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Miami Dolphins’ search for impact wide receiver might not come in NFL Draft

The last time we saw Jeff Ireland, he was scouring the Senior Bowl for the one thing everyone — Ireland included — knows the Dolphins need: touchdown-scoring playmakers.

Ireland surfaces again Thursday, scheduled to meet the media here on the first full day of the NFL Scouting Combine. Not much has changed since he last spoke.

The Dolphins still have one of the league’s worst groups of wide receivers, and despite extensive contract talks with Brian Hartline over the past few weeks, still risk losing their best player at that position once free agency begins on March 12.

But if the Dolphins intend to add game-changing offensive talent this spring, they better do so before the draft.

“The top end of the draft, the top 10 picks, I don’t see the difference makers like we’ve had the last several years,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

We’ll soon see if he’s right. In the coming days, 38 receivers from schools ranging from USC to Lehigh will sprint, catch and jump for talent evaluators, hoping to improve their stock ahead of April’s draft.

But unless someone really makes a move, Mayock sees only two — Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and California’s Keenan Allen — worthy of a first-round pick. But Allen won’t run at the Combine because of a lingering knee injury, ESPN reported Wednesday.

Even when healthy, neither is a sure thing.

Patterson, who ESPN’s Mel Kiper projects Miami will take with the 12th pick, is a physical specimen but has played just one year of Football Bowl Subdivision football. Allen has size (6-3, 205) and great hands but lacks elite speed.

“The Dolphins need a wide receiver, but they also need a vertical threat, and I don’t think he’s a 4.4 [40-yard dash] guy,” Mayock said. “Here’s the deal with Keenan Allen: if you like him on tape, he’s Anquan Boldin. If you don’t like him, he’s speed deficient.”

Kiper believes Allen — who caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards in 2011 before regressing last year — would be a stretch at 12. But he is high on Patterson, who went pro after just one year at Tennessee (he had transferred from a junior college).

“Patterson did not have dominant performance in a number of games [at Tennessee],” Kiper said. “But he’s got potential. He’s a freakish talent. He should work out well [at the Combine].”

Here’s the problem for Miami: even if the front office thinks both Patterson and Allen would be good fits at 12, there’s no guarantee the team would get one of them. Teams know it’s a need for Miami, and might trade ahead of the Dolphins to beat them to the punch.

That’s why free agency is so important. By re-signing Hartline (which by all appearances the team is trying to do before he hits the open market) and then adding a Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings, it would open up all kinds of possibilities in the draft.

Wallace is expected to fetch in excess of $10 million annually — a steep price, but one the Dolphins probably need to pay, according one league personnel evaluator. Even if Wallace does nothing but run go-routes, the source said, he’ll be worth the investment if he catches 12 touchdown passes and 1,400 yards for the Dolphins.

Should the Dolphins sign one of those free agent receivers, they could wait until the second or third rounds — where they have four combined picks — to add receiver help. Baylor’s Terrance Williams, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton would be options.

That would allow the Dolphins to use their first-round pick to fill other another hole.

And while the receiver position might be uninspiring, this is a great draft for offensive and defensive tackles, experts agree.

Pending free agent Jake Long indicated to the NFL Network this week that he’d like to be back with the Dolphins, but said “it’s essentially on them” — a sign that he wants more than the team has offered up to this point.

But there’s good news if Long walks. Mayock says the four best players in the draft (Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper, Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher) are all offensive linemen — and all would be deserving of going first overall. Should one slip to 12th, it would be a coup for the Dolphins — even if the pick would generate yawns throughout much of the fan base.

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