The playoffs are essentially out of the question. But if nothing else, the Dolphins’ final three games should offer some level of clarity, or at the very least, more evidence to use on critical decisions:
• Whether Jonathan Martin plays well enough at left tackle to feel comfortable parting ways with Jake Long:
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Playing against elite 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, Martin allowed one sack and four hurries, and Pro Football Focus graded him at a minus-5.2 — his worst of the season. Only two of Long’s games this season were graded lower than Martin’s first 1 3/4 games at left tackle.
“I thought he did a good job,” coach Joe Philbin said. “I like the way he played.”
If Long is willing to accept a contract below his agent’s expectations, a deal could be reached. But Long’s bargaining position will be helped if Martin relinquishes several sacks over the final three games.
• Extent of offensive line changes: As much as the Dolphins hoped this line would be a long-term combination, its inability to consistently create space in the running game (21st in rushing average) makes it clear that changes are needed. Beyond Long’s status, the Dolphins might look to upgrade over right guard John Jerry, who is ranked 55th of 82 guards by Pro Football Focus.
Left guard Richie Incognito, due $4 million next season, appears more likely to stick than not. This season, Miami has had its most success running behind him and Mike Pouncey.
• What to do with Reggie Bush: An exceptional final three games or subpar work from Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller could cause the Dolphins to reassess Bush’s value and make an earnest attempt to re-sign him, even though they prefer not to pay him as much as the $4.5 million he’s collecting this season.
In the past two weeks, Bush has 29 carries for 129 yards (4.4-yard average). Thomas has seven for 13. Miller got his first carries in a month on Sunday and had just 1 yard on three attempts, but caught a pass for an 8-yard gain and a first down.
“I thought Lamar did a decent job,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “He did a great job on the screen. He needs to play in the games more. He knew what he was doing. He was aggressive.”
The playing time discrepancy between Bush and the other backs was the biggest in a while Sunday. Bush played 44 snaps, Thomas 13 and Miller nine. Bush lined up at receiver on several of those.
• What to do with Randy Starks and where to play Jared Odrick: Because of his size (310 pounds), Odrick could move inside to tackle if the Dolphins cannot agree on a new contract with Starks, who was among Miami’s best players in the first half of the season. Doing that — and drafting a skilled pass-rushing end — would be a consideration if Starks leaves.
Odrick, who has only four sacks, usually moves to tackle in passing situations, but defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said “we have him in the right spot” playing defensive end primarily. “I still think he can play a lot better,” Coyle said.
• Looming questions in the defensive backfield: The Dolphins must decide how much they’re willing to pay free agent Sean Smith (they would like to keep him) and whether they’re content going into next season with impending free agent safety Chris Clemons remaining a starter opposite emerging standout Reshad Jones.
Nolan Carroll (rated 79th among 110 corners) and Richard Marshall appear better suited as third corners, making it likely Miami drafts a cornerback or signs one. If Smith leaves, the Dolphins likely would need to find two starters.
• What can the Dolphins project from their young receivers and tight ends: Finding an impact receiver and a stretch tight end will be priorities. What Miami must decide is whether either Rishard Matthews or Marlon Moore is good enough to be projected as a fourth receiver behind an offseason pickup, Brian Hartline — presuming Miami will be able to re-sign him, which is no sure thing — and Davone Bess.
With starter Anthony Fasano an impending free agent, it would help to see third-round pick Michael Egnew in a game to know if he can be the stretch-the-field tight end that this offense so desperately craves. Philbin suggested Monday he feels no need to do that, and Sherman said: “That’s a question Coach Philbin and Jeff Ireland have to answer. … Maybe that’s something we have to look at.”
Egnew, inactive every game, “has made progress, but he hasn’t 100 percent shown that consistency in practice,” Sherman said. “He shows signs of greatness every once in awhile, but we want to see it a little more often.”