The Miami Dolphins may have been eliminated from playoff contention last week, but they still enter Week 17 with a chance to finish 8-8. It would be the franchise's first season finishing at least .500 since 2008.
It's been a surprising year for the Dolphins, a team that spent much of the year outplaying expectations and predictions. This is a team that is dangerously close to being counted among the NFL's best.
That proximity to greatness is what makes this offseason so important.
With approximately $50 million in cap room and five picks in the first three rounds of the 2013 draft, the Dolphins are expected to make a huge surge once the pads are hung up for the year.
It won't be an easy task to manage, and the chances of this offseason going perfectly for Miami are admittedly fairly small. But the Dolphins don't necessarily need a perfect offseason to make the improvements they need to take the next step.
That being said, let's examine what Miami will need to do to create the perfect offseason. Here's a five-step plan for the Dolphins to get the most out of their pivotal postseason.
Miami's first step will be to evaluate its own formidable list of free agents. Big-name players like Reggie Bush, Jake Long, Brian Hartline and Randy Starks are among those whose contracts expire after this season.
So who should the Dolphins bring back to South Florida?
Bush is a must. Miami's starting halfback for the past two years has proven that he can be a three-down back just as much as he can be a reliable receiving threat. He has scored 29.6 percent of Miami's touchdowns this year, putting him on par with the likes of Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
His absence would create a gaping hole in the offense.
Speaking of offensive weapons, Hartline is a player Miami should re-sign without hesitation. With a lot placed on his shoulders this season as the primary receiver, Hartline exploded for a career-high 1,014 yards. He has proven to be a reliable option and has undeniable chemistry with Ryan Tannehill.
On the other side of the ball, defensive lineman Randy Starks should receive a new deal. Starks and fellow DL Paul Soliai have combined to create one of the NFL's most punishing defensive tackle duos. Because of Starks' ability to plug the middle, Miami has enjoyed a dominant run defense for much of the season. Miami would be unwise to fracture its strong defensive line.
Outside of Bush, only one player has attracted heated discussion regarding his future in Miami: Jake Long. The four-time Pro Bowler's play has drooped over the last two years, and his durability is becoming a concern. Add on the likely huge salary he'll command and it seems clear that Miami should avoid inking a new deal for Long.
There's no question that Miami needs offensive weapons. Re-signing Reggie Bush would help, but the Dolphins will need much more than that.
Miami's top priority must be to bring in an elite wide receiver. Since trading Brandon Marshall prior to the 2012 season, there's been a monstrous void at the position.
The Dolphins will be rich with options. High-caliber players like Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Dwayne Bowe are likely to be free agents. Miami must hit on one of these players; which one is more of a moot point. For my money, I'd love to see Wallace in aqua and orange next season, but I believe Jennings is the best overall fit.
Any one of those receivers plus Davone Bess and Brian Hartline would give Miami a formidable receiver corps, but they'll need one more piece. A tight end who can split the seam is also necessary.
Two players who fit that bill figure to be available in free agency: Dustin Keller and Jared Cook. Miami should already be plenty familiar with Keller's ability to terrorize linebackers as a receiver. Cook also has shown himself to be a versatile weapon at tight end as well.
While neither tight end has had great years, both put up very respectable numbers in 2011 (Keller: 65 receptions, 815 yards; Cook: 49 receptions, 759 yards). Keller nor Cook will be confused with Rob Gronkowski any time soon, but adding either could provide a needed boost to Miami's ineffective tight end group.
After being thrust into the top corner role following the Vontae Davis trade prior to this season, Sean Smith performed decently at best.
His struggles are obvious, as he simply cannot match up with opposing teams' top receivers. But perhaps he doesn't have to. Smith should be re-signed, but only if he is bumped back to the second corner on the depth chart.
It's where Smith started in Miami, and he was able to flourish. Last year he recorded 52 tackles and two interceptions as the second corner. His numbers this year have been almost identical. As the leading corner, Smith's numbers should have seen an increase.
Meanwhile, Chris Clemons is an above-average strong safety. He's got 94 tackles and two interceptions. If Miami resigns Clemons and pairs him with Reshad Jones, the Dolphins could enjoy a formidable safety duo.
Even with these two extensions, Miami would still need to add secondary help. As I mentioned above, Smith appears to be at his best as the second corner, so a No. 1 corner is a must.
I'll go deeper into the corners available in the draft in a later slide, but for now let's concede that there isn't much first-round talent at corner this year.
As a result, Miami may have to look at free agency for a corner as well. Luckily, there should be a few options available. Guys like Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Marcus Trufant should be highly sought after. However, the Dolphins may not want to get caught up in a bidding war on one of these players, especially if they've already dropped big bucks for a receiver.
One player Miami should pay attention to is Chris Houston of the Detroit Lions. He exploded last season with five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. His 2012 campaign hasn't been as exciting, but he's a smart, dedicated player who could cover the big receivers.
After all, Houston has practiced against Calvin Johnson for the past three seasons.
With Jake Long leaving Miami (if, of course, the team follows step one), Jonathan Martin is likely to stay put at left tackle. Since filling in for Long a few weeks ago, Martin has held his own. He can only improve.
But that leaves a hole on the right side. Nate Garner has taken up the right tackle role for now, but he's not the long-term option. To find that option, the Dolphins will have to look to free agency of the draft.
Denver's Ryan Clady figures to be a hot commodity, but after turning down a huge $50 million deal, it's appearing like he may want the kind of money Jake Long is expecting. For that reason, Clady is a no-go for the Dolphins.
If Jermon Bushrod escapes from New Orleans' grasp, he could be another viable option for Miami to pursue. There's a chance he may want a lot of money as well, although his price tag should be more reasonable than Clady's.
Other tackles the Dolphins could target include New England's Sebastian Vollmer, Kansas City's Branden Albert and Cincinatti's Andre Smith. All three of these players could provide a solid anchor to the right side of Miami's line.
If these options end up too pricey for Miami's taste, it could do something it has done twice in the past five years: draft an offensive lineman with its first-round pick.
There's a pretty decent selection of tackles, with two players topping my list: Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan.
Lewan is a strong run-blocker, but his pass protection needs some work. He's more of a project than a finished product, but his ceiling is very high.
Matthews, on the other hand, appears to be NFL-ready. One of Texas A&M's two very talented offensive tackles, Matthews gets the upper hand simply because he's a right tackle. Matthews has withstood assaults from LSU and Florida, two teams with devastating pass-rushers. He also performed extremely well in the Aggies' upset of Alabama.
Taking an offensive lineman with their top pick may not be the most exciting option for the Dolphins, but snagging one of these talented tackles would be huge.
Baylor's Terrance Williams.
You know the old saying.
You build a team through the draft, you supplement through free agency. Well this offseason, a lot of Miami's needs are supplemental. That is why this plan has been very heavy on free agents.
But the draft is equally important for the Dolphins, especially because they possess five picks in the first three rounds. It is imperative that Miami loads its roster with a bevy of young, talented players during the draft.
So assuming the Dolphins have ascertained their dominant wide receiver and athletic tight end in free agency, Miami should go for Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews (this also assumes that Miami releases Jake Long) with its Round 1 pick. Boring, sure, but Matthews could be the best value at Miami's pick that also corresponds with a major need.
Moving into Round 2, wherein Miami will pick twice, the Dolphins could look to fill out its receiving corps and secondary. As neither position is heavy on first round talent, the second round should still hold plenty of value.
Terrance Williams of Baylor is an intriguing wide receiver with great size and speed. He led the NCAA in yards with an amazing 1,764 on just 95 receptions. If he falls to Miami's first second-round pick, Williams could be a great young receiver to bloom into a starter.
The Dolphins will likely miss out on this year's best corner, Alabama's Dee Milliner, which is why they can afford to wait until the second round to address this position, if Miami escapes free agency without adding a corner that is.
Xavier Rhodes (Florida State), David Amerson (N.C. State) and Jordan Poyer (Oregon State) are all viable options that could improve Miami's ailing secondary. None of these players figure to be first-year starters, though, which is why Miami must either pursue a corner in free agency or attempt to move up to pick Milliner.
Beyond those spots, the Dolphins could look to bring in an additional pass rush threat. Cameron Wake has been elite again this year, but he's the sole source of Miami's pass rush. A guy like Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, whose 12.5 sacks were second in the SEC, could make Miami's rush more multifaceted.