One by one, veteran offensive tackles are disappearing from the open market. And yet the Miami Dolphins, who hope to upgrade at the position, remain patient.
With Sebastian Vollmer resigning with the Patriots, the assumption is the run on the few remaining available starters will begin shortly.
That’s the hope of Eric Winston, the one-time Miami Hurricane lineman who is firmly on the Dolphins’ radar, but as of Monday, remained unsigned.
The Dolphins are one of a handful of teams Winston has visited since being released by the Chiefs three weeks ago. And while he declined to get into contract specifics, he did say he would be open to returning to South Florida.
“Playing in the NFL is a privilege,” Winston said, who was at UM from 2003 through 2005. “Being anywhere would be nice.
“But I know South Florida well,” he added. “I have friends down there. It’s a beautiful place to live. It would be pretty awesome to go back. Not going to say it’s the end-all to be in Miami. But it would be a great place to be for my personal experience.”
After hosting Winston last week, the Dolphins remain interested – but at their price. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said on his weekly WSVN Channel 7 segment Sunday that the situation is “fluid.”
POCKETS STILL DEEP
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland has the money to spend. The Dolphins have roughly $14 million in remaining salary cap space, but that will bump up to $21 million after June 1. (They’ll need about $8 million of that to sign draft picks and get through the season.)
The Dolphins could free up more space if they sign franchised defensive tackle Randy Starks – who currently has a cap number of $8.5 million – to a multi-year deal. As of Monday, however, the sides had not yet entered into talks about an extension, according to a league source.
The Dolphins have been judicious with their money since their opening flurry of moves. As of Monday afternoon, they had gone nearly a week without signing an unrestricted free agent.
Their most recent addition (or retention, in his case) is Nate Garner, who as it stands currently is their starting right tackle. Yet the team sees Garner more as a versatile backup then an every-down player.
With Vollmer staying in New England, the Dolphins’ realistic options are the Winston, Bengals’ Andre Smith (seen by some as the best free agent still available at any position) and Bryant McKinnie, another former UM tackle who also wants to play for the Dolphins.
The Chiefs could also deal Branden Albert, who is currently under the franchise tag, but are said to want more than a second-round pick in return.
But Ireland doesn’t want to stop there, it seems, and would like to upgrade the entire right side of the line. John Jerry is still under contract a year after starting all 16 games, but Pro Football Focus ranked him 36th out of 47 NFL guards who took at least 60 percent of their teams’ snaps last year.
So it’s not a surprise that some throughout the league see the right side as a major concern for the team.
Free agent guards Brandon Moore and Lance Louis both have come in for visits. Moore is highly coveted, meeting also with the Cowboys and Lions. Louis is coming off a torn ACL, and the Dolphins have not made an aggressive push to sign him.
DRAFT MAY YIELD TOP LINEMAN
If the team can’t find the right fit in free agency, the draft remains a viable option. This is considered a deep and strong year for offensive linemen, with as many as four expected to go in the top 10. Should Eric Fisher of Central Michigan slip to the Dolphins at 12, he would be a real possibility.
Alabama’s D.J. Fluker might be a stretch at that spot, but perhaps the Dolphins would consider him if they traded back. Florida State’s Menelik Watson worked out privately with Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner during the Seminoles’ Pro Day, although he likely wouldn’t come off the board until at least the second round.
The Dolphins also have expressed interest in Kentucky guard Larry Warford, a 6-3, 332-pound mauler whom NFL Draft Scout rates as the fourth-best player at his position. He’d be a possible fit in Rounds 2 or 3.
• One free agent who remains on the Dolphins’ radar is linebacker Thomas Howard, who visited Miami the first week of free agency. Miami is still in the mix for the former Bengal, according to a league source.
Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson contributed to this report.