The Miami Dolphins have a total of 20 players eligible for free agency in one of the three forms, Unrestricted (12), Restricted (5) and Exclusive Rights (3). The rules for free agency can be confusing and a basic explanation will help clarify.
Unrestricted Free Agent: A player with four or more years experience is eligible for unrestricted free agency. His current team has no guaranteed right to match outside offers to the player. Players in this category have unlimited rights to negotiate terms with any team.
Restricted Free Agent: A player with 3 years of experience is eligible for restricted free agency. His current team has the chance to retain the player's rights by matching the highest offer of any other NFL team. The current team can either block a signing or force a trade by offering a salary over a CBA negotiated threshold. There are three thresholds based on the dollar number negotiated by the CBA.
1. If a club tenders an offer of $XXX per year for a three-year veteran, and $XXX for a four-year veteran, the player's current team has "right of first refusal" over the contract at those terms, and may sign the player at those terms.
2. If a club tenders an offer of $XXX or 110% (whichever is greater) of the previous year's salary, then the current club has both "right of first refusal" and rights to a draft pick from the same round (or better) from the signing club. Essentially, this means that the new club must forfeit the draft pick to the old club if they wish to sign the player under these terms.
3. If a club tenders an offer of the CBA negotiated amount for a first round draft pick or 110% of the first round number (whichever is greater), then the current club has both "right of first refusal"; and rights to the first round draft pick from the signing club.
Exclusive Rights Free Agent: A player not under contract, but has only two years of NFL experience. If his former club makes him an offer at the three year veteran minimum salary, then the player has no right to negotiate with other teams. The player must sign the contract or leave the NFL.
Breaking down the Dolphins: Many times a visual representation can be an effective tool to give a snapshot perspective. The following graphic represents the Miami Dolphin offensive depth chart. The colors are associated with the free agent descriptions above. The chart includes a grade (The opinion of the author - open to debate in the comments section) for each player. The grade will give an understanding of why that player's contract should be negotiated or why that player should not be pursued. The analysis will follow. The defense will be reviewed in a separate post.
Beginning with the Tight End position, Anthony Fasano is unrestricted and has a grade of "B". Fasano's "B" grade is not an "A" because he is not the full package at TE. An "A" graded TE would be equally adept in the passing game and the run game. Fasano is an exceptional run blocker and excels in the running game. He is a good receiver but is limited in his ability to run routes in the open field. He lacks straight-line speed and is not a threat in the seams of the defense. Fasano is worthy of a second tier TE contract and should not be paid a top level deal, but is worth keeping if the price is right and should be a priority.
Jeron Mastrud is a restricted free agent. He has had some flashes, but has not shown the ability to be a threat in the passing game. The grade of "C" is due to his exclusive use as second TE blocking option. A number 1 category restricted tender should keep him on the Dolphins.
At offensive tackle, Jake Long is a "B+" rated LT. The reason Long is not "A" rated at his position is because of the injury issues that have not allowed him to complete the last two seasons. These same issues make it difficult to assess whether Long is an effective option in the west coast offense the Dolphins are moving toward. Long is a huge man and is better suited for a conventional run based offense. Long has represented the Dolphins in the pro bowl in 4 of his 5 seasons and his agent is certain to leverage those selections, but Long will have to sign an incentive laden team friendly contract if his is to remain in Miami. Miami would be remiss to pay Long a top dollar left tackle contract.
Nate Garner is a "C+" graded unrestricted FA Lineman. Garner is a perennial back-up who can play every line position excluding center. This versatility makes Garner very "organization friendly" but his true free agent value is difficult to assess. The Dolphins would like to keep him and should make him an offer equal to a back-up lineman or allow him to test the market. If another team is willing to pay him a big contract, the Dolphins should not match.
Patrick Brown is an exclusive rights tackle... Having seen little of his work, this author has no insight on his value, but he should be on the roster to open 2013.
At Wide Receiver, Brian Hartline is a "B" graded unrestricted free agent. Hartline had over 1,000 yards receiving and was clearly the best WR on the Dolphins this season. Hartline is a curious case because the lack of weapons around him and a rookie QB could be disguising an "A" rating behind double coverage and missed opportunities for long touchdown passes. The Dolphins lack of depth and talent at WR make signing Hartline a priority. Hartline may have to be overpaid, but allowing him to sign elsewhere leaves the Dolphins with too many gaps at receiver and will lead to another season of weak play at the position.
Marlon Moore is a restricted FA and should be given the opportunity to compete with a number 1 tender, but no more. Moore has had many opportunities to show progress, but it has been slow. It is doubtful another team will make an offer for Moore, Miami will be unable to match.
At Running Back, Reggie Bush is a "B" graded unrestricted free agent. Bush has been an excellent addition to the Dolphins in his two years with Miami. The problem for Bush is the depth Miami currently has at the running back position and the perceived lack of value associated with the position. Bush has done a better job of running between the tackles and is a good receiver out of the back field, but the position is easy to fill. Miami should sign Bush to a team friendly contract, but allowing him to leave will have negligible impact on the football team.
At Quarterback, Matt Moore is a "B" rated unrestricted free agent. A look at the depth chart shows Moore is actually rated higher than starter Ryan Tannehill. The rating was not intended as a slight to the rookie QB who ranked 31st in the NFL, but reflects the importance of having two starting caliber QBs on the roster. QB is the most important position on the field and most teams use more than one during the course of a season. Moore led the Dolphins to a victory for the injured Tannehill during the 2012 season. Signing Moore should be a priority as the position is vital and should represent a considerable portion of the salary cap.
Pat Devlin is an exclusive rights free agent and will be offered a contract to compete. Devlin will be a Dolphin again next season.
The conclusion is Miami should prioritize signing these offensive players in this order.
WR - Brian Hartline
QB - Matt Moore
TE - Anthony Fasano
The other players in this analysis could be signed, but these players will be more difficult to replace and cause significant gaps if they are allowed to walk.
The defense will be analyzed in a similar post to follow later.