Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jake Long lands on IR with triceps injury

The latest chapter in Jake Long's career has seen the Pro Bowl left tackle placed on injured reserve for the second straight season—this time with a torn left triceps muscle suffered in Week 13 against the New England Patriots. The only question remaining is whether or not it's Long's final chapter in Miami.

Due to be an unrestricted free agent in the coming offseason, Long is coming off his least productive season to date and has seen injuries sap his talent and ability to remain on the field. Long left Sunday's game against the Patriots with what a triceps injury and tests later confirmed the severity, ending his season after a career-low 12 starts.

Click the image above to view a high-res
graphical representation of Jake Long's
injury history with the Dolphins
The former No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft has four Pro Bowl selections in as many seasons and could be heading for a reputation-based fifth in 2012. After starting the first 62 games of his career without a miss, Long landed on IR with torn bicep after 14 games in 2011.

In addition to shutting Long down Tuesday, the Dolphins also waived safety Anderson Russell, who spent last season on the practice squad and and the past five weeks on the active roster, playing in the last three games as a special-teamer. He could be re-signed to the practice squad if he clears waivers.

To fill their two open roster spots, the Dolphins brought back two familiar faces in safety Tyrone Culver and offensive tackle Patrick Brown.

Culver played 62 games for the Dolphins over the past four seasons but was released during final cuts and has been a free agent ever since. Brown, who played in all 16 games for the Vikings last season as a reserve tackle last season, spent time on the Dolphins' roster between September and November 2010, although he did not appear in a game.

Jake Long

It was a debate many of us had been discussing all season, but with Long officially on the shelf for the remainder of the 2012 season and the final year of his rookie contract, now we can really start to sink our teeth in.

The question here is what to do with Jake Long this offseason. A few years ago, Long was looking like the best tackle in the NFL, a perennial Pro Bowler who could even garner Hall of Fame consideration if he continued to produce and rack up accolades at the same rate for over a decade.

Now, I am 100 percent against the Dolphins signing long to anything close to "elite" tackle money, with the benchmark typically being the seven-year, $84 million contract signed by the Browns' Joe Thomas a year ago. (The deal included nearly $44 million guaranteed.)

The next option is a one-year contract under the franchise tag that will guarantee Long a 2013 salary of over $15 million. It's not the money that concerns me, because the Dolphins would still have roughly $30 million in cap space even with Long tagged and they aren't going to (or shouldn't) come close to spending all that this offseason anyway. Paying Long that much with the franchise tag affects Stephen Ross' wallet, but not the future of the Dolphins or their ability to build the rest of the roster.

That being said, I'm not so sure I'd use the franchise tag on Long even if I could afford it, because I think cornerback Sean Smith might be more worthy of the tag. His tender will be in the $10 million range (again, perfectly manageable for one season as explained above) and the Dolphins' secondary would be in shambles if it lost Smith, as inconsistent as he has been.

I haven't been a huge defender of Smith's this season, but 25-year-old, 6-foot-3 corners with tons of starting experience don't grow on trees and the team doesn't have another clear-cut starting talent on the roster. The franchise tag for Smith is entirely affordable and allows the Dolphins to delay having to completely retool its secondary for another season. And, if Smith gets his head on straight and proves he can be a shutdown guy, then you still have the opportunity to extend him in 2014.

The reality is that extending someone with Long's injury history probably isn't worth the risk, but some NFL team in need of pass protection will do it. And for all we know, Long could make it completely worth it because he has all the talent in the world. But is it worth it for the Dolphins to risk losing Smith or risk being committed to Long over six or even years? I'd say almost certainly not.

With Long out for the season, rookie second-rounder Jonathan Martin will move from right tackle to left tackle and start in his place protecting Ryan Tannehill's blind side. Martin, who was a full-time left tackle at Stanford, was has had his ups and downs in 2012 but looked at home on the left side against the Patriots and projects as the long-term starter there if Long does not return.

The immediate concern for the Dolphins, and Tannehill in particular, is Nate Garner starting in the right side with Martin now at left tackle. Garner held his own against New England but has struggled when thrust into a starting job in recent years, including a 2011 contest against the Eagles in which he allowed seven hurries and three sacks.

The positive with Garner is that he's a fairly capable run blocker, but doesn't expect him to be entirely reliable in pass protection on the right side. The team will also miss his depth on the bench as he has NFL experience at every offensive line position. As things stand, the Dolphins really have no backup guards in the active roster and only undrafted rookie Chandler Burden on the practice squad.

Patrick Brown

An Illinois native, Brown started at left tackle as a true freshman for the UCF Knights and went on to start all 50 contests for the team over four seasons, twice earning an All-Conference USA selection.

Brown went undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft and signed with the Panthers as a rookie free agent. He was waived by the team during final cuts and signed to the practice squad of the New England Patriots the following day, but was released on Sept. 24. He was signed to the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad five days later and remained there the rest of the 2009 season. Inked to a future contract with the Vikings in 2010, Brown appeared in all four of Minnesota' preseason games; however, he was once again waived during final cuts.

The New York Jets claimed Brown off waivers prior to the 2010 season and he spent the first two games of the regular season inactive. He was waive on Sept. 23 and claimed by the Dolphins just days before a matchup with the Jets. After seven weeks inactive for the Dolphins, Brown was again waived and finished out the season back in Minnesota.

For the first time in his career, Brown made a team's active roster to start the season and went on to appear in all 16 games for the Vikings in a reserve capacity, played 42 offensive snaps at tackle during the season. However, he was waived during final cuts again in 2012 and has been a free agent since.

Brown's No. 66, which he wore for the Dolphins in 2010, is currently taken by practice squad defensive tackle Chas Alecxih. He has experience at left and right tackle and will serve as additional depth in practice with Nate Garner inserted into the starting lineup on the right side.

Tyrone Culver

A Fresno State alum, Culver was originally drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. After two seasons in Green Bay, Culver made his way down to Miami and was an integral piece of the Dolphins' secondary depth over the past four seasons.

Between 2008 and 2011, Culver played in 62 games (missing only two) and started six contests, including four in 2011 in place of an injured Chris Clemons. During that four-year span, Culver racked up 96 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and nine pass deflections.

Culver inked a contract extension with the Dolphins in 2011 and was originally set to make $800,000 this season before he was released. He likely signed a one-year contract for the veteran minimum with the Dolphins this time around.

This is a signing I like a lot, even though it isn't going to have a huge impact on the remainder of the season. Culver was at times a reliable dime back for the Dolphins and he knows the team's personnel as well as Kevin Coyle's scheme from his time with the team in training camp. I'd expect him to play as early as this week against San Francisco on special teams and maybe even a bit on defense.

Like Brown, Culver's former jersey number is currently taken by another player on the team. Safety Jonathon Amaya is wearing Culver's old No. 29, although Amaya originally wore No. 40 with the Dolphins in 2010 and that was the number of waived safety Anderson Russell.