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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Long Goodbye?

By Toby Durant

Jake Long's 5 year, $57.75 million dollar rookie contract, which came with $30m guaranteed and made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL before even playing a snap is coming to an end. And so, maybe, is his time in Miami.

The Dolphins have gotten a good return from Jake Long in that contract. He quickly became one of the premier left tackles in the NFL, rewarding the #1 draft choice that Miami used in the 2008 draft. However, for the last season and a half his play has plateaued, and even dropped off. Injuries to his back, shoulder and bicep have caused issues previously and now a tricep injury could sideline him for the reason of the season.

The cumulative effect of these injuries seems to have sapped some of Long's power, and as a result affected the way he plays and uses leverage. He's admitted himself that this season has been disappointing, particularly after allowing 1 sack, 3 QB hits and 3 QB hurries against Indianapolis recently, in what was perhaps the worst single performance of his career.

So, with his free agency looming, should the Dolphins bring back their franchise left tackle? Can they afford to do so or should they look to use their money elsewhere?

  • Option 1: The Franchise Tag

Miami and Long have not yet been able to agree to a long term deal, and because of the size of his rookie contract the franchise tag, which would allow Miami to keep him for an extra year, would cost them around $15.4 million. A hefty amount for sure. Miami's cap space, as of November 1st according to Pro Football Talk was just $7 million. Of course this is a very fluid figure, and with other contracts coming off their books at seasons end it will go up, but Miami are by no means a team with few holes. Their lack of talent at wide receiver has been glaring at times this year, as have the holes in their secondary. And with top cornerback Sean Smith also in the final year of his contract, he could be a far more favourable franchise tag recipient, with the cornerback tag only costing $10 million.

  • Option 2: Tag and Sign

Applying the franchise tag to Jake Long would prevent other teams negotiating with him and give Miami until the start of the 2013 season to negotiate a long term deal. Given Long's rookie contract that came under the last CBA, we could see a Calvin Johnson situation here, where the price of Long's second contract is inflated due to the size of his rookie one. Last season Cleveland locked up their franchise left tackle Joe Thomas, who was a 3rd overall pick in 2007, to a 7 year, $84 million deal which included $37 million in guarantees and Long is almost certainly going to want a similar contract, which could price Miami out of the market.

  • Option 3: Tag and Trade

Miami could do what New England did with Matt Cassel at the end of the 2008 season, which is give him the franchise tag and then trade his rights to another team. This would allow Miami to recoup a draft pick or two for a player who would certainly be in high demand given the pass protection issues many other teams have had. This is risky in that they could find no team willing to part with the draft package that Miami would be after given Long's high cap number and potentially big contract demands. However, would a team like Arizona, who's tackle play has made all of us here at TPL very sad, be desperate enough? They're currently starting rookies Nate Potter and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle and need to improve their line before they begin to think about trying a new QB. However they could be in line for one of the drafts top OT's with their current #9 selection, as would other OT-needy teams like San Diego, Carolina and Philadelphia who all have top 10 draft picks as it stands.

Both option 2 and 3 will result in Sean Smith be allowed into the free market however, and with 2 games against New England a year, and cornerbacks being at a premium in the NFL these days, allowing a player like him to walk might well end up being a less palatable option for General Manager Jeff Ireland.

  • Option 4: Let Him Test Free Agency

Long's current tricep injury could well end up giving rookie 2nd round pick Jonathan Martin a 4 game try-out at left tackle. Depending on how well he does (Schedule: @ San Francisco, vs Jacksonville, vs Buffalo, @ New England) Miami could simply allow Long to test the free agent market. They could still put in an offer for him, perhaps along a similar length and total as his rookie deal but with a smaller guaranteed number. Unless Martin is awful in all 4 games this could well be the road Miami decides to go down with their most recent first overall draftee. It would seem cold, and maybe a poor football decision given that he is still a good and reliable left tackle who is young enough to get back to his elite level of play. But as I said, Miami are hardly swimming in cap room at the moment, and while they could perform some cap wizardry to fit Long in, they have needs elsewhere and have money invested along their O-Line already in the form of centre Mike Pouncey. Potential free agents like Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe could be a lot more tempting for Jeff Ireland than splashing out on a new contract for Long, especially as his job is still far from secure and given that current rookie QB Ryan Tannehill could use a top wide receiver to help open up windows across the field.

  • Landing Spots For Long

If Jake Long hits the open market, there will be a lot of suitors for him from coast to coast. Arizona could decide to pursue Long as a free agent and then use their high draft pick on Matt Barkley. A team who do have a lot of cap room (again, as of Nov. 1st from Pro Football Talk) are Philadelphia, who are likely going to unburden themselves from Michael Vick's contract this off-season as well. After Jason Peters' achilles injury (and re-injury) he can't be relied upon to be the same as he was in 2011, the signing of Demetress Bell really hasn't worked out and King Dunlap is as bad as he is big while signing Long would allow them to address other areas with their high draft choice. San Diego have failed to replace the retired duo of tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman, resulting in a swiss-cheese left side, Long could keep Rivers up and give him a chance to return to his old form.

However all these teams have draft picks that would allow them a chance at Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, the top OT talent in this draft class, and Taylor Lewan, who wears Long's old number at his alma mater Michigan. Both have put in impressive performances this year and could be top 10 picks, Joeckel has a chance to be a top 5. They would also be cheaper investments than Jake Long thanks to the rookie wage structures now in place, that benefit is of course balanced by the fact that Long is a battle-tested NFL player as opposed to a newbie.
So if those teams aren't going to pursue Long who else might? Well a team like New Orleans, who don't have a high enough draft choice to realistically get one of the top OT's on draft day could really use an upgrade over Jermon Bushrod, they don't have a lot of cap room at the moment but there is a lot of dead wood that needs chopping from their team.

Another cap-rich team who could use an upgrade in their pass protection is Seattle, Russell Okung has been injury prone and shaky during his time in Seattle, while current right tackle Breno Giacomini isn't up to the job. Bringing Long in would improve two spots by sliding Okung to right tackle, provide Marshawn Lynch with more running room and give Russell Wilson more time in the pocket. With a young and aggressive defense Seattle also don't have a lot of other holes to fill.

Green Bay rarely pursue high priced free agents, but their offensive line has been shambolic this year, and the prospect of coming to a competitor, and playing at Lambeau could lower Long's asking price. Then there's teams like Tampa Bay, Chicago and St. Louis who also need help at tackle.

Whatever happens this off-season to Jake Long, he won't be short of suitors or money. Someone will always pay an All-Pro left tackle, especially when pass rushers are getting bigger, faster and meaner.

- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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