Decline of Miami Dolphins’ Jake Long a delicate issue

Jake Long is the leading Pro Bowl vote-getter among NFL offensive tackles, so, barring a collapse of support from fans and his peers the next few weeks, he’s headed back to the same all-star game to which he has been voted every season he’s been in the NFL.

That suggests Long is as good as he has ever been.

It also leads you to think the Dolphins should be feeling pretty good about having Long as their franchise left tackle and one of their cornerstone players.

Except that’s only the surface view of things and although all might seem fine to the Pro Bowl voters, all is most definitely not fine.

The truth is Long has not been playing up to his previous standards. The truth is Long is in the third season of a progressive decline because he played better in 2009 than in 2010, he played better in 2010 than 2011 and this has been his worst season so far.

Publicly, Long is putting on a good face and chiseled chin on his troubles. When he was asked this week if he’s playing as well now as last season he said, “yes,” without hesitation.

But privately, everyone knows that isn’t right. The truth is Long’s play has fallen so far off from an elite level he is more often mired in mediocrity than lifted up in excellence.

He has allowed four sacks this season.

His run-blocking grades have rarely been the best among Miami’s offensive linemen. He no longer is playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He’s not even playing like the best tackle in his conference (Houston’s Duane Brown is that) or division (D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nate Solder have been better).

The illustrations of Long’s 2012 struggles are startling and almost painful to watch.

You saw him struggle against Indianapolis linebacker Dwight Freeney in a loss to the Colts. Long could not consistently keep up with Freeney’s quickness and spin move, and gave up a sack, a couple of pressures and also committed a false-start penalty.

Afterward, Long made the point that Freeney is a great player who has given many offensive tackles difficult days.

That was true five years ago. Now Freeney is 32 years old and that sack against Long was his only one in November. He has two sacks this season and that ranks him tied for 97th in the NFL.

Anyone paying attention during the loss to Buffalo also saw the painful moment when Long was collapsed to his knees by Shawne Merriman on an outside run play. The play has been replayed multiple times on TV and if you saw it, you understand something is definitely not the same when it comes to Long.

And all that presents the Dolphins with a major issue:

What to do with their cornerstone player if the cornerstone continues cracking.

The only reason this is an issue is because everything with Long is relative. No, he has not been as good as he was three seasons ago. But he’s still a solid player.

No, he has not been elite, but he’s still worth keeping.

The trouble comes when you consider the price of keeping Long. When he signed his rookie contract, he became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive tackle. And that was fine at the time because he played like the NFL’s best offensive tackle.

Long was so good so fast that the final year of his contact was voided because he exceeded play-time parameters in the deal. So that means he is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

And, like most good representatives do, Long’s agent probably will talk to the Dolphins sometime soon and try to get Long a new contract that will continue to pay him as his continued Pro Bowl reputation would demand:

Like one of the NFL’s best, if not the best.

The Dolphins would be ridiculously dumb to agree to that.

The Dolphins must be wary that the current trend of Long slipping is an ominous sign. Yes, he’s only 27 years old, but there are many examples of dominant players slipping prematurely as injuries and years mount. Those players often become salary-cap burdens during their supposed prime.

That’s what Long might become if the Dolphins match the contract current elite left tackle Joe Thomas signed with Cleveland last season. That deal pays Thomas $92 million with $44 million guaranteed over eight years. Long would never see the final years of that kind of deal unless his current trajectory takes a dramatic bull market upswing.

The other problem with using the Thomas deal as the blueprint for a Long deal in Miami is that Long isn’t playing at the same level as Thomas. So why would the Dolphins pay him as if he was?

The answer is obviously one of two possibilities:

Long and his agent accept a more modest deal that doesn’t pay $11.5 million like Thomas got but pays more along the lines of the $8 million-a-year deal Brown got from the Texans in August or the $9.2 million-a-year Ferguson got from the Jets in 2010.

That would mean a pay cut for Long. And there is no inkling how he feels about such a possibility because he declined to be interviewed for this column.

But if Long isn’t agreeable to a deal that pays him relative to his current performance level, the Dolphins have another recourse in using the franchise tag.

If the Dolphins put the franchise tag on Long, it would cost them $15.36 million next year — which is 120 percent of what Long is making this season.

That is very, very expensive.

But it locks up Long for one year. It doesn’t let Long go shopping himself in free agency. It doesn’t create another hole for Miami at a time general manager Jeff Ireland is trying to plug plenty of roster needs. The franchise tag also buys the Dolphins time.

Placing the franchise tag on Long gives the Dolphins a chance to see if he can regain his old form. If Long recovers next season, then the team could feel a greater comfort in locking him up for a longer term.

But if Long continues to play like an ordinary left tackle, the Dolphins could revisit the idea of signing a modest contract.

Or they could even look at other options — no matter how many times Long gets elected to the Pro Bowl.

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