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Miami Dolphins say they likely will use franchise tag

Tag! Some Dolphin will probably soon be it. But who?

Perhaps Randy Starks.

The two-time Pro Bowler would cost only a little over $8 million under the franchise tag — or roughly half of what Jake Long would get.

Jeff Ireland wouldn’t talk specifics about the tag during his annual media briefing at the NFL Combine but did make some news in saying “this year there’s certainly a likelihood that we could use it.”

“We have a pretty good idea where we’re going with it, but things could change daily, hourly,” Ireland said later.

Reading between the lines (and using a pinch of common sense), the list of potentially tagged players gets awfully short.

Long is expensive and coming off injury.

The number might be a bit high for Brian Hartline, Sean Smith, Reggie Bush and Chris Clemons.

And tagging guys like Anthony Fasano and Matt Moore makes little, if any, sense.

But Starks? He’s still in his prime, coming off a strong season, and a clear priority for the Dolphins.

“It’s very important to have Randy back if we can get it done,” Ireland told reporters. “The fact of the matter is we have a very good defensive line and keeping that intact is a focus of mine.

“I don’t want to let that strength become just average,” Ireland continued. “I like where it’s at, and keeping it as a mainstay is important to me.”

That’s why this week’s festivities in chilly Indy are as much about veterans as it is the roughly 300 collegiate players hoping to improve their draft stock.

Free agency doesn’t begin until March 12, but the Dolphins have some hard decisions to make before then.

The last day NFL teams can apply the tag is March 4.

Beginning on March 9, other teams can begin talking with Miami’s free agents (although contracts cannot be signed for three more days).

“Whatever you give to an agent in the first 24 hours, they’ve got 48 hours left to continue doing their work,” Ireland said. “It’s a little sketchy.”

One effective, albeit pricey, way to ensure that doesn’t happen is by applying the franchise tag.

Ireland said the Dolphins had not decided whom to tag, and said Smith — the team’s starting cornerback the past four years — remains an option. But that might be as much a negotiating ploy as a real possibility.

Ireland has spoken with Smith’s agent, David Canter, in recent days, and left “optimistic,” he said, before adding the sides were still far apart on a deal.

But privately, power brokers say Ireland will probably let Smith walk, and once he reaches the open market, Smith won’t remain there long.

With more than $45 million in cap space, the Dolphins are expected to be among the biggest spenders in free agency.

Receivers Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings are believed to be high on their wish list.

And while Ireland is forbidden to talk about players technically still under contract with other teams, he did discuss his philosophy when it comes to targeting top-tier veterans.

“Everybody wants a bargain,” Ireland said. “[But] if you’re going to play in free agency, there’s not a ton of bargains out there, especially if you’re playing at the top of the market.

“You just have to feel confident that what you’re paying for is what you’re getting,” Ireland added. “That’s always been a philosophy of mine, that the value of the production and the value of the ability, they match, and that you’re not overpaying for a lesser-talented player.”

“There’s a lot of things that you normally don’t have in that particular case, some of the details I don’t want to get into, but it’s just a complicated negotiation,” Ireland said.

Long is coming off a torn triceps muscle, and the Dolphins will take Long’s injury history into consideration, but Ireland said that it’s not an issue.

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