The Miami Dolphins' backfield could look very different in 2011 with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams slated for free agency.
Although the offseason doesn't officially begin until March (assuming there is a new CBA and no lockout), the Miami Dolphins' 2010 season concluded over a week ago and the team is now looking toward the new year.
To that end, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at all of the Dolphins with expiring contracts this offseason, explaining their different free agent statuses as well as discussing the ones that could potentially be retained.
Keep in mind that this article is assuming a new CBA is worked out and that the old free agency levels will be in place. As things were in 2010 due to the lack of a CBA, players had to wait six years before they hit unrestricted free agency. Under the pre-2010 system (and potentially this offseason) it broke down like this:
- Exclusive-Rights Free Agent—Zero to two years of NFL service. If tendered a contract offer by their old club, ERFAs have no choice but to re-sign and play for that team, or not play football at all.
- Restricted Free Agent—Three years of NFL service. RFAs are tendered contract offers at one of four different salary levels. Each level corresponds to a draft pick compensation amount for the old club if the player signs with a new team. Players can either re-sign with their old club or sign an offer sheet with a new team. The old club has seven days to match the offer from the new club and retain the player.
- Unrestricted Free Agent—Four or more years of NFL service. Players are free to sign with another club once the free agent signing period begins. Old clubs receive no compensation if a player signs elsewhere. Old clubs do have the option to place the franchise tag or transition tag on a player before their contract expires in the offseason.
In this instance, "NFL service" is defined as six games or more in a season in which a player was on a full-play level, i.e. active roster, injured reserve, or the PUP list. Players on the practice squad, non-football injury list, etc. do not count.
Now that all the technical stuff is out of the way, here are the Miami Dolphins' free agents for the 2011 offseason...
A speedy undrafted running back out of Purdue, Sheets was picked up by the Dolphins off the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad during the 2009 season. He had one carry for five yards in two games.
Sheets spent all of last season on injured reserve recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon suffered last August.
Assuming he is healthy enough to participate in offseason activities, I'd expect Sheets to be tendered and re-signed or nontendered and re-signed at a later date.
Increasing his chances of being brought back is the fact the Dolphins have no running backs under contract this offseason, so at the very least they'll need bodies for mini-camp and OTAs.
While Sheets does have some potential as both a change-of-pace back and kickoff returner, he's got a long way to go to have a significant role on offense in the NFL.
If he does return to the Dolphins in 2011, he'll primarily be competing for a reserve running back and special teams job.
A seventh-round pick by the Detroit Lions out of Nebraska in 2009, the Dolphins signed Murtha off the Lions' practice squad in October of his rookie season. He suffered an ankle injury during a December practice and finished the season on injured reserve.
Murtha made the team in 2010 as a reserve tackle, helped by the season-ending injury to Nate Garner and the even worse play of Andrew Gardner.
After appearing in just one game as a rookie, Murtha appeared in eight games in 2010, including four starts at right tackle after a season-ending injury to Vernon Carey.
While Murtha did struggle as a starter, he is obviously the Dolphins' third tackle on the depth chart at the moment and thus is likely to be re-signed on an inexpensive one-year tender.
He'll be no guarantee for a roster spot on 2011, but will compete for a reserve tackle spot once again.
A sixth-round pick out of Montana in 2008, Hilliard has spent the past two seasons as the Dolphins' fourth running back (third when Patrick Cobbs was injured in 2009) after spending his 2008 rookie season on the team's practice squad.
An excellent special teamer, Hilliard is a hard runner but lacks good speed and has yet to show he's reliably starter material on offense.
Because Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Patrick Cobbs are all free agents and because of Hilliard's use on special teams, I'd almost consider it a lock he is tendered and re-signed.
That being said, even if Brown and Williams do not return to the Dolphins in 2011, I don't expect Hilliard to have a significantly increased role on offense.
After serving as the Dolphins' No. 3 tight end for much of the 2008 season, Haynos because Anthony Fasano's primary backup in 2009, catching 19 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games (eight starts).
A torn Achilles' tendon landed Haynos on injured reserve in 2010, and the Dolphins' offense suffered without a reliable blocking and receiving threat opposite Fasano.
In fact, out of the four players that Dolphins utilized as Fasano's backup in 2010, they didn't catch one pass until Mickey Shuler hauled two passes during the team's Week 16 contest.
Assuming he is healthy, I'd expect Haynos to be brought back cheaply in 2011 and allowed to compete for the backup job to Fasano again, which he'd likely win barring outside talent brought in.
After spending every game during the 2008 season inactive as a rookie, Garner had a breakout season in 2009, playing in all 16 games and starting eight between both guard positions.
A lingering foot injury forced Garner to miss the entire 2010 season, but he should be healthy for 2011 and is likely to be tendered a contract by the Dolphins.
While he flashed starting potential in 2009, Garner's real value is as a versatile sixth lineman, as he has the ability to play all five positions on the offensive line.
Garner is a candidate to be a short-term starter in 2011 depending on the team's offseason additions at center and guard, but he's more likely to stick around as a top reserve.
Thanks to poor blocking by the offensive line and some terrible play-calling by Dan Henning, Williams followed up his 1,1100-yard performance in 2009 with just 673 yards and two touchdowns this past season.
Combine that with his complaints about Tony Sparano as a head coach shortly after the season ended, and it seems quite likely Williams has played his last down for the Dolphins at age 33.
Before his offseason comments, I actually would have expected Williams to return in favor of fellow free agent Ronnie Brown due to money and length of a potential deal it would take to retain him.
Williams is still pretty fresh for his age and is always in top physical condition, which would make him a nice short-term back to pair with a young rookie.
Now, it looks like Ricky's days with the Dolphins are numbered. This could potentially impact how much the team tries to retain Brown as the Dolphins' backfield in 2011 could look very different than he has in recent years.
Acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round pick in 2009, Thigpen spent most of this past season as the Dolphins' third-string quarterback. He appeared in five games, including one start when start Chad Henne was injured, and finished the season with 435 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Thigpen was a fan favorite in 2010, primarily because he wasn't Chad Henne. Dolphins fans were so frustrated with the quarterback play of Henne that they desperately wanted anything else, which happened to be Thigpen.
When given the opportunity, Thigpen was fairly inconsistent, struggling mightily in his lone start against the Bears. He showed off his mobility as a runner but was actually sacked twice as often per passing attempt compared to Henne and his accuracy was sub-par.
As of now, it seems likely Thigpen will move on and look for a chance to compete for a starting or No. 2 job elsewhere in 2011. If the Dolphins liked Thigpen as a potential starter, they surely would have gone to him sooner than they did in 2010.
One thing that could make things interesting is if Brad Childress were to become the Dolphins' offensive coordinator. Childress was the head coach in Minnesota when the Vikings drafted Thigpen in 2007, and he was reportedly furious when the Chiefs claimed him off waivers when the Vikings tried to sneak him to the practice squad.
If Childress is hired and is a big enough Thigpen fan, he could put in his two cents for potentially re-signing Thigpen. Neither thing is a guarantee though, and if I had to guess, I'd say he won't be a Dolphin in 2011.
It took four years, but Paul Soliai finally became the dominant nose tackle Cam Cameron and Randy Mueller thought he could be when they drafted the 365lbs behemoth out of Utah in 2007.
Forced into a full-time starting role in 2010 when Jared Odrick went down for the season and Randy Starks moved back to defensive end, Soliai blossomed as one of the top run-stuffing nose tackles in the game.
In 16 games (14 starts), Soliai set career highs in tackles (39), sacks (two) and pass deflections (two).
The issue with Soliai becomes how much money you're willing to pay him for one season of production. You also have to take into account that the Dolphins have four starting-caliber defensive linemen even without Soliai, which makes it less necessary to break the bank to retain him.
Soliai was often in the doghouse during his first three seasons with the team, struggling with his conditioning and motivation. One local reporter also told me that he was "as dumb as a box of rocks."
I would absolutely want to retain Soliai, but I also don't want to overpay for his services when I'm totally content with a starting line of Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, and Jared Odrick/Phillip Merling.
A former Cowboys lineman with ties to the Dolphins' staff, Procter was a natural fit in Miami as a versatile backup interior lineman.
Procter appeared in 10 games with the Dolphins, starting his final appearance against the Bears and going down with a torn ACL in a non-contact injury.
A six-year NFL veteran, Procter is only 28 and still has a future in the NFL as a reserve lineman. He did suffer the injury in the second half of the season though and will have to have a good rehab to be ready for training camp.
With no real starting potential and still recovering from an injury, I don't expect Miami to trip over themselves trying to re-sign him. He's a candidate to come back closer to the season if injuries mount, but he's certainly not a guarantee to be back.
Limited to just three games in 2010, Pennington was injured on his first passing attempt in 2010 when he took over for benched start Chad Henne in Week 10 against the Titans. He threw one more pass on the next play, promptly came out, and was on injured reserve the following week.
Now 34, Pennington has had shoulder injuries end both of his past two seasons and never really had a good arm to begin with. When healthy, he's a serviceable starter and an even better backup to have thanks to his high football IQ, accuracy, and ball control.
Pennington now has to decide if he wants to continue to pursue a playing career. His durability is a major concern, and it became clear this season he cannot be counted on to play a significant amount given his lack of shoulder strength.
The Dolphins are in need of a quarterbacks coach with the departure of David Lee to Ole Miss, and it's at least worth considering Pennington for the job if he's willing and ready to call it quits as a player.
Former NFL quarterback Jason Garrett actually did the same thing in Miami under Nick Saban from 2005 to 2006 after retiring following the 2004 season. It didn't take long for Garrett to become one of the league's top offensive coordinators and eventually the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
I feel Pennington could be the same kind of player given how well he knows the game, but whether or not either party is interested in such an arrangement remains to be seen.
Regardless of whether or not Pennington is even under consideration for a coaching job in Miami or anywhere else, I feel pretty confident his playing days in Miami are over due to his durability.
The Dolphins may very well bring in a veteran quarterback to compete with Henne and possibly start on a short-term basis, but Pennington and his shoulder simply aren't reliable enough for that job anymore.
A third-round pick out of Georgia in 2007, Moses was cut by his drafting team and another before ever appearing in a regular season game and being picked up by the Dolphins as a rookie.
Moses appeared in a career-high 15 games in 2010, totaling 18 tackles and a sack as a top reserve outside linebacker behind rookie starter Koa Misi.
Against all odds, Moses has now survived 3-plus seasons in Miami despite never really doing much of anything. He has the physical tools to be a good pass rusher, but he's certainly been a disappointment to date.
I can't imagine the Dolphins will have a whole lot of competition for his services or that it would cost much money to retain him, but it remains to be seen whether or not either side wants to continue a partnership.
Moses has valuable as an experienced member of the defense and a top backup, but he's rapidly approaching a point where he no longer has any room to grow and it seems only a matter of time before he's replaced for good by someone younger that at least has potential left.
Acquired from the Dallas Cowboys for free in August (he was traded for a swap of sixth-round picks in 2011, but only if Miami's pick was higher, which it will not be), McQuistan became a valuable member of the offensive line after injuries mounted in 2010.
McQuistan wound up appearing in all 16 games for the Dolphins this past season, including the first eight starts of his five-year professional career.
While McQuistan was far from a quality starter, he actually graded out higher than original starters Richie Incognito and John Jerry and was a better puller than either too.
His versatility makes him a valuable guy to have, but he has limited upside and doesn't really profile as anything more than a backup.
I think there will be some interest from the Dolphins in re-signing him to an inexpensive one- or two-year deal, but he's not a guy that can't be replaced elsewhere if someone else signs him.
Acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a seventh-round pick in 2009, McDaniel saw occasional action as a reserve with the Dolphins in his first season with the team.
McDaniel's role increased significantly after injuries to Jared Odrick and Phillip Merling in 2010, and he did not disappoint. Appearing in 15 games including one start, McDaniel recorded career highs across the board with 36 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three pass deflections.
Flashing the potential to be a starter, McDaniel at least proved to be a valuable and versatile backup with the ability to play both the nose tackle and defensive end spots in Miami's 3-4 scheme.
If things come down to money and the Dolphins can only re-sign Paul Soliai or McDaniel, I'd be tempted to go with McDaniel because I get the feeling the price tag would be a little less.
If McDaniel can be re-signed for somewhere in the $1-2 million per year range, I would absolutely do it and have him back up both Randy Starks at nose tackle and serve as the No. 3 defensive end behind Odrick and Kendall Langford.
After the season he had in 2010, however, there is going to be a solid market for his services and there is no guarantee Miami will be able to retain him.
Signed to an inexpensive, one-year "prove-it" deal by the Dolphins in the offseason after a career of hot-headedness and accusations of dirty play, Incognito started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2010 (15 at left guard, one at center).
Despite his brute strength and reputation for an aggressive style of play, Incognito had what I would consider to be an extremely poor season with the Dolphins in 2010.
He didn't pull well and routinely missed blocks in the passing game, allowing problematic pressure on the Dolphins' quarterbacks from up the middle.
Incognito was only outdone in his mediocrity by center Joe Berger, who was far and away the Dolphins' worst offensive lineman of the season.
I'm not saying the Dolphins made a mistake in getting rid of guard Justin Smiley and center Jake Grove in the offseason. Both players had durability concerns, and it made sense from a long-term perspective to use the uncapped year to get their contracts, which totaled more than $50 million combined, off the books.
Incognito, however, was not a serviceable left guard in 2010. He would probably be better suited for center, but he would need to work on his snapping, which was problematic this past season.
If they can get him back on a cheap one- or two-year deal, Incognito has the potential to make it worth bringing him back. I wouldn't keep him at guard though, and I would not guarantee him a starting spot.
Since being picked up off waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers a week into the 2006 season, Cobbs has become one of the most hard working and respected players on the Dolphins' roster.
While he has made his contributions on offense, highlighted by a 19-catch, 275-yard, two-touchdown performance as a receiving back in 2008, Cobbs has primarily been a special teams ace for the Dolphins.
The team's special teams captain in 2010, Cobbs totaled seven special teams tackles on the year. He had a career-high 13 tackles in 2008.
Cobbs' production on both offense and special teams was slowed a bit this season as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in 2009, but this may actually help the Dolphins' retain his services.
Cobbs doesn't offer much upside on offense other than a situational, third-down back type, but he is a versatile guy that rubs off on his teammates with his drive and work ethic.
If he can be had on a two- or three-year deal for up to a million per year, he'd be worth re-signing as a special-teamer and No. 3 back. He'll also be the easiest to re-sign of the Dolphins' top three running backs.
A lot of people complain about the Dolphins' taking Brown second overall in 2005, but the reality is that his spot at the top of the draft was more the result of an overall lack of talent and the fact that no teams wanted to trade up. In a top 10 that included Alex Smith, Pacman Jones, Troy Williamson, and Mike Williams, I think the Dolphins did pretty good filling a need.
Injuries and a poor supporting cast have prevented Brown from being the elite back he's always had the talent to be, but he has always been a reliable starter. He was never better than in 2007 under offensive guru Cam Cameron, totaling nearly 1,000 yards of offense and leading the league in all-purpose yards before a season-ending injury seven games into the season.
While Brown started 16 games for the first time in his six-year career in 2010, his production was the lowest yet thanks to the lack of a quality blocking tight end, and good play from the Dolphins' interior lineman, and shoddy play-calling by Dan Henning.
Approaching 30 with the kind if injury history he's had, it's hard to imagine any team breaking the bank for Brown despite his talent. Running backs like Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander have shown time and time again that such deals always end up being regretted by the signing team, and I think Brown would end up being the same way.
Before Ricky Williams' negative comments about the Dolphins and head coach Tony Sparano this offseason, I would have considered Williams the more likely of the team's two running backs to be re-signed.
There is sure to be a bigger market for Brown given his age and Williams' questionable commitment to the sport, so Brown is sure to be searching for at least a three-year contract and something close to a guaranteed starting role.
While I wouldn't break the bank for Brown considering the offensive line is the primary issue, I would explore retaining him to a two- or three-year contract worth around $3 million per year.
Such a deal would give the Dolphins a proven starter for the next few years, but wouldn't prevent them from looking in the draft for a more long-term solution at the position.
My unfortunate prediction, however, is that Brown is picked up by the New England Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick is familiar with Brown, has always been a fan, and seems to get off on picking player up from division rivals and putting them in positions to excel.
Brown, whose talent far exceeds that of any of the Patriots' current backs, could experience some later career success on a much better-run team with a good offensive line and quarterback.