Tough Choices Coming

With Jake Long entering the final year of his current deal, the Miami Dolphins are faced with some tough financial decisions that could affect the rest of the roster.

Long opted out of the final year of the $57.5 million deal he signed as the No.1 pick of the 2008 draft, and will become a free agent in 2013 unless he re-signs before the league's new year begins.

Signing Long to a long-term deal benefits the Dolphins because it would create much-needed salary-cap space, which could be used to redo Cameron Wake's contract, preventing him from possibly becoming a camp holdout.

The Dolphins presently don't have the cap space to re-sign Wake, who will be paid $615,000 and deserves a contract that pays him at least $8 million a season based on his production (28 sacks) the past three years.

Long is presently the highest-paid player on the Dolphins' roster, earning a base salary of $11.2 million this season.

He has a cap figure of $12.8 million against the salary cap, and takes up about 10 percent of the team's space.

The franchise tag for offensive linemen is $9.4 million this season, but because Long's already one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the NFL, placing the franchise tag on him in 2013 would bump his salary up by 20 percent, which means he'd get a $2.2 million raise, increasing his salary in 2013 to $13.4 million.

The Dolphins need to re-sign one of their soon-to-be marquee free agents this season — either Wake or Long — because exposing one to the free-agent market puts the team at risk of losing one to a bidding war.

The easiest way to re-sign Wake is to create the salary cap room by signing Long to a multi-year deal that pays him a substantial signing bonus, reducing Long's cap number.

But Long's camp isn't interested in taking a pay cut, and to get a deal done he'd likely need a contract in the neighborhood of the one Joe Thomas got from Cleveland last season. The Browns gave Thomas a seven-year, $87 million deal that guaranteed Thomas $44 million. He's slated to earn $42 million in the first three seasons.

The Dolphins drafted Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin in the second round last week. Miami plans to play Martin at right tackle this season, but he could easily move to the left side, which is where he played at Stanford, protecting Andrew Luck's blind side.

"I have plans to keep Jake Long here for a long time. So, let's don't get ahead of ourselves," general manager Jeff Ireland said on the final day of the draft, addressing speculation about Martin eventually replacing Long. "We drafted Jonathan Martin to be a tackle on this football team, a right tackle on this football team. Let's don't speculate any further than that."

Owner Steve Ross doesn't want to see Long and Wake leave Miami, and has admitted he's willing to open up his wallet to retain the Dolphins' best player.

However, it is bad business to re-sign a player who is coming off an injury-shortened season. Long has battled a lingering left knee issue for the past two seasons, and missed the final three games of the season with a biceps tear that has fully healed.

That means the Dolphins might wait until midseason to redo his deal, scrutinizing his durability. If Long suffers another injury the price immediately drops.

Or the Dolphins could allow a healthy Long to test the free-agent market, hope it remains flat, and gamble that the Dolphins don't lose him like Houston lost Mario Williams to Buffalo this offseason.

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