Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An updated look at the Dolphins' free agents

There seems to be light at the NFL lockout tunnel, and that means we might have a rapid-fire offseason at some point this month. Free agency, trades, the ability to sign draft picks and undrafted free agents and more will all open up, creating a flurry of moves as teams scramble to prepare for the 2011 season.

With free agency potentially not that far off, I felt now would be a good time to revisit the Dolphins' current list of free agents, including some whose exact free agency status could be affected by the impending new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

I don't expect the players to cave on the issue of the number of seasons to reach unrestricted free agency, so expect things to revert to the pre-2010 rules of four-year veterans hitting the open market, as opposed to the no-cap 2010 rules requiring six seasons.

Restricted free agency would still apply to three-year veterans, while exclusive-rights free agents would include those with zero to two years of experience. Such players have no negotiating rights with other teams so long as their original clubs tenders them a contract offer.

RB Ronnie Brown (UFA)

The second overall pick in a notoriously poor 2005 draft class, Brown has been a solid all-around running back in his time with the Dolphins. He's been paired with Ricky Williams for most of his career through no fault of his own, and has flourished at times despite numerous nagging injuries. He was at his best under Cam Cameron's offensive tutelage in 2007, when he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage through seven weeks before a torn ACL ended his season.

While Brown is certainly a capable starting running back, it seems unlikely he'll return given the Dolphins' addition of Daniel Thomas in the second round of April's draft. While the Dolphins have shown they aren't opposed to a two-back system with similar players, the good money is on the team looking for a true complementary back to the workhorse that will be Thomas.

As big a fan as I am of Brown's, the justification just isn't there to give big money to a running back with his injury history rapidly approaching age 30. I expect Brown to be starting or at least sharing a role somewhere in 2011, but I don't think it will be in Miami.

Patrick Cobbs (UFA)

A Tony Sparano favorite and 2010 team captain, Cobbs has impressed with his work ethic and versatility. While he certainly isn't the back you want carrying the load on offense, he's been excellent on special teams and has had his moments in the sun as a receiver out of the backfield. You also can't discount the impact he has on his teammates.

That being said, the Dolphins surprisingly didn't tender him a contract as a potential restricted free agent, which says a lot about how little they value retaining him. While Cobbs is likely to be unrestricted as a five-year veteran, I think it speaks volumes that they didn't tender him just in case the 2010 rules were to apply (as they did with Tyler Thigpen).

While I certainly don't think we'll see Lex Hilliard or Kory Sheets in a significant role in 2011, it seems likely the Dolphins will sign a true No. 2 back via free agency and will hold a competition among younger players for the No. 3 job, leaving Cobbs to find a new home entirely.

G/T Nate Garner (RFA)

Despite spending all of 2010 on injured reserve with a lingering foot injury, Garner enters training camp as what I would consider the favorite to start at right guard. Of course, a lot of things could change that, not the least of which being the progression of 2010 third-rounder John Jerry or the addition of a quality free agent like Justin Blalock, Davin Joseph, or Marshal Yanda.

While Garner certainly held his own as a part-time starter in 2009, I strongly question his overall upside and I would prefer someone else win the job. (Signing Blalock and moving Richie Incognito to right guard would be my ideal scenario.) Garner has played or practiced at every offensive line position in his two-plus years with the Dolphins, making him an ideal guy to have off the bench.

TE Joey Haynos (RFA)

The Dolphins' No. 3 tight end in 2008 and primary backup 2009, Haynos spent the entire 2010 season on injured reserve with a Lisfranc fracture. While Haynos was certainly no stud when he was on the field, the Dolphins sorely missed him in 2010 as they mixed and matched a handful of late-round and undrafted rookies in the No. 2 tight end role, with practically no success.

While the Dolphins did not tender Haynos a contract as a restricted free agent, it seems likely they will have interest in bringing him back now that he is fully healed and can be re-signed for cheaper than the tender offer would have been. If healthy, you'd have to consider him the favorite to back up Anthony Fasano again, which would be a minor boost to the team's offense.

RB Lex Hilliard (ERFA)

A sixth-round pick by the Dolphins in 2008, Hilliard spent his rookie season on the practice squad and saw brief action in late 2009 due to injuries to multiple running backs. Upon the return of a healthy Patrick Cobbs in 2010, Hilliard caught just one pass for three yards and did not register a carry.

While Hilliard has been a fan favorite over the past few preseasons among desperate Dolphins fans, the reality is that his upside is significantly limited and it speaks volumes the team didn't give him a single carry in 2010. He'll be retained as an exclusive-rights free agent because he will be cheap and is a beast on special teams, but look for the Dolphins to do everything they can to bury him on the offensive depth chart.

DE Tony McDaniel (UFA)

McDaniel was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009 for the bargain of a seventh-round pick. (Fun fact: the pick Miami sent to Jacksonville was eventually swapped to the New England Patriots, who selected quarterback-turned-wide receiver Julian Edelman.) The trade worked out quite nicely for the Dolphins, however, as they've gotten two years of quality backup and spot-starter play from McDaniel.

Coming off a career year with 36 tackles and 2.5 sacks, look for McDaniel to price himself out of Miami's range and land a starting gig elsewhere. With so much depth at defensive end added in recent drafts, Randy Starks returning, and the huge payout to nose tackle Paul Soliai via the franchise tag, it seems almost certain the Dolphins will have to let McDaniel walk.

G/T Pat McQuistan (UFA)

Acquired toward the end of the preseason from the Dallas Cowboys, McQuistan was pressed into the first starting duty of his five-year career due to injuries and poor play and injuries along the Dolphins' offensive line. In all, he appeared in 16 games and started eight of them, with pretty minimal success.

McQuistan was desired by the Dolphins staff due to their experience with him in Dallas and his ability to play both guard and tackle, but he's probably peaked at age 28 and is by no means someone that is vital to re-sign. He may garner consideration to be brought back for a backup job, but my guess is both parties will move on as the Dolphins try to improve their offensive line depth.

OLB Quentin Moses (UFA)

A disappointing third-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, Moses eventually landed in Miami as a rookie and has since served as a reserve defensive end and later outside linebacker. With 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 44 career game spread across four seasons, I've long been confused as to why this bust, who also does not contribute on special teams, has remained with the Dolphins as long as he has.

Now an unrestricted free agent, one has to imagine the Dolphins will finally move on and search for depth with some upside in place of Moses. The only thing working in his favor is the lockout-shortened offseason could make teams more hesitant about using newcomers for depth, but let us all hope that some other team offers Moses more money in the faint hope they can salvage the talent he displayed in college.

OT Lydon Murtha (ERFA)

Added off the Lions' practice squad in 2009 and placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter, Murtha secured the Dolphins' top backup tackle job in 2010 and wound up starting four games after Vernon Carey went down with an injury late last season.

While Murtha didn't play particularly well and also had some big miscues on special teams, he will be extremely inexpensive to retain and will almost certainly be back as Carey's backup again in 2011. Just don't expect much more contribution than that.

QB Chad Pennington (UFA)

A godsend in the Dolphins' 2008 AFC East title run, shoulder injuries knocked Pennington out in 2009 and again in 2010 just two passes into the game after the benching of Chad Henne. A torn ACL suffered this offseason will almost certainly keep him out into the 2011 season, meaning the odds of him playing for anyone are relatively zero.

As good of a quarterback as he was when healthy and as high as his football IQ is, the simple reality is that the 35-year-old Pennington can no longer be trusted as an NFL starter or even as a primary backup. To ever again put your season's hopes on him after his numerous shoulder injuries would be quite foolish, and I don't expect the Dolphins or any other team to do so.

Expect to see Pennington in the broadcast booth and eventually on the sideline as an NFL head coach, but you won't see him as the veteran presence at the quarterback position for the Dolphins.

C/G Cory Procter (UFA)

Another former Cowboys lineman brought over by Jeff Ireland, Procter was a serviceable backup at guard and center before terrible luck landed him on injured reserve with a torn ACL midway through the 2010 season.

Turning 29 this offseason, Procter has the experience and versatility you look for in a backup lineman, but his recovery will be slow and he lacks any real upside to make him a must-sign. The Dolphins have a handful of other players to back up likely starting center Mike Pouncey, so I don't think we'll see Procter in camp with the team.

RB Kory Sheets (UFA)

Signed off the 49ers' practice squad as an undrafted rookie in 2009, Sheets was hoping to use his blazing speed to earn a role on special teams before a torn Achilles' tendon wiped out his 2010 season.

Assuming he can return to form, Sheets has the most best speed and agility of the Dolphins' current running backs and does have a nice college résumé, but there really is no indication that the pro talent is there. Unless you're president of the Kory Sheets Fan Club, Omar Kelly, you should consider Sheets a long shot to make the team in 2011.

QB Tyler Thigpen (UFA)

It seems every year since the retirement of Dan Marino, Dolphins fans have been clamoring for the backup quarterback to start as the team has struggled to find a capable starter. Thigpen was the winner in the "grass is greener" sweepstakes in 2010, as fans cited his solid 2008 season with the Chiefs and his superior athletic ability as reasons why he should supplant Chad Henne.

The reality is that Thigpen is hardly starter material, as indicated by the lack of a trade market last offseason and the team's hesitance to give him much of a shot in 2010. The team played it safe and tendered him as a restricted free agent earlier this year, but he will end up unrestricted and will almost certainly seek out a better opportunity elsewhere.

RB Ricky Williams (UFA)

Aside from some bouts with a fumbling problem, Williams has been a talented, steady producer for the Dolphins since he got over the whole suspended/retirement thing. However, he didn't enter the offseason on good terms by criticizing the franchise and the coaching methods utilized by Tony Sparano.

While I won't say there is no chance Williams will return, I think it's pretty unlikely unless the Dolphins simply want more experienced depth behind Thomas and a bigger name free agent. Williams' free agent market would also have to be pretty bare, and I expect the relatively fresh 34-year-old to at least be able to land a platoon deal.

In all likelihood, one of the most polarizing figures in franchise history and the man that produced the best single-season rushing performance has likely played his last down for the Dolphins as the team continues to overhaul their backfield.

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