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Nate Garner hopes he’s in Miami Dolphins’ long-term plans

In the jigsaw puzzle that is the Miami Dolphins’ offseason, Nate Garner is an oft-overlooked, but intriguing piece.

Garner, who started the last four games of the year after Jake Long tore his triceps, is a free agent who would come at a far cheaper price than Long and the other top-tier tackles set to hit the open market.

And it’s clear he wants to stay in Miami. Despite his contract expiring in less than a month, Garner was one of five Dolphins players to host a Valentines Day lunch for the homeless at the Salvation Army.

“Why not?” Garner said Thursday, after passing out food and signing autographs. “I’m still a Dolphin until March. It’s my team.”

And he wants to keep it that way. Garner has taken a hands-off approach to his contract situation, allowing agent Drew Pittman to sweat the details. Garner said he hasn’t heard anything yet about a potential extension.

A player of his experience and ability could fetch as much as $3 million per year, insiders believe, while Long wants a long-term deal paying in the $10 million range.

In the small sample size that was last year, there wasn’t a noticeable drop-off in production when Garner was on the field.

In the first three games after Long’s injury, Garner didn’t allow a sack and the Dolphins averaged 152 yards rushing.

However, in the finale against the Patriots, Garner struggled, surrendering a sack and six quarterback hurries. He finished the year as the league’s 43rd ranked tackle (ahead of Long and fellow starter Jonathan Martin), according to Pro Football Focus.

When asked if 2012 was the best he’s played in his career, Garner demurred.

“Not by far. I think 2009 [when he started eight games at guard] was the best I’ve played,” Garner said.

“I think last year is the best I’ve played at tackle, because I haven’t had a lot of opportunities at it. Hopefully, they think I did good enough to sign me back.”

Garner took a few weeks off after the season to let his body heal, then recently began working out at Chris Chambers’ training center in Davie. Fellow Dolphins lineman Josh Samuda also trains there.

But despite Garner’s uncertain future, he hasn’t used exercise as a stress reliever.

“I’m the kind of guy who’s like, whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, no matter if I worry about it or not,” he added. “So why worry about it?”

“I don’t know what their plan is for me in minicamps,” Marshall said. “I’ll definitely be back for [training camp], for sure.”