We are now three quarters of the way through the 2012 season. The Miami Dolphins have a significant number of key players with contracts expiring at the end of the season and I am going to take this chance to rank these players in order of how important it is to resign each player.
1. Sean Smith
Smith has not been an all-pro cornerback this season. However, he has made great improvements since last year. Smith’s size allows him to compete with receivers that had simply crushed the Dolphins defense in the past. The Dolphins have very poor depth at the cornerback position and can ill afford to lose him. Smith is also young enough to continue his improvement and possibly become an elite player.
2. Jake Long
Long was injured during the Patriots game and it is quite likely that the injury is season ending. Long has had his weakest season as a pro this year. He will garner a very large contract and there are questions about his ability to fit into the current regime’s blocking scheme. I do not agree with this opinion. I think he is talented enough to adapt and the team should not throw away talent due to a regime change.
Because of the large investment necessary, Long is ranked behind Smith in necessity to resign. However, it is a very close second. It would be a very bad start to the off-season if Jake Long walks. He has proven that he is the leader of the offensive line and has performed at a high level in the past. The franchise tag might be used on Long, which would give him a one year contract equal to the average of the top five left tackles in the league. This might be the best option if the team is still unsure about him.
3. Randy Starks
The bright spot for the Dolphins this year has been the run defense. It has been stout in most games and ranks among the league’s best units. Starks has been a key performer for this unit. He may get offered really big money from another team. The team also has the possibility of moving Jared Odrick inside and bringing in another pass rusher on the outside. Starks is a very good player, but not impossible to replace. This is the first player on the list I could live with the Dolphins allowing to walk.
4. Brian Hartline
Hartline briefly lead the league in receiving yards, but soon after returned to his normal level of production. Hartline is a solid number two receiver and a very hard worker. Unfortunately he lacks the physical ability to consistently stretch the field. The team needs to upgrade at the position, but retaining Hartline would still be in their best interests. Hartline is likely to come at a reasonable price and I expect him to be retained.
5. Reggie Bush
Bush has been a disappointment in the second half of the season. The Dolphins have been unable to consistently establish the run and the offense has sputtered as a result. This puts Bush’s future in Miami in question. The presence of Lamar Miller makes Bush expendable. At this point, Bush will only be retained if he gives the team a discount. Bush is a player I like, but he has proven he isn’t an every down back like he wanted to be and the contract he receives must reflect that.
The good news is that if he does leave, Bush is unlikely to go to the New York Jets due to the animosity that developed between him and the Jets during this season due to the “Hot Sauce” incident. At the beginning of the season I saw the Jets as a likely landing spot if Bush was not resigned.
6. Chris Clemons
Clemons has had a solid season, though he has not looked as exciting as his counterpart Reshad Jones (who looks like he could be one of the league’s best in a few years). Clemons is an acceptable starter at this point. I do not expect the market to be extremely competitive for his services so, while he is low on this list, he should be fairly easily retained.
These six free agents are the ones the team should be most concerned about. This off-season will provide the team with a big opportunity for change. The team has a lot of open money, but a lot of players becoming free agents. It will be interesting to see if the team focuses more on retaining players or if the front office is aggressive in free agency.