Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long got a clean bill of health from Dr. James Andrews this week. The same can't be said for a proposal Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is trying to get through the Florida legislature to raise $200 million for improvements to his stadium so as to make it Super Bowl-worthy.
The link between Long and the legislature is whether the Dolphins can afford to let their former No. 1 overall pick walk away at such a vital time?
Long is one of four starting players the Dolphins have coming up for free agency. In addition to Long, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons before suffering with injuries the past two, Miami could lose its leading receiver (Brian Hartline), leading rusher (Reggie Bush) and top cornerback (Sean Smith). That's a huge drain at a time when the Dolphins have the money to re-sign at least two of those four and still get top free agent target, wide receiver Mike Wallace.
"Theoretically, none of those guys are irreplaceable," an NFL source said. "But that's a lot of guys to replace at one time. That's the problem. You're talking about going and getting four brand-new starters between free agency and the draft just to be coming back as the same team you were.
"Throw in the fact that you have a young quarterback [Ryan Tannehill is going into his second year] and that's a lot of change. To me, if you think Long is healthy, you better think long and hard about him. He wasn't very good last year, but he was hurt. If he's healthy again, he takes care of a lot of problems."
According to Andrews, Long is in the best shape he has seen the player in years.
"I just saw him [Wednesday] and he looked great," said Andrews, who did surgery to repair a ruptured left triceps injury that cost Long the final four games of the 2012 season. In addition, Long missed the final game of the 2011 season with a biceps injury and has had shoulder and knee surgery.
Still, Andrews said he would have no qualms telling a team to sign Long and expect strong results.
"I asked him about his knee and he said it's the best he has felt in years," Andrews said. "Like I said, this is the kind of kid you want. I'm not worried about him at all."
Andrews said if the season were about to start, Long would be cleared to play, though he recommends the lineman take another month to let his triceps injury heal.
The issue is whether the Dolphins, who a source familiar with the circumstances said offered Long a five-year extension before the 2012 season, are willing to take a chance on the lineman. General manager Jeff Ireland has been notoriously conservative about not paying players who he has slight doubts about, which is one of the reasons so many starters are potential free agents right now.
Still, the Dolphins are at a crossroads. Miami went 7-9, marking their fourth straight sub-.500 season under Ireland and Ross, tying the longest such streak in team history.
Off the field, Ross has pledged to pay for the "majority" of the $400 million overall expense to upgrade the stadium and has asked for an increase in taxes paid primarily by tourists. Still, his request has been met with little public support. Such a plea doesn't sit well in the aftermath of the public pledging money to a new stadium for the Miami Marlins, who have since traded off most of their top players in an offseason fire sale.
Thus, the Dolphins might have serious problems with public support if the team lets too many players go, even if it makes a splashy signing with Wallace.
Or as one team source put it: "There's a lot riding here and it's more than just some people's jobs."
Although this is seen as a good year in the draft for offensive tackle (there are four projected left-tackle prospects expected to go in the first round), that route robs the Dolphins of a chance to upgrade at another position. Likewise, free agency is lean after Long with only Sam Baker and Jermon Bushrod as the only experienced starters out there. Left tackles Ryan Clady and Brendan Albert were both franchised.
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