Miami Dolphins: What's Next? Late-Season and Future Assessment for Fins
With a record of 5-7 on the season, the Miami Dolphins are almost mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
In a season that has seen many ups and downs, Miami has got some tough decisions to make.
Does Jake Long deserve a $15 million franchise tag or a long-term contract?
What in the world should Miami do at receiver?
Will Jeff Ireland remain as the team's GM?
Let's take a look at the current state of the Dolphins and what options lie ahead.
Jake Long and His Daunting Price-Tag
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It is now confirmed by the Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly that Jake Long is out for the season after his triceps injury.
Long's struggles this seasons may be exaggerated, but there's no doubt that he hasn't been playing up to his Pro-Bowl expectations.
With an abundance of cap space available for the 2013 offseason (likely around $40 million) Miami does have room to re-sign Jake Long or apply the franchise tag.
However, given Long's recent injury problems and struggles, is he worth a $10-million-a-year price tag and a multi-year contract?
A lot of this depends on the impact of rookie Jonathan Martin filling in for Long at left tackle. Martin will likely take over on the left side—where he played in college—for the remainder of the season.
On one hand, if Long is allowed to walk at season's end, Miami will have extra money to make a splash in free agency.
On the other hand, Miami will have to fill the void left by Long—either on the left or right side of the offensive line.
Sean Smith, Brian Hartline, Reggie Bush and Randy Starks
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Part of the reason for Miami's huge amount of cap space is the expiring contracts of Sean Smith, Brian Hartline, Randy Starks and Reggie Bush.
The odd man out on this list seems to be Reggie Bush.
According to Armando Salguero (who continues to be my go-to guy for attribution), Miami has not talked to Bush about his expiring contract. Even though Bush is Miami's most dangerous weapon, he doesn't seem to be in the team's future plans.
Though no official reports have been released about Miami's plans for Hartline, Starks and Smith, there seems to be a good chance that the team will be in contract talks with those players.
Brian Hartline is having a career year with Ryan Tannehill at the helm, as the two have built a solid rapport: Hartline receives 28 percent of Tannehill's throws and is 109 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season.
Though Randy Starks will require a pricey contract, he is a huge part of Miami's defense.
Starks has been pivotal to Miami's top-ten run defense this season. The Soliai-Starks tandem at defensive tackle has worked for Miami. It's certainly hard to envision that defensive line having the same success without Starks.
Though Sean Smith has continued to have problems with inconsistent play, he's the only viable option Miami has at cornerback at this point in the season. He is also better than most players who will be available in free agency.
Smith still has much to learn as a professional football player, but Miami is not better off in the secondary without him.
To Sign a Free-Agent Receiver, Draft a Receiver or Both?
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Assuming Brian Hartline is in Miami's plans going forward, this team has a decent foundation to build on at the receiver position.
Having Hartline and Davone Bess is a decent start, but other talented receivers need to be acquired for Miami and Ryan Tannehill to have any kind of success in the future.
There are some big-time names at the top of the 2013 free-agent class, including Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Dwayne Bowe.
Greg Jennings would be a perfect fit in Miami's offense, especially considering his former offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin, is Miami's head coach.
However, Jennings will be 30 at the start of next season. His limited time on the field this season is also a concern. Given Jennings' age and injury history, would he be worth the huge contract he would likely demand?
Mike Wallace, though not a great all-around receiver, would be another good fit in Miami. Wallace possesses superior speed, which is Miami's recipe for success. Wallace would give Miami an immediate deep threat in its receiving corps.
The added speed would also do wonders for Miami's other receivers, who would benefit from the extra running room over the middle and underneath the coverage.
Dwayne Bowe could also be an option for Miami. Bowe has been plagued by poor quarterback play for most of his career. He is a big target who would be an immediate go-to receiver for Ryan Tannehill, though that doesn't address the need for speedy playmakers.
Herein lies the possibilities of the 2013 NFL Draft. Miami has five picks within the first three rounds, meaning there are lots of options. If the team does select a receiver with its first or second pick, players like Keenan Allen of Cal or DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson can be had.
Allen is a complete receiver who does everything well. He is a big receiver with the ability to produce yards after the catch. He could make an immediate impact as a rookie and would be a perfect fit for Miami.
DeAndre Hopkins is also an interesting option. Hopkins is an underclassman, but may be available in the 2013 draft. His production this season has been outstanding. Tajh Boyd, Clemson's quarterback, has relied on Hopkins all season long. Hopkins is a speedy receiver who would also see the field immediately.
A big free-agent signing like Jennings or Wallace, as well as drafting a player like Allen or Hopkins, would ensure that Miami has a competent and talented group of receivers for young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The "Not so Tight" Tight End Market
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The 2013 class of free-agent tight ends is a very talented one. There is a wide array of solid tight ends who would be impact signings, including Jared Cook, Delanie Walker, Dustin Keller and Fred Davis.
Fred Davis can almost certainly be crossed off the list as a potential acquisition for Miami. The Redskins have already shown a commitment to giving Robert Griffin III as many weapons as possible. Fred Davis will most likely be re-signed by Washington.
Delanie Walker is a very interesting prospect. He has been with the San Francisco 49ers for his entire career. Walker has been praised by many, especially by coach Jim Harbaugh, who called Walker "Mr. Do It All."
Though Walker, who stands at 6'0", lacks the height that many productive tight ends possess, he is a solid downfield receiver. At 29 years old, Walker could be seeking his first big payday. Will he seek a larger role with another team, or will he continue to buy in to what Harbaugh and the 49ers preach? Walker would be an asset to a team like Miami.
Jared Cook has been very productive for the Tennessee Titans since the start of the 2011 season. He is big, fast and strong. He has continued to be an important weapon for Jake Locker.
Cook will also be seeking a big payday, as tight ends are becoming a very important asset for successful offenses.
Cook fits exactly what Miami wants to do on offense. He can block and is a great receiver. Miami would benefit greatly from a player like Cook, who has the ability to stretch the field as a seam-threat.
Dustin Keller is another guy whose status is up in the air. He's been with the New York Jets for his entire five-year career. He has also been a productive member of the Jets' offense.
However, the Jets' recent quarterback uncertainty is bad news for players like Keller. The questions to ask here are: "How loyal is Keller to the Jets?" and "Would he spurn the Jets and sign with a division rival?"
At the start of the 2012 offseason, there were rumors that Keller could be traded. With an expiring contract, Keller will be free to walk.
Does Jeff Ireland Stay or Go?
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Few GMs are as criticized as Jeff Ireland is by Miami fans.
When Ireland started his stint with Miami back in 2008, he was on a short leash, due to Bill Parcells' involvement with the franchise as the Vice President of Football Operations.
When Parcells left during the 2010 season, Ireland became the main decision-maker for football personnel.
During his time with Miami, there have been many questionable decisions made through free agency and the draft.
Miami has had a terrible track record signing players through free agency, and it looks like another first-round pick in Jake Long may be walking at season's end.
Even some outside of South Florida, including Heath Evans, think Miami should part ways with Ireland.
Whether or not Ireland will be making decisions heading into 2013, Miami will need all the help it can get on both sides of the ball.