Those ubiquitous 1-0 signs that line the Dolphins’ training complex?
They’re absolutely fitting this week — particularly for more than a dozen players whose contracts essentially end when the season does.
An entire year of work comes down to one final game, a grudge match Sunday with the Jets. A win would likely put the Dolphins in the playoffs. A loss would end their season — and for a sizable chunk of the locker room, their Dolphins careers.
Fourteen players will become unrestricted free agents when the league calendar turns over in March, including 10 players who have started or were expected to start games for the team this year.
Three-quarters of Miami’s defensive backfield (Brent Grimes, Nolan Carroll and Chris Clemons) could be gone.
Three-fifths of the offensive line that began the year as starters (Tyson Clabo, John Jerry and Richie Incognito) could hit free agency, along with the tackle acquired in a midseason trade (Bryant McKinnie). Plus, it appears unlikely that Jonathan Martin will ever return to the team, meaning that Mike Pouncey is the only Dolphins lineman guaranteed to be back next year.
It continues. Dustin Keller signed with the team in the spring but might never play a down for the team. He’s four months removed from major knee surgery — not an enviable position for a pending free agent.
And the backbone of the Dolphins defense, their defensive tackles, could take a serious hit as well. Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, the duo who has held down the interior defensive line for the past four years, both have expiring contracts.
“It’s the league,” said receiver Marlon Moore, a special-teams contributor who also is down to the last game of his current contract. “You’ve got players retiring, players getting released and going to other teams. It’s just the league and the game that we play.
“Of course, you wish you could keep your team together year after year after year, because you grow and develop relationships with your teammates. But it’s the game. GMs are going to make decisions, coaches are going to make decisions to try to win games.”
The problem in projecting the future for this group, insiders say, is that so much remains unknown. The Miami Herald reported weeks ago that Jeff Ireland has been given assurances from owner Stephen Ross that he will be back in 2014. Yet some in the football world remain skeptical, particularly if the Dolphins lose their final two games and miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
If there is a change at general manager, it could hurt longtime Dolphins such as Clemons, Carroll and Soliai, players who Ireland either drafted or re-signed and watched develop. A new GM wouldn’t have that same bond.
The first piece of the offseason puzzle will be who, if anyone, the team decides to make its franchise player. The likeliest candidates are Grimes, Soliai and Starks. Grimes would be the most expensive option (cornerbacks are expected to command more than $11 million in a one-year, guaranteed contract), followed by Starks (roughly $10 million) and then Soliai (around $9 million).
“Me and Randy, we know the situation that’s going on, but we’re just worried about winning this next game,” Soliai said. “We’ve been together so long, and we’ve never been in the playoffs [together].
“Every guy wants to stay where he started. But it’s all upstairs. It’s a business thing.”
Grimes had the best season of any pending Dolphins free agent and would likely be the hardest to replace. He is one of three high-profile players to sign one-year deals with the Dolphins before the 2013 season, and he has made the most of the audition.
Grimes believes he has played well in his first year back from a torn Achilles and hopes Dolphins decision-makers think the same.
“I never doubted myself, but you’ve got people who obviously see somebody tear their Achilles, playing corner, and think they won’t come back and play anymore,” Grimes said. “I guess I showed that you can.’’
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin on Tuesday praised the work done by both Grimes and Clabo, another 2013 free agent who signed just for this year.
Clabo had a horrendous start to the season — allowing eight sacks in the season’s first six weeks — but has been one of the team’s few bright spots on the offensive line since.
“There’s been ebbs and flows to the season, and at times I did my job — down the stretch, I’ve done a decent job,” said Clabo, who wants to return to Miami in 2014. “But none of that means anything if I don’t do a good job on Sunday. You’re only as good as your last play in this league. You don’t want to be the reason you don’t go to the playoffs.”
Keller is the third free agent on a one-year deal, but his value to the franchise is unclear, given both his health and the development of Charles Clay as the team’s top tight end.
The good news for Ireland (assuming he’s the one making the decisions in the new year): The Dolphins are in great fiscal shape. After futures deals and escalators, the Dolphins will have roughly $30 million in cap space in 2014, according to OverTheCap.com.
They could create even more space if they restructure Mike Wallace’s front-loaded contract, which has a cap hit of $17.3 million in 2014.