The Miami Dolphins began preliminary talks Tuesday with a representative of Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long on a contract to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, according to two sources close to the discussions. However, Miami's early move could be used as leverage to put pressure on Long or one of the other top prospects to get a deal done before the draft.
For now, it appears that Long, the massive left tackle, is tops on the team's list. Long's agent, Tom Condon, met with multiple members of the team's staff at the Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fla. Condon also represents Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, but the two sources indicated that the Dolphins broached the subject of a contract with Long, not Ryan.
However, the obvious play for Jake Long could be a ploy by the Dolphins to put pressure on other players, such as Virginia defensive end Chris Long, who many believe the Dolphins are also interested in taking. The Dolphins have done extensive work on both Longs, Ryan and LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. Along with Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, many NFL personnel analysts believe the top five players in the draft are relatively equal in value.
The meeting with Condon confirmed the belief among many NFL executives and player agents that the Dolphins will extend contract offers to as many as four players prior to the start of the draft on April 26. That's far from a new strategy, but it's nonetheless intriguing because of the subsequent back-door maneuvering as players, agents and teams figure out who will succeed in the cash grab that goes with each pick.
McFadden is unlikely to get an offer from the Dolphins because the team already has running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
"(Chris) Long is the safest player in the draft," one team executive said, echoing comments made by many NFL personnel people. "But with him, you have to ask yourself if you're going to be happy with a guy who's probably going to be like (Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl defensive end) Patrick Kerney. That's a good pick, but when you have a quarterback there who could change the future of your team, it's a tough choice."
Many people feel that the difference between Chris Long, Ryan, Jake Long and Dorsey is not significant. However, the difference in the amount paid to whoever goes No. 1 vs. No. 4 or 5, is significant. For instance, No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders worth $29 million in guaranteed money and another $3 million in easily attainable incentives last year. By contrast, No. 4 overall pick Gaines Adams reportedly received $18.56 million in guarantees from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One advantage for the Dolphins in making a preemptive offer (teams with the No. 1 overall pick are allowed to negotiate before the draft starts) is that leveraging players against each other can also reduce the chance of a holdout.
Last year, the Raiders did not work out a pre-draft deal with Russell, who eventually held out through training camp and didn't sign a contract until September. Conversely, in 2006, the Houston Texans were able to sign defensive end Mario Williams on the Friday before the draft after they spent the week negotiating between Williams and running back Reggie Bush.
There was significant incentive for Williams at that time because agent Ben Dogra believed that if Williams didn't go No. 1, he was going to fall to the New York Jets at No. 4 overall. At the time, such a fall would have cost Williams $8 million in guaranteed money.
Similarly, in 1991, the Dallas Cowboys signed defensive tackle Russell Maryland as the No. 1 overall pick when it negotiated with multiple players before the draft.
As of now, however, no talks have happened, said both agent Marvin Demoff, who represents Chris Long, and agent Joel Segal, who represents Dorsey.
Still, the days leading up to the draft could feature shenanigans. And it all starts with a team now run by a man who's an expert in drama and suspense.
Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells has made a career of working angles, such as in December when it was widely reported one morning that he was going to work for the Atlanta Falcons, only to take the Dolphins job by the afternoon. Thus, some end-game work by Parcells and the Dolphins with some of the top players in the draft seems to be a likely play.
"You would be silly to think that Bill Parcells wouldn't try that," one veteran agent said. "He's going to throw that out there and he's probably going to do it late in the process. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dolphins called on the Wednesday before the draft and told the two or three or four players they're thinking about, 'This is what we're offering, who will take it?'"
Even more intriguing: Exactly where would the top tier prospects prefer to play? Each of the top four teams in this year's draft is in some serious state of flux, ranging from ownership changes in Miami and with the St. Louis Rams to general dysfunction with the Falcons and Raiders.
"With each one of those teams you have to really ask yourself, who is going to be running the operations long term?" one agent asked, rhetorically. "The Dolphins are in the midst of changing owners. St. Louis is going to change owners in a year or two. Arthur Blank in Atlanta is a wonderful man, but he changes his mind all the time about what he wants to do. Then you have Al Davis in Oakland. Al's health is obviously an issue, but even if he's there, you don't know what's going to happen. The place is in chaos all the time."