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Miami Dolphins facing tough free-agency choices

They won’t pull a Mike Shanahan and admit it publicly, but now that the playoffs are a long shot, the Dolphins probably will keep at least one eye on the future as the season runs its course.

As for Dolphins players — particularly those in the final year of their contracts — they are far more willing to admit the obvious: how they play during the final six weeks of the season will play a big part in where they spend next season.

“I think I have my chance to show that I’m trying to be here for the long-term,” said defensive tackle Randy Starks, one of roughly 20 Dolphins players whose contracts expire at season’s end.

Added corner Sean Smith: “This is a performance league. You play better, you pay better.”

Yet it appears that payday is far from imminent for Smith, Starks and his fellow Dolphins free agents.

Despite roughly $40 million in cap space in 2013, the Dolphins apparently have decided to wait until the season ends before entering into any significant contract negotiations. That’s according to multiple league sources familiar with the organization’s dealings.

By doing so, they will have just a couple of months to decide what to do with their seven starters who are set to become free agents.

The biggest choice:

Who gets the franchise tag (assuming they can’t sign either to long-term deals): Smith or Jake Long?

Pick Long (whose one-year salary under the franchise tag would be roughly $15million), and they have their starting left tackle and former No. 1 overall pick for at least another season.

Or tag Smith (at nearly $11 million), and Miami would not have to rely on Nolan Carroll and Richard Marshall as its starting cornerbacks in 2013.

But they had better choose wisely. The salary of whoever gets the tag would devour roughly one-fourth of their available cap space.

Plus, by picking one, they would risk losing the other, creating a hole that could prove tough to fill.

Although Long’s production has slipped a bit this season, cornerstone left tackles “don’t just grow on trees,” as a source familiar with the organization put it, and on the open market, he would command a contract in the range of $12 million per season.

Insiders believe Smith could get upwards of $9 million annually should he hit free agency — a contract similar to that of the Ravens’ Lardarius Webb.

Long said recently that he hasn’t thought much about his looming free agency, but Smith said it creeps into his head from time to time.

“I’m not going to lie; it’s impossible not to [think about it],” said Smith, who added that he wants to remain in Miami.

Neither Long nor Smith has played his best football in recent weeks. Long has allowed three sacks this season, and Smith doesn’t have an interception since getting two in Week 4. But each has put plenty of good film on tape through the years, and if either is hurt financially by recent struggles, it is believed to be on the margins.

However, Starks is probably having his best season since 2009. Pro Football Focus ranks him the eighth-best defensive tackle in football, ahead of high-priced Ndamukong Suh and just behind Richard Seymour, who is due to earn $7.5 million in 2013.

A more likely price range for Starks is between $5 million and $6 million annually. As of Monday, there had been “no steps” taken to get him a new contract, Starks said.

Chris Clemons has played at an above-average level this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but has made few of the game-changing plays that get safeties paid.

As for the offense, if you think that has been bad this season, imagine what it might look like if Brian Hartline, Reggie Bush and Anthony Fasano all walk out the door. Combined, they have accounted for 57 percent of the team’s total yardage and seven of its 18 offensive touchdowns.

All are in the final years of their respective contracts.

Hartline has had the best season of his four-year career, leading the team with 53 catches and 790 yards. But when asked if he feels pressure to finish strong, he demurred.

“Because the people that I’ve been around, the people that know me, it hasn’t been a one-year tryout,” Hartline said. “It’s been a four-year tryout. I haven’t changed.”

A reasonable contract comparison for Hartline is the one given last year to Jordy Nelson — three years at just more than $4 million annually. But Bush is a wild card. Somebody might pay him big money on potential, but concerns over his durability probably will scare away others.

Fasano wouldn’t cost the Dolphins more than a few million dollars per year if they decide to keep him. But he said that it’s too early to think much about that, even if many are counting the Dolphins out at 4-6.

In that way, he sounded a lot like the Dolphins’ coach.

“You have one opportunity [to] shape a 2012 team and that’s it,” coach Joe Philbin said Tuesday. “That’s what you have. What happens beyond that, nobody’s really sure.

“So I’m not really focused one bit on what’s going to go on down the road.”

As for general manger Jeff Ireland, contract negotiator Dawn Aponte and the rest of the Dolphins’ personnel department? That’s a different story.

Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson contributed to this report.

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