Thursday, December 29, 2011

Miami Dolphins 2012 Free Agents Preview

Regardless of whether or not the Dolphins win or lose against the New York Jets Week 17, their 2011 season will come to and end with a losing record and no playoff run to show for Tony Sparano's fourth and final season as head coach.

As we ahead to the 2012 offseason, we'll be waiting to find out who the Dolphins will hire as Sparano's replace at head coach, and we'll be waiting to see if the team finally lands an elite quarterback prospect in April's 2012 NFL Draft.

But in addition to all that, there is also the matter of free agency. From re-signing key players to parting ways with inflated contracts to adding new pieces to the puzzle, free agency will be a huge part of the Dolphins' offseason. (And fortunately, it's going to happen on time this year!)

Take a look at the glossary below to familiarize or refresh yourself on how free agency works, and continue on to see a full breakdown of all the Dolphins' impending free agents and where they might fit into the team's 2012 plans!

  • Accrued season — a season during which a player has been on full pay status (Active, Inactive or Injured Reserve List) for six (6) or more regular season games. (source: NFLPA)
  • Exclusive-rights free agent — player with an expiring contract with zero to two accrued seasons. If tendered a contract offer by the original club, player may either sign the contract or not play football. He has no rights to negotiate with other clubs.
  • Restricted free agent —  player with an expiring contract with three accrued seasons. If tendered a contract offer by the original club, player may negotiate with other clubs in free agency. However, should the player sign an offer sheet with another club, the original club will have seven days to match the offer or receiver draft-pick compensation based on the level of the tender.
  • Unrestricted free agent — player with an expiring with four or more accrued seasons. Players are free to negotiate and sign with other clubs at their discretion. However, they are eligible for the transition tag or franchise tag.
  • Transition tag — guarantees the original club the right of first refusal to match any offer the player may make with another team. The transition tag can be used once a year by each club unless they elect to use a franchise tag instead.
  • Franchise tag —  a designation a team may apply to a player scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The tag binds the player to the team for one year if certain conditions are met. Each team has access each year to only one franchise tag (of either the exclusive or non-exclusive forms) and one transition tag. As a result, each team may only designate one player each year as that team's franchise player.
    • An "exclusive" franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top 10 salaries at the player's position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams.
    • A "non-exclusive" franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top 10 salaries at the player's position in the previous year, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if he signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

Unrestricted Free Agents

OLB Ikaika Alama-Francis

A disappointing second-round pick by the Lions in 2007, Alama Francis originally joined the Dolphins during the 2009 season but did not appear in a game. He was converted to outside linebacker in 2010 and showed promise during the offseason before an illness disrupted his progression. He was liability as a defensive reserve that season and has hardly seen the field in 2011 as the team's fifth outside linebacker, playing only four defensive snaps to date and recording one special teams tackle.

"IAF" looked like a promising run-stopping linebacker upon his conversion in the 2010 offseason, but in two seasons he has failed to progress into a viable option on defense. He's unlikely to garner much attention on the open market and thus could be back on a cheap one-year deal, but his upside is certainly in doubt and I suspect the team may decide to move on.

CB Will Allen

Allen was an underrated but top-10 cornerback in the NFL in 2008 and was productive again in 2009 before a knee injury wiped out the remainder of his season as well as the entire 2010 season. He was released during final cuts in 2011 but brought back on a one-year deal amid secondary struggles. Although he has totaled 40 tackles and three pass deflections in 14 games this season, he has struggled in pass coverage with opposing quarterbacks notching a 90.1 passer rating when throwing his way. He'll be 34 by the time the 2012 season begins.

Allen is an extremely likeable player and was at one time a great corner for the Dolphins, but at his age and with his injury history, it's fair to wonder how much he has left. Allen has shown this season that he's little more than a veteran backup and the team likely would have moved on for good if not for the struggles of Benny Sapp (since released) and Nolan Carroll, as well as Vontae Davis' hamstring injury.

I personally believe Allen will have a hard time finding a job in 2012 and may be nearing the end of the line. I suspect the Dolphins will look at other options as their young starters continue to progress. Rookie seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson has shown promise and the team would probably prefer to stay younger at the position, making Allen little more than an in-season injury replacement.

OG Vernon Carey

As recently as 2009, Carey was one of the better right tackles in football. However, age and wear have caught up with him, and he has struggled quite a bit this season despite his lack of ability somewhat masked by a move inside to guard. Carey has started all 14 games at right guard this season but has struggled as a run blocker and lacks the athleticism to be a reliable blocker in space.

There is a reason Carey took a significant pay cut in the offseason and allowed the team to void the final three years of the six-year, $42 million contract he received in 2009, and it's because he knew he wouldn't be able to find another starting job on the open market. By making 2011 the final one of Carey's contract, the Dolphins were saying they did not believe he could be a long-term starter for them. Rather, he was simply a one-year fill-in until a replacement is found.

While he's only 30, it's fair to wonder if Carey's days as an NFL starter are pretty much over. The Dolphins actually got an impressive performance from 2010 third-rounder John Jerry at right guard in Week 14 and thus might be more inclined to move on. Carey remains an option as a short-term fix, but the former first-round pick is a mediocre talent at this point and the Dolphins will probably look for a cheaper and younger alternative.

OT Marc Colombo

A first-round pick by the Bears in 2002, Colombo spent six seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before joining the Dolphins in 2011. The staff's familiarity with Colombo from their time in Dallas clearly facilitated the move and the team thought it could get by in 2011 with a veteran right side of the line in Carey and Colombo, but this proved to be quite possibly their biggest mistake of the year.

The 33-year-old Colombo has been downright abysmal in 2011, allowing 40 pressures, nine sacks, and ranking as the 70th-best tackle in the NFL (out of 76 total) according to Pro Football Focus. He's a better run blocker than he is a pass protector, but he doesn't do anything well and honestly should probably focus on his music career going forward.

If I had to put money on the one Dolphins free agent that is least likely to be re-signed, it'd be Colombo. Of any player that has graced the team's 53-man roster this season, I'd give Colombo the worst grade of anyone and I would say without a doubt he has been the team's worst player. The Dolphins will obviously need to find a starting right tackle for the future and that's no easy task, but they would truly be hard-pressed to do worse than Colombo.

S Tyrone Culver

Since being signed during the 2008 season, Culver has been a fairly reliable and versatile backup safety and dime back. He's averaged about 25 tackles a year over four seasons, and while he doesn't grade out as a quality defender in coverage, he's a nice backup to have at both safety spots and he's been excellent on special teams, notching five tackles and two forced fumbles on the season.

I'm a bit on the fence about Culver's chances of being back. On one hand, I think Yeremiah Bell could end up being a cap casualty, in which case you might want to keep Culver around. I also don't think he's going to be in that much demand on the open market. On the other hand, he doesn't really have any upside at 28 and made $1.25 million this season, which is a lot for a guy that's never going to start. I think Culver could end up being back, but the Dolphins could move on if they found a younger, cheaper option.

QB Chad Henne

A second-round pick and the anointed "quarterback of the future" that ultimately may have done in Tony Sparano's tenure in Miami, Henne had a rocky four seasons in Miami and never really develped into the starter the team had hoped as fan backlash mounted. I think he was a bit handcuffed by Dan Henning's conservative offense and the staff's lack of trust in him, and it was unfortunate to see a shoulder injury prematurely end his 2011 season as he was showing promise in Brian Daboll's scheme. Through four seasons, Henne has totaled a pedestrian 7,114 yards and 31 touchdowns with 37 interceptions and a passer rating of 75.7.

I've always liked Henne more than most and I think he can be a quality backup in the NFL, or even a good starter in the right situation. He's got all the tools and really showed impressive strides in the season opener against the Patriots this year. However, I'd bank on Henne having played his last game with the Dolphins.

On the surface, Henne seems like a viable short-term option until the Dolphins find a franchise quarterback. However, Matt Moore is signed through 2012 and has run the offense fairly well, so that role seems to be taken. Despite his comments, I suspect Henne has no desire to return to that situation or the fans that piled on him for so long. Like with Ted Ginn, Jr., I suspect Henne's best bet is a change of scenery and a departure makes sense for all parties involved.

DE Kendall Langford

Despite being the second defensive end taken by the Dolphins in 2008, Langford separated himself from Phillip Merling and has become one of the Dolphins' best and underrated starters. The former third-round pick out of Hampton has never missed a game in four seasons and has consistently been one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in football, stout against the run and able to generate good pressure from inside. At his position, Pro Football Focus has ranked 12th in 2008, eighth in 2009, fifth in 2010, and 17th in 2011.

It's a bit surprising the Dolphins haven't worked out a long-term contract with Langford yet, but his salary did bump up to $1.4 million in 2011 and the team probably wanted to see its defensive line situation sort itself out this season. Langford continues to be a reliable starter and is an excellent pairing with Randy Starks. If I'm the Dolphins, I let Phillip Merling walk in free agency, release Tony McDaniel (due $3 million in 2012) to save money, and give Langford a four- or five-year deal so he can team with Starks and Jared Odrick in the years to come.

QB J. P. Losman

A former first-round pick by the Bills in 2004, Losman was signed after veteran backup Sage Rosenfels went down with an illness. He's appeared in two games, including significant time in relief of Matt Moore (concussion) against the Eagles in which the offensive line let him get obliterated. On the season, he's 6-of-10 for 60 yards with five sacks and a fumble.

Losman was signed to be an experienced backup behind Moore the rest of the season, as there was no way the team thought Pat Devlin was ready to be the No. 2 guy. That being said, the Dolphins have no real use for Losman long-term and his NFL future is cloudy at best. There is a chance the team signs him in the offseason to wait and see what they do in the draft, but Losman has no future in Miami with Matt Moore at the helm and a rookie backup likely on the way.

DE Phillip Merling

While I wouldn't say Merling has been terrible for the Dolphins, it's safe to say he's been disappointing with only five stats in four seasons since being taken in the second round in 2008. He has 66 tackles and 3.5 sacks for his career but has not been anything more than a backup type. Added to that, he suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in the 2010 offseason and also had a run-in with the law in a domestic incident.

Merling certainly has value in a depth role, but he hasn't shown he can be an NFL starter and he's actually becoming a bit big for a 3-4 defensive end, so he may be better suited for an inside role and eventually as a nose tackle. I think the Dolphins should make re-signing Langford a priority while moving on from Merling and finding younger depth elsewhere.

ILB Marvin Mitchell

A four-year veteran with the Saints, Mitchell was added by the Dolphins in mid-August to serve as a primary backup at inside linebacker behind Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. He's played 124 defensive snaps thus far on the season and has totaled 25 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

Mitchell is making only $685,000 this season and I think he could be had in 2012 for somewhere between that number and $1 million. Personally, I'd like to see him return as the top backup next season, although such a position is always very fluid and Mitchell won't be safe even if he does return.

RB Steve Slaton

It's been a downward spiral for Slaton ever since he rushed for over 1,200 yards with the Texans as a rookie in 2008. Slaton totaled 437 yards the season after and just 93 yards in 2010 as he completely fell out of favor in Houston. The Dolphins picked him up on waived a few weeks into the season, but he has just six carries for nine yards (1.5 avg) and hasn't played since Daniel Thomas got over his early-season hamstring injury.

I've always liked Slaton, not necessarily as a feature back but certainly as role player or as part of a tandem. He has good athleticism and natural ability. That being said, there's obviously something wrong if two teams refuse to give him any opportunities. Regardless, I'm sure Slaton still has visions of being a starter in the NFL, and I don't see that happening in Miami. I expect both parties to move on in 2012.

NT Paul Soliai

Soliai is a very interesting character, as he was labeled a major disappointment early in his career with maturity issues and lack of production landing him on the doghouse on a routine basis. Something clicked in 2010, however, as he transformed into an elite 3-4 nose tackle. Signed to a one-year contract worth more than $12 million under the franchise tag, Soliai hasn't been quite as good this season as he was last year, but is still one of the better nose tackles in the game.

As Ben Volin recently said, "350-pound nose tackles don't grow on trees." It may seem daunting for the Dolphins to extend both Langford and Soliai in the coming offseason, but it's something they need to do. He will not be easy to replace unless the team spends big money on another free agent, in which case it'd be best to just retain Soliai. I'd say a three- or four-year deal worth between $8 million a year sounds right.

OLB Jason Taylor

Taylor returned for his third stint with the Dolphins in 2011, and while the season likely hasn't gone like he had hoped, he's been a welcome addition to the team once again. The six-time Pro Bowler's value to the younger players on the defense cannot be understand, and he's shown he can still be effective even at 37 with quality run defense and seven sacks despite playing only half as many snaps as most starter.

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, Taylor make it clear this week that he'd be retiring at season's end while indicating he has no plans to "pull a Favre" and come back some point down the road. I'm sure someone like Bill Belichick will try to lure him for a title run, but I expect Taylor to remain committed to his retirement while heading to the broadcast booth and eventually to Canton.

Restricted Free Agents

RB/FB Lex Hilliard

A sixth-round pick back in 2008, Hilliard spent his rookie season on the practice squad. He saw action due to injuries in 2009 with 23 carries for 89 yards, but failed to record a touch the following year once the team's other backs came back healthy. This season, Hilliard has taken on more of a fullback role, rushing for just 41 yards and a touchdown on a 2.6 average while struggling as a blocker. He remains one of the team's better special-teams players, however.

I expect Hilliard to be back for camp next year one way or another. However, the team might feel a restricted free agent tender is a little high, so they could opt to non-tender him and re-sign him for less money. If he does return, he won't be guaranteed a roster spot depending on what the Dolphins do in the draft to back up Bush and Thomas and his role is unlikely to increase in 2012 if he does make the team.

OT Lydon Murtha

A seventh-round pick by the Lions in 2009, Murtha was plucked off the practice squad by the Dolphins and appeared in one game as a rookie. He served as Vernon Carey's primary backup at right tackle in 2010, starting four games with shaky results. Expected to remain one of the backup tackles in 2011, Murtha surprisingly landed on injured reserve with a toe injury before the season began.

Like with Hilliard, Murtha may not be worth the salary an RFA tender would bring and thus could be non-tendered and brought back for cheaper. Given the Dolphins' depth issues and the disastrous results from Marc Colombo in 2011, I suspect the team would like to retain Murtha if he's healthy. While he may never develop into a starter, I actually think a healthy Murtha could have done a better job than Colombo did in 2011 and I see continued use for him off the bench.

Exclusive-Rights Free Agents

DL Ryan Baker

Originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Purdue in 2009, Baker spent much of his early career on the Dolphins' practice squad before a late-season promotion as a rookie. He lost practice-squad eligibility permanently in 2010 when he appeared in nine games for the Dolphins. Baker was released early during the 2011 season but re-signed in November when the team released Igor Olshansky. For his career, Baker has appeared in 16 games (no starts) and recorded seven tackles, half a sack, and a pass deflection.

Baker has been a coach's favorite due to his work ethic and ability to play both nose tackle and defensive end, but the upside really isn't there. It wouldn't surprise me to see him brought back for cheap, especially if Merling walks and/or Tony McDaniel is released. However, he'll again be a long shot to be real contributor on defense.

OL Will Barker

Undrafted out of Virginia in 2010, Barker spent his rookie season between the Buccaneers' practice squad and active roster, appearing in three games. He began the 2011 season on the Buccaneers' practice squad again before being added to the Dolphins' active roster in early November. He has been inactive for every game with the team.

Barker is your typical long-time college starter that just doesn't have the physical tools to be an NFL starter. He's lack of elite athleticism or strength limits him to right tackle and potentially guard. I would imagine he'll be brought back to compete in training camp, but I'd consider him a long shot to make the team again in 2012.

OL Ray Feinga

After joining the Rams as an undrafted free agent out of BYU in 2009, Feinga spent a brief time with the San Diego Chargers before joining the Dolphins' practice squad in late December. Over the past two seasons, Feinga has bounced between the practice squad, Miami's active roster, and a few extended stints in free agency, including a four-game suspension in 2010. He has appeared in three regular season games, all coming last season.

Feinga hasn't gotten on the field much, but he's stuck around this long so there must be something the coaching staff likes about the guy. He has the bulk and body size to be a mauling guard, and even worked at tackle some in the preseason. If he can offer enough versatility he could stick around as a backup in 2012, although he won't be without competition.

TE Jeron Mastrud

Undrafted out of Kansas State in 2010, Mastrud joined the Dolphins at the beginning of the 2010 season after spending camp with the Buccaneers. He appeared in eight games as a rookie but did not catch a pass, and is the only backup tight end from that season to remain on the team. He has started three of 14 games played this season and has one catch for eight yards.

Mastrud has earned positive grades both as a pass protector and run blocker this season, although he offers little in the passing game and didn't do anything in Week 16 when Anthony Fasano was out with a concussion. He'll almost certainly be brought back in 2012 to compete with Will Yeatman and others, but this remains an area where the Dolphins could use an upgrade.

ILB Austin Spitler

A seventh-round pick by the Dolphins out of Ohio State in 2010, Spitler appeared in 12 games as a rookie and totaled four tackles. While he remained the team's fourth inside linebacker in 2011, he's stepped up his special-teams game with nine tackles (second on the team) through 12 games.

Spitler is easily one of the best special-teamers on the Dolphins and that alone should get him a new contract and an invite back to camp. However, he's yet to serious challenge for the top backup job at inside linebacker, and if he truly possesses no upside on defense, he'll probably only hang around a few years at moment before he's replaced by someone younger.

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