That extension paid Nelson $13.98 million over four years with $5 million guaranteed.
But because an extension was not signed, the Dolphins are not likely to get Hartline for $3.5 million per year anymore. Now the more likely model Rosenhaus will use is Laurent Robinson, whose production is similar to Hartline’s. Robinson got $6.5 million per year on a five-year, $32.5 million deal as a free agent last spring.
So Robinson got nearly as much guaranteed money ($13.8 million) as Nelson got total money in his deal. And although Hartline might not get that kind of money from the Dolphins, he could attract significant attention in free agency because the NFL is a passing league.
The same seems true of Smith, who is in his fourth year and will be a free agent after the season. Smith, a cornerback, is making $615,000 this year and that is going to seem like a huge bargain by next season because excellent NFL cornerbacks are routinely making 10 times that much on an annual basis.
No, maybe Smith isn’t going to get a contract like those given to Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million) or Cortland Finnegan (five years, $50 million).
But neither is he going to settle for a deal that resembles the three-year, $9.75 million contract signed by Aaron Ross with Jacksonville.
When talks that basically went nowhere earlier this season resume after the season, the Dolphins are going to have to decide if Smith is worth to them in the neighborhood of what Jason McCourty got in Tennessee (five years, $43 million) or Eric Wright got in Tampa Bay (five years, $38 million).
That’s Smith’s market.
Smith, it must be noted, was outstanding early in the season, shutting down Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But lately, he has not maintained that level. Coaches say he needs to be more consistent.
Miami is going to have to decide if it can live with some inconsistency when it also comes with some potential for excellence, and if that’s worth $6 million to $7 million per year.
It’s not an easy decision. Cornerbacks are valuable and the Dolphins don’t have anyone to take Smith’s starting spot if he leaves in free agency. They don’t have a lot of leverage.
The club also doesn’t have much leverage in the Starks negotiation. The defensive tackle has been consistently good the past three seasons, including 2010 when he went to the Pro Bowl.
The going rate for a Starks kind of player starts at $6 million per season. That’s what Paul Soliai is making in Miami and what Kendall Langford got from the Rams to play a 3-4 defensive end spot.
If the Dolphins believe that’s too rich, Starks will leave Miami the same way he came — via free agency — and he will get between $6 million and $7 million per season from someone.
The Dolphins will also have a tough negotiation with Long that could lead to him being designated with the franchise tag.
Overall, the team that has been careful about not overspending is soon going to have to pay much higher salaries merely to keep players. That is a certainty.
That is the only certainty the Dolphins can count on as they weigh the worth of their players.