Miami Dolphins face quandary as free agency approaches


With free agency looming, the Dolphins have to decide whether to re-sign top players or let them hit the market.

Free agency begins in just one month, but the Dolphins have yet to re-sign any of their dozen players whose contracts will soon expire.

Don’t mistake quiet for inactivity.

Behind the scenes, the front office has discretely targeted at least two starters — Brian Hartline and Chris Clemons — they hope to lock into contract extensions before the NFL’s new year begins on March 12.

The club has had extensive discussions with Hartline and Clemons about a return in 2013, according to a league source. Hartline set career highs in catches (74) and yards (1,083) last year, while Clemons started every game for the first time as a pro.

However, many of their fellow free agents have yet to receive nearly that level of attention.

Some believe the Dolphins’ front office will kick-start negotiations with their own at next week’s Scouting Combine. But the organization might find the late-February negotiating terrain far rockier than expected.

Considering the steep price that comes with franchising any of their premier players — tackle Jake Long would get a cap-straining $15 million if franchised — the Dolphins might pass on the tag this year and set them free, in hopes some return at a discount. Teams have between Feb. 18 and March 4 to apply the tag.

Reggie Bush, Randy Starks, Sean Smith and Matt Moore all appear to fall under that category. Each has expressed interest in staying with the Dolphins, but since they are now so close to a potential windfall in free agency, there might be little incentive to agree to a deal before then.

Granted, that could change should the Dolphins make an otherworldly offer. And certainly, some could re-sign with the team after shopping around. But that’s a risk for the Dolphins, particularly with eight starters with expiring contracts.

With more than $45 million in salary cap space, the Dolphins have the firepower to bring back whomever they desire.

Another possibility: general manager Jeff Ireland could also be hoarding the team’s resources so he can make a run at what appears to be a rich free agent class. The top names could include receivers Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings and Dwayne Bowe, tackle Ryan Clady (although Denver is expected to franchise him), defensive end Cliff Avril, and corners Aqib Talib and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

All this comes against the backdrop of the Dolphins’ bid for public dollars to renovate Sun Life Stadium, an issue that will be decided by Miami-Dade voters. The club announced Monday that it has agreed to a binding countywide vote on the tax proposal, which if it passes would give the Dolphins nearly $200 million to make fixes to their 26-year-old facility.

However, a source in the football side of the organization said that the referendum — which will likely occur in May — will not create a greater sense of urgency to make a free agency splash.

Miami Herald sportswriter Armando Salguero contributed to this report.

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