two- to three-year deal making a little bit less than what he would under the franchise tag in 2013 with the money made up for in bonuses, similar to Soliai's two-year, $12 million contract signed last offseason.
Soliai is making a $2.45 million base salary this season with a $1.925 million bonus. The cap hit for the Dolphins on the deal is $4.375 million for the 2012 season.
Brian Hartline, WR
Brian Hartline is in a position to make a lot of money this season, especially since he will be more important to the Miami Dolphins than he would be to any other team that chooses to sign him (but he's far from being the Dolphins' top priority).
Hartline is making $1.3 million in the final year of his rookie contract, and like Starks has put up a great contract year as Ryan Tannehill's No. 1 receiver with 41 catches for 622 yards and one touchdown.
In October, The Miami Herald reported that Hartline and the Dolphins were already discussing an extension. Not much talk about an extension has been heard since, but it's likely that one will happen.
Reggie Bush, RB
Of Miami's important impending free agents, Bush is the one least likely to stay. He's making $4.5 million, but if he continues to struggle like he has since suffering an injury in Week 3, no matter what team signs him will pay less than that.
Bush will likely make less anyways due to the nature of running backs. Reggie Bush is not on the level of Arian Foster, Ray Rice or Matt Forte, so he won't be paid at that level. He would be hard pressed to sign any contract for more than two years.
If he stays in Miami it will likely be only due to the cost. However, if Lamar Miller gets more snaps in the second half of the season (and remains as productive as he has looked thus far) and Daniel Thomas can stay healthy, consider Bush as good as gone.
Anthony Fasano, TE
Miami has no reason to let Fasano go at this juncture. While Charles Clay is improving, he still isn't a consistent threat, and Fasano is a different kind of tight end from Clay anyways, one that Michael Egnew is not.
Fasano doesn't look like the prototypical West Coast offense tight end, but when targeted, he has been effective.
I doubt it's been effective enough for him to cash in on a big payday for any team, but likely effective enough for Miami to hold on to him in the short term while Egnew continues to develop (if that ever happens).
Sean Smith, CB
Will Miami choose to hold on to Smith? Odds are yes (cue the fans commenting on his horrible game against Indianapolis).
Despite a disaster of a Colts game, Smith has been very good this season, doing well against the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green. But cornerbacks tend to be expensive (they're paying Richard Marshall $2.5 million, and once you see how much he's due in 2013, your jaw will drop to the ground), and are always sought after in free agency, only driving the price up.
To keep Smith, Miami will have to spend at least $10 million-$15 million over the course of three years just to retain him. If you think that's crazy, wait until we get to the players who's contracts will either be dropped or re-worked and you see how much Richard Marshall is due in 2013.
Chris Clemons, S
This is an impending free agent Miami will likely keep. This season Clemons is making $1.3 million, and the market for safeties is pretty soft.
While Clemons has played well this season, he still tends to disappear from time to time. Expect him to sign a one-year deal with Miami for just a tad more than he made this season.
Jake Long, LT
This will be the name to watch among the Dolphins impending free agents, and as of right now is a toss up.
For a contract year, Long is having a terrible one. He's getting beaten more often than not and has slipped from being one of the few rocks on the offensive line to potentially being a liability. I never thought it would be only four years before I'd say that about Long.
Despite his poor (not just for his standards, but in general) performance this season, Long will still be highly sought after. If Miami chooses to put the franchise tag on Long, they will have to pay him $15.36 million in 2013 under that option.
The risky (yet smart) thing would be for Miami to franchise Long in an attempt to get him to sign an extension, and if nothing can be done, trade him to a team more willing to fit his long-term financial figures.
As sought after as Long will be, Miami would add at least two more draft picks in 2013 and one more in 2014, with one of the 2013 picks coming in the first two rounds.
Either way, the Long contract battle will be the most important to the Dolphins. Will they be willing to sign him for the money he will be going after? Will they be able to replace him if they can't? That remains to be seen.
Players Who Could (and/or Should) Re-Work Their Deals With Miami
Missing in this talk of Miami's impending free agents and their salary cap space is the players Miami will have under contract in 2013 that are candidates to re-work their deals (or possibly get cut). Here's a look at a few of them.
Karlos Dansby is the first one that comes to mind, as Miami will owe him $6.05 million next season, plus a $1.725 million bonus. His cap hit will be $7.975 million, which is a big number, but not exactly a number that Miami could look to re-work.
But 2014 will be a different story for Dansby, as he will be owed $9.05 million and will get the same bonus that he will get in 2013, resulting in a $10.975 million cap hit.
Because of the 2014 numbers, Dansby will likely have to re-structure his contract, and it could even come this offseason.
Richard Marshall is another candidate not only to re-work his deal with Miami, but will likely be cut by the Dolphins after a 2012 season that will end for Marshall on injured reserve (per profootballtalk.com).
Remember when I discussed Sean Smith and brought up Richard Marshall's contract? Here's why: Marshall was paid $2.5 million with a signing bonus of $1.16 million, making his 2012 cap hit $3.7 million.
It's a scarier number in 2013, as Marshall's due to make $4.5 million with a bonus of $1.16 million and a cap hit of $5.7 million. Considering that his injury is a nagging back injury, this will be far too much for Marshall to make when the Dolphins don't know how he will come back. On top of that, Marshall was far from productive when on the field.
After seeing Marshall's contract, now do you see why Sean Smith will get paid very well in free agency, even by the Dolphins? It's a seller's market for cornerbacks in the NFL, and developing rookie cornerbacks takes time.
Teams will want one with some experience, meaning Miami will be in a bidding war for Smith's services (but one they will ultimately win).
Factoring in the impending free agents Miami will have to make tough decisions with, the cap room available doesn't seem as much as it initially looks. What decision they make with Jake Long will ultimately decide whether the Dolphins will be able to sign two impact free agents or none at all.
But history suggests at least with the Dolphins that they will continue to build through the draft, even with the cap room available. If they do make a big signing, it will likely be at the wide receiver position, and it will NOT be Dwayne Bowe.
Look for Miami to instead go after Greg Jennings to pair with Hartline and Davone Bess since he knows Joe Philbin and the Dolphins' offense well from his time in Green Bay.
On the defensive side, Miami will likely re-sign Starks and Smith, with Smith getting paid into the $5 million range per season. Then expect the Dolphins biggest free-agent signing to come in the secondary.
The real improvement this team could have in 2013 will come through their draft picks as well as how much of a leap Tannehill and the rest of Miami's younger players take from one season to the next.
But for now, 2013 doesn't start until Miami plays its last down, and focusing on 2012, you see the seeds of an ever-improving team that will likely play in January.
No point stressing the future now, as there is plenty to enjoy today.
All salary cap figures and cap information provided by spotrac.com unless otherwise specified.