The Miami Dolphins have had multiple players elevate their games to new levels this year, forming the backbone of a team that has been surprising in its performance to date, but it’s the team’s most consistent star over the past seasons who has been the biggest surprise of all. Since being drafted 1st overall in the 2008 draft, LT Jake Long has been the All-Pro stud a team would expect when picking a tackle number one overall. But coming off of an injury plagued 2011 season which saw him miss 2 games and slog through countless others with numerous ailments, Long has not rebounded the way everyone had assumed he would. With his rookie contract up after the season, the Dolphins will face an important decision on his future.
Long’s 2012 season to date would likely be considered perfectly acceptable for most any other LT, but Long has established himself as one of the greats in the league. The Dolphins passed on QB Matt Ryan in 2008, a decision that many revisionist historians have loved to point to as what they feel is another sign of the organization’s incompetence in prior years. But in reality, many GMs would still take the safety of a set-it-and-forget-it LT over a QB who just now is showing signs of being an elite player in the league. However, the upside of picking a beast like Long at the top of the draft is the expectation that he will be a cornerstone of your franchise for the next decade, something fans and management alike are now left to question.
Through 8 games in 2012, Long has already allowed 4 sacks, putting him on pace to give up a career high 8. His play has been sloppy at times, most notably last week against the Indianapolis Colts, where he was called for numerous penalties including a hold on the last offensive snap for the Dolphins (and if you’re wondering why he was in position to recover, and run with, a Ryan Tannehill fumble earlier in the game, take a guess as to who was assigned to block the defender crushing the Dolphins QB on the play). While he did tweak his knee late in training camp, there have been no whispers of any injuries that may be hampering the burly tackle. At the seemingly spry age of 27, Long should be in his prime years in the NFL, but instead is suffering through an unusual slump.
Instead of improving, Long has seemingly slowly regressed year to year, and while his fall off still leaves him in the top half of LT’s in the NFL, his salary demands so much more. In the final year of his mammoth 5 year, $57.75 million rookie contract, Long will logically be expecting a raise for his next deal, as all stars do coming off of rookie deals. Cleveland Browns LT Joe Thomas, the man who has been Long’s main rival for the title of top tackle in the game over the past few years, recently signed a 7 year, $84 million contract. Long and his agent, focusing on past performance, would likely expect to exceed that deal, and at the least meet it, something which could definitely make the Dolphins balk.
All this said, a Dolphins team in 2013 without Jake Long is far less formidable. While 2012 2nd round pick and current starting RT Jonathan Martin has LT experience from his time at Stanford and speculation was abound that he could pose a replacement option should Long depart, Martin does not have the pedigree of an All-Pro LT. Additionally, Martin has had a solid rookie season at RT, and the team should look to build off of that rather than moving him away from the position and returning to the revolving turnstile that has manned the RT position for the Dolphins since Vernon Carey fell off the map. Outside of the organization, free agent starting quality left tackles not only don’t grow on trees, they simply don’t exist anywhere – Long would be impossible to replace in time for 2013.
Six months ago, the thought of the Dolphins not agreeing to an extension with Long would have sent Dolphin fans either curling up into the fetal position or jumping up and down screaming at GM Jeff Ireland. Today, Long’s performance has made that extension less of a certainty, but one slightly down year should not result in the departure of the franchise corner stone. Enter the vaunted franchise tag. While the Dolphins have not had many reasons to use the franchise tag in recent years, well, for lack of having a franchise player, this represents the perfect opportunity to use the tag to buy the organization time to try to diagnose the big LT’s struggles.
While a tag will cost about $15.4 million for Long (his 2012 base salary, plus 20%), the time this buys the franchise to evaluate whether his 2012 performance is an aberration or a harbinger of future performance will be worth every penny. If Long returns to his dominant self, giving him a 6 year extension coming off of his age 28 season in 2013 would not be unreasonable, as many stud tackles can survive in the NFL until about age 34. Cutting a contract of that magnitude with one year remaining would be viable, whereas giving him the extension now and needing to cut him after only one or two seasons would be disastrous. If Long does not perform on the franchise tag in 2013, the team will be faced with the harsh reality that the number one overall pick in 2008 was spent on only four years of top flight production, but will be saved the franchise crippling cap hit that discovering this information after a long extension would generate.
Ireland faces an offseason filled with many big free agent decisions. While the big uglies may not get as much attention as the skill positions, for a physical football team such as the Dolphins they are of the utmost importance. Long’s career performance has been outstanding, but his dip in his contract year should cause Ireland to look to kick the can forward on making a long-term decision with his LT. Either way, Long’s performance over the rest of 2012 and 2013 will go a long way toward determining what the ceiling is for the growth of this franchise in the years to come.