The Miami Dolphins have completed one half of their offseason plan to ensure second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing with a talented receiving cast in 2013.
According to Pro Football Talk, the Dolphins came to terms Thursday with in-house free agent Brian Hartline, agreeing to a five-year, $30.775 million deal ($12.5 million guaranteed) with the 26-year-old receiver.
Hartline enjoyed a breakout year during Tannehill's rookie season, setting new career highs in catches (74), targets (128) and receiving yards (1,083). Over three previous seasons in Miami, Hartline's previous career bests were just 43 receptions, 73 targets and 615 yards, all of which came in 2010.
Critics of Hartline's new deal will point to the receiver's lack of touchdowns—he has just six career scores, including one in 2012—but those same critics forget that Hartline was masquerading around as a No. 1 receiver last season when he's much better suited as a complementary No. 2.
If general manager Jeff Ireland's plan stays on course, Hartline will represent a very good No. 2 for Tannehill in 2013 and beyond.
According to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com, Ireland's plan all along has been to both re-sign Hartline and lure top free agent Mike Wallace to Miami. Together, with slot receiver Davone Bess (61 receptions, 778 yards in 2012), Hartline and Wallace would create an attractive trio of targets for a passing offense that needs to get better next season.
Getting back Hartline—who otherwise would have been one of the top five or six free-agent receivers starting March 12—was step one in accomplishing that goal.
Hartline's deal will pay the former fourth-round pick just over $6 million a season, but that money will have little effect on Miami's ability to sign another top receiver like Wallace.
The Dolphins went into Thursday with $37.2 million in cap room, according to Spotrac. Hartline's official 2013 cap number is not yet known, but Miami should still be in $28-30 million range once deals for Hartline and backup quarterback Matt Moore are factored into the 2013 cap.
That leaves plenty of room to make a significant offer to Wallace, who might command more than the five years and $55.55 million Vincent Jackson received from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last spring. Even a deal paying Wallace $12 million a season would leave Ireland with a comfortable amount of space to fill in the cracks elsewhere on the roster.
Those quick to criticize Hartline as a player conveniently forget that his career is clearly trending up.
Ireland said as much in his press release, via Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post.
Brian is an ascending player that has steadily improved over his first four years with the organization. He has represented himself positively both on the field and throughout the South Florida community.
It would be hard to disagree, especially considering Hartline's recent rise.
Despite facing each team's No. 1 cornerback and working with a rookie quarterback in 2012, Hartline still finished last season with more receiving yards than Eric Decker, Stevie Johnson, Randall Cobb, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Lloyd, Torrey Smith, Wallace and Dwayne Bowe.
He also caught a higher percentage of his targets than Julio Jones, Greg Jennings, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne, proving that his numbers are more than just Tannehill feeding him the football on every drop back.
Which brings us to another point on why the deal makes sense: There was clearly chemistry between Tannehill and Hartline last season, and the last thing any general manager wants to do is strip his franchise quarterback of the receiver he felt most comfortable with during his rookie season.
Starting over with a completely new batch of receivers can be a difficult transition for a young quarterback. Hartline's return ensures that won't be the case in 2013.
But even if Ireland did desire to upgrade from Hartline in free agency, his options were mostly limited—assuming Wallace was always going to be a part of the plan.
Outside of Hartline, Ireland potentially could have looked at Wes Welker or Danny Amendola.
However, Welker will almost certainly make considerably more than Hartline's $6.1 million a season, and Bess is already an emerging slot option in Miami. A reunion in Miami has never made sense.
Amendola is also a slot receiver first and foremost, and his eventual deal should be right in the range of the Hartline's. Yet Hartline doesn't have Amendola's extensive injury history.
From there, Ireland would have had to either spend gobs of cash to sign both Wallace and Jennings (far-fetched, at best), or downgrade from Hartline and hope a receiver like Brandon Gibson, Donnie Avery or Domenik Hixon could arrive in Miami and replicate Hartline's production and chemistry (unlikely).
Ireland completed the move that made the most sense, even if some look at the nearly $31 million and shake their head. The Dolphins gave Hartline market value, which is especially true when you consider Miami dished out less guaranteed money (just $12.5 million) than both Laurent Robinson and Robert Meachem received during last year's free agency.
The Dolphins came into this offseason with a clear plan to fix what ailed their receiver position. Keeping Hartline—a breakout receiver in difficult circumstances last season—was step one.
The deal allows Miami to center all its attention on signing Wallace, a deal which would give the Dolphins a chance to make significant strides forward throwing the football next season.