The Dolphins and Jets play a largely meaningless game Sunday.
Daryn Colledge will savor every moment of it.
That’s because Miami’s starting left guard knows there is a decent chance it will be his final three hours in the National Football League. No player better captures the uncertain nature of this abrupt, disappointing end to the 2014 Dolphins season than Colledge.
He was one of the core players on the Dolphins’ offensive line this year, starting 12 games. Plus, Colledge and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin are tight. He’s the type of player Philbin loves — a hard-worker who buys into the system.
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But he also is a month and a half away from his 33rd birthday, when most players are well into their post-football careers. In all likelihood, Colledge has already played his best football.
That’s why Colledge last week wouldn’t even commit to wanting to return for a 10th NFL season.
“That’s up to me and my wife,” Colledge said. “We have to see if the offers are out there. People decide. I was injured this year. I’m 32 years old. There will be a lot of choices for teams to make. There’s a lot of great talent. And there’s a lot of great talent coming in the league. Maybe I’ll be in the mix, maybe not.”
He could be speaking for more than a third of the team.
Colledge and 12 other Dolphins are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March: quarterback Matt Moore; safeties Louis Delmas and Jimmy Wilson; running backs Knowshon Moreno, Daniel Thomas and LaMichael James; defensive tackle Jared Odrick; offensive linemen Samson Satele and Jason Fox; tight end Charles Clay; and linebackers Jason Trusnik and Kelvin Sheppard.
Plus, at least seven others are under contract, but in danger of being cut: wide receivers Brandon Gibson and Brian Hartline; linebacker Dannell Ellerbe; defensive tackle Randy Starks; offensive linemen Shelley Smith and Nate Garner; and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
Many of these decisions will be easy for general manager Dennis Hickey, whose team enters the offseason roughly $6million under the projected 2015 salary cap:
Finnegan would like to return in 2015, but retirement seems a more likely outcome. Moreno, Ellerbe and Delmas are coming off major injuries and probably won’t be back. Hickey will surely look to upgrade over Thomas, James, Fox, Garner, Trusnik and Sheppard.
But many other calls will be closer. Among the team’s biggest decisions:
1. Who will be the No.3 receiver next year: Hartline, Gibson or neither?
If the Dolphins decide to keep Hartline (34 catches, 380 yards and two touchdowns in 2014), they might demand he take a pay cut. He’s on track to be paid like a starter next year, with a cap figure of $7.4million if he’s on the roster.
But Jarvis Landry is younger, cheaper and arguably better. Hartline’s release is no slam-dunk, however. The Dolphins would save only $3.2million by cutting him.
“He’s made a very good contribution to the team,” coach Joe Philbin said. “I think he’s had a good year. He works extremely hard every single day. He works hard every time he gets to the game field. I think he’s contributed nicely.”
Gibson (26 catches, 268 yards and one touchdown) has a $4.3million cap figure if the Dolphins keep him, but only $1million if they do not.
“It’s frustrating just because I know what I’m capable of,” Gibson said of his diminished role this year. “But at the same time, I’m adjusting and just doing what the team’s asking. … I still can play. No doubt about it.”
2. What changes are coming at guard?
One of the bigger disappointments this season has been the lack of production from Smith, who signed a two-year contract in the spring.
He has missed more games to injury this year than he has started, and never truly got back on track after a disastrous tryout at center. Smith has a $3million cap hit in 2015; the Dolphins would be on the hook for just $250,000 if they cut him.
“I’d say the key thing is make sure I stay healthy,” Smith said. “Obviously, sometimes that’s out of your control. Just do the best you can to stay healthy so I can be consistent and be on the field and they can count on me.”
Satele — on track to start all 16 games — would be open to returning as a backup, and the Dolphins could probably sign him for cheap. But he has never played any position other than center. And Mike Pouncey has made it clear he wants to play center next year.
Satele just hopes for clarity sooner than he got it this year — when he didn’t sign with the Dolphins until August.
“At night I would think about not having a job, trying to support my family,” Satele said. “It hurt me for like six, seven months. But I finally got a job. I didn’t want to lose it.”
3. Will the Dolphins blow up their interior defensive line?
The high-priced defensive front has received much of the blame for the team’s late-season collapse. And it has been justified; expect significant changes at that position in the coming months.
Starks’ 2014 production (25 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and often a liability in run defense) hasn’t come close to justifying his 2015 cap number ($6million if he’s on the roster; $1million if he’s not). It’s hard to see him back unless he agrees to a significant reduction in salary.
Then there’s the curious case of Odrick, who might command upwards of $6million a year in free agency. He has expressed interest in returning next year — under the right circumstances — but the Dolphins had made no overtures as of last week.
4. Who will be the Dolphins’ backup quarterback?
Moore agreed to return as a backup when last a free agent two years ago. Might he do so again? The organization has yet to approach him about an encore.
“Whatever the situation is, I’m still determining,” Moore said. “I’m just trying to find the best fit. Move forward accordingly. I haven’t really put too much thought into it. Just trying to finish this thing out strong and handle it when the time comes.”