Five years after Jake Long arrived in Miami with No. 1 pick pedigree and Hall of Fame expectations, he figuratively slipped out of town in the dead of night.
After taking the weekend to weigh his options, Long ultimately picked St. Louis over Miami late Sunday, agreeing to four-year contract with the Rams worth more than $8 million annually — and creating a massive hole on the Dolphins offensive line.
“He’s a class act; great guy,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said at league meetings in Phoenix on Monday. “He did a great job in Miami.”
It didn’t take Miami long to move on.
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Just hours after Long bolted for St. Louis, The Miami Herald first learned that the Dolphins were closing in on a deal with Nate Garner, his backup from a year ago.
Garner, 28, has appeared in 48 games in his career, starting 13. He is a valuable reserve, able to play multiple spots on the offensive line.
Garner started at right tackle the final month of the 2012 season after Long went down with a torn triceps muscle and played well for the most part.
Long’s injury history was part of the reason the Dolphins let him test the free agent market to begin with.
Still, the Dolphins made a real play to keep him.
They made an offer in the neighborhood of $8 million per year, provided him a chance to stay with the only team he has played for and came with built-in tax advantages.
“Certainly, we felt we put a competitive offer on the table,” general manager Jeff Ireland said.
Plus, there was his teammates’ intense lobbying effort, spearheaded publicly by Richie Incognito’s much-publicized Twitter campaign to keep his friend and cornerstone left tackle.
But in the end, none of it was enough.
“It was a tough decision,” Long told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I came in for a visit and coach [Jeff] Fisher and Kevin Demoff and Les Snead were amazing.
“I just fell in love with their vision and the entire organization, and all the great things they had to say about Mr. [Stan] Kroenke and the way they go about football.”
Long was the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 and started every game his first three seasons. The four-time Pro Bowler began breaking down physically at the end of the past two years and finished 2012 on injured reserve with a torn left triceps injury.
After the Dolphins passed on giving Long the franchise tag — which would have cost in excess of $15 million for just one season — it became clear he would reach free agency.
“Jake is still my brother, and I support him 100% in his decision to join the Rams,” Incognito tweeted.
Now Long is gone, and the Dolphins need a replacement. With Garner’s deal still pending, Jonathan Martin was the only tackle on the team Monday night who had started a game in 2012. Martin can play both the left and right sides.
Options still available in free agency include Bengals left tackle Andre Smith, Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and former Miami Hurricane Eric Winston.
Kansas City’s Brandon Albert, who reportedly will sign his first-round franchise tag, is another possibility. The Chiefs are said to be open to trading the former first-round pick.
Ireland said that all options — free agency, trade and draft — are on the table.
Bryant McKinnie, another UM Hurricane looking for a job, would like to play for the Dolphins and has said that to the franchise. As of Monday, however, there had been no serious talks between the sides.
“We would love to bring him to Miami; he would solidify the left side for them for the next two or three years,” his agent, Michael George, told The Miami Herald. “He completely shut down all the top pass rushers in the NFL throughout the playoffs and was one of the major reasons for [Joe] Flacco’s success and the Super Bowl win.”