NFL Free Agency 2011: 15 Free Agents the Miami Dolphins Must Target
Last Summer, Dolphins' rookie owner Stephen Ross, adamant on replenishing his team's roster with star power, opened up his wallet for Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby. The pair's inaugural season with the Fins was great, but in retrospect, the team may have neglected other areas of need in pursuit of Marshall and Dansby.
One year later, the Dolphins are paying for ignoring an aging running backs corps, a rickety offensive line, and a porous special teams unit. Fortunately, Stephen Ross has shown no hesitations with his checkbook, so Miami, in their first season out of Bill Parcells' shadow, has the opportunity to patch up every hole, leak and gap with the appropriate free agent.
No. 15: Bo Scaife, TE
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Miami's reluctance to pursue a top flight tight end has frustrated its fan base and limited its passing game for years now. During his draft special on ESPN, Bill Parcells explained that he doesn't believe tight ends touch the ball enough to warrant big investments—and if Parcells believes it, so do Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano.
So while virtually all of the league's great offenses (Pats, Saints, Falcons, Chargers, Packers, Colts, etc.) reap the benefits of great tight ends, Miami will stick with Anthony Fasano. But Parcells' theory doesn't totally rule out the possibility of the Fins pursuing a cheap tight end.
Bo Scaife is the most—and basically the only—athletic tight end on the free agent market this summer. He isn't spectacular, but could provide a different dynamic to Miami's passing game. The Dolphins probably won't pursue him, but they might be wise to.
No. 14: Jerious Norwood, RB/KR
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How much confidence do the Dolphins have in rookie running back Daniel Thomas? Do they believe he can immediately carry a full workload? Do they think it's necessary to pair him with a high priced free agent?
These are only a few of the questions Miami must answer before the free agency doors open. They will dictate the direction the team takes when looking for a running back.
In a scenario where the Dolphins do believe Thomas is ready to be a workhorse, then the team might pursue a scat-back like Jerious Norwood. Although he has serious durability questions, Norwood is lightning in a bottle and would make for an excellent third down back. He is also a very experienced kick returner.
No. 13: Dennis Dixon, QB
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While Ben Roethlisberger served a suspension at the beginning of the 2010 season, Dennis Dixon beat out veterans Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich for the right to serve as Big Ben's temporary replacement. Dixon was hardly spectacular, but he did lead the Steelers to a Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Although he is yet to prove he can be an effective full-time starter, Dixon has performed extraordinarily well in the handful of games he has played in. His durability is also a concern (torn ACL while a senior at Oregon; injured in Week 2 last season), but assuming the Steelers don't place an outlandish tender on him, Miami might only have to surrender a low value draft pick for the mobile QB.
Dennis Dixon is not the atypical quarterback we have come to expect this regime invest in. But then again, maybe it's time to stray from that old formula, mix things up a little bit, and take a risk.
No. 12: Deuce Lutui, OG
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The arrival of rookie Mike Pouncey should provide an immediate upgrade to an offensive line that struggled mightily with injuries, depth, and experience in 2010. Most of the line appears to be set in stone except for right guard.
Sophomore John Jerry and veteran Nate Garner will allegedly battle for the starting spot, but neither has really proven to be a great player. So, if Miami deems both unsuited for a starting role, they could look to free agency for a quick fix.
Arizona's Deuce Lutui boasts a massive 6'3", 340-pound frame, which would make him an ideal fit on Tony Sparano's line. Let's hope Miami doesn't have to pursue Lutui, however.
No. 11: Ernie Sims, OLB
Former Florida State standout Ernie Sims established himself as a future star after his first two years with the Lions. However, after two less than impressive seasons, Detroit shipped him off to Philadelphia where his play only declined further.
Sims is now headed for the open market where he probably won't draw much attention, if any at all. Even though Miami is really in the market for pass rush specialists, they also need bodies to fill the depth chart. Sims is still only 26 and might benefit from a fresh start under a coach like Mike Nolan.
Assuming he doesn't demand an outlandish contract, the Dolphins would be wise to investigate in Sims' services.
No. 10: Gerard Warren, NT
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After years of cringing as former Dolphins (Wes Welker, Larry Izzo, Sammy Morris, among others) became stars and won Super Bowls with the Patriots, perhaps it's time to pull some reverse psychology.
Patriots nose tackle Gerard Warren is likely headed into the free agency pool, and he is a very ideal target for the Dolphins. Although Warren, the third overall pick in the 2001 Draft, played in a 4-3 for much of his career, he effectively stepped in at nose tackle for the Pats last season, compiling 16 tackles and 3.5 sacks behind Vince Wilfork.
Paul Soliai is still a one-year wonder, so adding quality depth behind him is a must. Plus, Warren could impart plenty of wisdom on Soliai, who is just now scratching his full potential.
No. 9: Marcus Spears, DE
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This isn't so much a player whom Miami must target. Rather, this is a player the Dolphins almost definitely will target. Set aside the obvious Cowboys-to-Dolphins pipeline that has formed since Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano departed Big D for South Beach, the Fins have actually shown interest in Spears before.
When Phillip Merling went down with an Achilles injury last summer, rampant rumors about Miami trying to trade for Spears hit the web. Bill Parcells drafted Spears in the first round of the 2005 draft, but he has been a bust thus far.
The circumstances were different last year. Merling was sidelined and Spears would have played his contract year in Miami. But now that Kendall Langford is slated for free agency next year and Merling has yet to fully prove his worth, Spears might make for a very nice, low priced depth and insurance player.
No. 8: Antwan Barnes, OLB
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Miami will be in the market for multiple outside linebackers this summer, especially pass rush specialists. Former Charger, Raven, and Eagle Antwan Barnes is loaded with potential, but as the three aforementioned teams noticed, he hasn't put it all together yet.
Barnes came close last season when he recorded 4.5 sacks in just 11 games. He would be a picturesque pickup for the 'Fins. Barnes a low-risk, high-reward, relentless pass rusher who can provide depth in a very thin linebacker corps as well as special teams.
No. 7: Alan Branch, NT
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Former fourth round pick Paul Soliai finally realized his potential last season. The 'Fins nose tackle broke out, racking up 33 tackles and a pair of sacks. In gratitude, Miami slapped him with the franchise tag and will likely pursue a long-term deal once a new CBA is installed.
However, Soliai has a huge buyer's beware sign on his back. He's a one-year wonder who played his best football during a contract year. So, what might happen once he gets paid?
This isn't a knock on Soliai's character, rather the necessary approach to this situation. Plus, the Dolphins have literally no depth at tackle, making a free agent like Alan Branch a logical target. Branch has been a big disappointment for the Cardinals, but at age 27, there is still time for the 6'6", 325 pound tackle to materialize.
No. 6: Tavaris Jackson, QB
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If the Dolphins decide to avoid big-name, big-money quarterbacks, Tarvaris Jackson could be the perfect target. Miami doesn't necessarily need to land a Carson Palmer or a Kyle Orton. Instead, they merely need a player who can provide competition for Chad Henne.
Jackson's career has been marred by disappointment and disrupted by Brett Favre, but his struggles are overblown. In 2007, Jackson's only season as a true starter, he led the Vikings to an 8-4 record and a playoff berth. Although his stats were unimpressive, he had virtually no receiving weapons at his disposal. Since then, Favre has robbed Jackson of an opportunity to build off of his one promising season.
Jackson has already voiced his desire to leave Minnesota, and the Dolphins make a mutually great fit. He could come into camp with a great chance at seizing a starting job, and Miami could likely sign him at a minimal price.
No. 5: Darren Sproles, RB
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Despite his past success in San Diego, 5'6" running back Darren Sproles has become an afterthought in Norv Turner's offense. The team seems completely faithful in Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, making Sproles expendable--and likely headed for the open market.
Assuming the Chargers do not re-sign Sproles, the Dolphins should make a run at him. He will likely come at a low price due to his age (27) and overall lack of involvement and production last season. Sproles is nothing more than a third down back, but he provides the breakaway speed that Miami's offense lacked this season.
He is also one of the most lethal return men in the NFL, which allows the Dolphins to hit two birds with one stone.
No. 4: Thomas Davis, OLB
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Besides the obvious holes at quarterback and running back, Miami has a similarly glaring need at outside linebacker. Yes, Koa Misi and Cameron Wake will obviously retain their starting jobs. But behind them, the only player under contract is Ikaika Alama-Francis.
What if Misi or Wake breaks an ankle during camp? Miami's season would instantly be in jeopardy. The Dolphins will have to pursue a few linebackers this summer, and one that may surface on their radar is Thomas Davis.
Davis enjoyed a breakout season for the Panthers in 2008, racking up 92 tackles and 3.5 sacks. However, injuries forced him to miss most of 2009 and all of 2010. If Davis receives a clean bill of health, the Dolphins should pursue him. He'll certainly fall at a discounted price, and his upside is huge.
No. 3: Zach Miller, TE
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Tight end was a chief need for the Dolphins heading in the 2011 NFL Draft, but the 'Fins neglected it. Instead, they picked up Charles Clay, an H-back whose role with the team could take multiple shapes.
If the team doesn't plan to use Clay at tight end, then they should be scouring the free agent market for an athletic tight end once its doors open. Oakland's Zach Miller is the only notable name slated for free agency, but the Raiders have made their intentions to re-sign him public.
That doesn't necessarily mean the interest is mutual, and if Miller were to become a free agent, Miami should pursue him--assuming they can actually afford him (could be a very big if). Anthony Fasano is marginal at best. It's time for the Dolphins to follow suit of the Patriots, Chargers, Falcons, Packers, and other great offenses by acquiring a great tight end.
No. 3: Davin Joseph, OG
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Davin Joseph, a fifth year offensive guard, will be one of the most sought after offensive lineman if he escapes the Bucs' grasp and enters free agency this summer. Miami acknowledged their weakness up front by spending a first round pick on Mike Pouncey, but the Dolphins' line is not in the clear yet.
Both guard spots will likely be filled by some combination of John Jerry, Richie Incognito, and Nate Garner. All three are borderline worthy starters. But, if Miami wants to seriously reestablish an unstoppable, power rushing attack, then pursuing a player like Joseph would be a vital move.
This regime splurged on Jake Grove and Justin Smiley in the past, and a guard of Joseph's caliber would be a tremendous upgrade for the 'Fins.
No. 2: Matt Hasselbeck, QB
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Conflicting reports regarding Matt Hasselbeck's status with the Seahawks have surfaced since the March 3rd CBA cutoff. Pete Carroll told reporters that negotiations "came down to the final day," but more recent reports suggest the two sides were never so close.
Seattle is rumored to be in the market for both Carson Palmer and Kevin Kolb, and if they make a move for either, then it is safe to assume Hasselbeck will hit the open market. In that scenario, the Dolphins might be in play for the oft-injured 35-year-old.
Although age and durability issues lessen Hasselbeck's value, that could work in the Dolphins' favor. He may come at a somewhat discounted price, and if he can consistently play at the level he did in the 2010 Playoffs, Miami will have a bargain, and more importantly, an upgrade at quarterback.
No. 1: DeAngelo Williams, RB
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A few weeks ago, DeAngelo Williams was on the Koop and Kelly Show on 560 WQAM. During his segment, Williams dropped a few nuggets, which hint a reciprocal interest between the running back and the Dolphins: "I’ve heard rumors that I may be at the top their board this year." He added, "This is a place I’d like to live. I hope I’m at the top of their list and they come after me."
Stephen Ross will have no hesitations signing a big check for Williams, much like he did for Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby last summer.
But if the NFL chooses to re-implement 2010 rules, then Williams will remain a restricted free agent with the Panthers. That does seem like a bit of a long shot, however. Once the lockout is lifted, Miami could land the crown jewel of this year's free agency class.