What is Sean Smith worth to the Dolphins?
What is Brian Hartline worth?
How about Randy Starks and Reggie Bush, Anthony Fasano, Chris Clemons and Jake Long?
So far, the answer has been the same across the board with all of these players: Not nearly enough.
The Dolphins, a month from the end of their season, are no closer today to re-signing most of their impending free agents than they were in September. In some cases, they are actually further away.
That’s how it is for a team that will have as many as eight starters and a handful of other contributing players threatening to leave via free agency when this regular season closes in five weeks.
What does that mean?
General manager Jeff Ireland and executive vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte are going to be busy once the season ends, because what limited contract talks they have engaged in with agents during the season have not borne fruit in the form of new deals or extensions.
That doesn’t mean the Dolphins are worried. In some instances, the lack of progress is a sign the club is headed in another direction.
That is likely the case with Bush, the starting running back. He leads the team in rushing, leads with five touchdowns and is fourth in receptions. But, barring an unexpected change, Bush is headed to free agency because the Dolphins and Bush’s representative have had no significant contract talks this season.
Yes, the Dolphins could change their minds. But the truth is, the team has Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller — younger players — poised to take over Bush’s job.
And Thomas and Miller combined would cost less than Bush.
That doesn’t mean Bush won’t be playing in 2013. His agent Joe Segal will take him to free agency and sell the fact he’s a playmaker, a hard worker, a good citizen and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry going back to last season.
But are the Dolphins going to pay between $6 million and $8 million per year to Bush simply because Matt Forte or DeAngelo Williams is getting that and Bush has similar numbers the past two seasons?
Miami won’t even pay Bush the $4.5 million annual average that Ahmad Bradshaw got from the Giants in August 2011.
Bush is a luxury. And when the club has engaged in contract negotiations at all this fall, it hasn’t been shopping for luxuries. It has been seeking bargains.
When Hartline, who leads the team with 55 catches for 807 yards, got off to a fast start, the Dolphins and agent Drew Rosenhaus began contract talks on an extension.
But after Miami’s initial offer, Rosenhaus had to calm down an irritated Hartline and explain the Dolphins were merely negotiating and not really insulting the player.
The Dolphins want Hartline back. Indeed, they must be in the business of adding wide receiver talent rather than losing it this offseason.
(The club lost significant wide receiver talent by trading away Brandon Marshall last offseason and didn’t replace him.)
But as the season has progressed, the price to keep Hartline has continued to rise as the player’s production similarly climbed. In that regard, the Dolphins and Rosenhaus are now further apart than when the season began.
For whatever reason, Hartline is universally compared with Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson. And two months ago, Hartline would have been agreeable to an extension that resembled the one Nelson got from Green Bay in October 2011.
That extension paid Nelson $13.98 million over four years with $5 million guaranteed.
But because an extension was not signed, the Dolphins are not likely to get Hartline for $3.5 million per year anymore. Now the more likely model Rosenhaus will use is Laurent Robinson, whose production is similar to Hartline’s. Robinson got $6.5 million per year on a five-year, $32.5 million deal as a free agent last spring.
So Robinson got nearly as much guaranteed money ($13.8 million) as Nelson got total money in his deal. And although Hartline might not get that kind of money from the Dolphins, he could attract significant attention in free agency because the NFL is a passing league.
The same seems true of Smith, who is in his fourth year and will be a free agent after the season. Smith, a cornerback, is making $615,000 this year and that is going to seem like a huge bargain by next season because excellent NFL cornerbacks are routinely making 10 times that much on an annual basis.
No, maybe Smith isn’t going to get a contract like those given to Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million) or Cortland Finnegan (five years, $50 million).
But neither is he going to settle for a deal that resembles the three-year, $9.75 million contract signed by Aaron Ross with Jacksonville.
When talks that basically went nowhere earlier this season resume after the season, the Dolphins are going to have to decide if Smith is worth to them in the neighborhood of what Jason McCourty got in Tennessee (five years, $43 million) or Eric Wright got in Tampa Bay (five years, $38 million).
That’s Smith’s market.
Smith, it must be noted, was outstanding early in the season, shutting down Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But lately, he has not maintained that level. Coaches say he needs to be more consistent.
Miami is going to have to decide if it can live with some inconsistency when it also comes with some potential for excellence, and if that’s worth $6 million to $7 million per year.
It’s not an easy decision. Cornerbacks are valuable and the Dolphins don’t have anyone to take Smith’s starting spot if he leaves in free agency. They don’t have a lot of leverage.
The club also doesn’t have much leverage in the Starks negotiation. The defensive tackle has been consistently good the past three seasons, including 2010 when he went to the Pro Bowl.
The going rate for a Starks kind of player starts at $6 million per season. That’s what Paul Soliai is making in Miami and what Kendall Langford got from the Rams to play a 3-4 defensive end spot.
If the Dolphins believe that’s too rich, Starks will leave Miami the same way he came — via free agency — and he will get between $6 million and $7 million per season from someone.
The Dolphins will also have a tough negotiation with Long that could lead to him being designated with the franchise tag.
Overall, the team that has been careful about not overspending is soon going to have to pay much higher salaries merely to keep players. That is a certainty.
That is the only certainty the Dolphins can count on as they weigh the worth of their players.