The Miami Dolphins will enter the final quarter of this NFL season with a 5-7 record that they will take on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Barring a stunning turn around to finish the regular season, the Dolphins will not only have missed the playoffs for the past four seasons, they will also finish with a losing record over that span. While not many realistically expected the Dolphins to be contenders this season, there were glimmers of post-seasaon hope throughout this roller coaster of a year that have all but faded at this point. With that being said, the final four games of this season will prove to be significant for Miami as the evaluation process for many players on the team is in full swing.
Whether its Jeff Ireland calling the shots this offseason or not, the Dolphins general manager will have plenty of options with at least $40 million in cap space and 5 picks in the first three rounds of the draft to utlilize. Many questions currently circulate around the Dolphins roster and several tough decisions await the front office once the season comes to a close. Here's a look at which players will be under the microscope over the remainder of the schedule.
OL Jonathan Martin
With the news of Jake Long out for the season with a triceps injury, rookie Jonathan Martin will likely fill in at left tackle where he played in college. Its clear that Long is playing no where near a pro bowl level and it seems as though injuries have caught up to the former first round pick. While the Dolphins can afford to re-sign Long, a long term deal averaging about $10 million a season is a high price to play for a player on the decline of his career. Long's chances of returning in aqua and orange next year lies on the performance of Jonathan Martin. If Martin impresses in his natural position of protecting Tannehill's blind side, Long will likely test the free agent market and ultimately allow Miami to spend the money they save, elsewhere.
RB Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller
According to multiple reports, the Dolphins have not had any discussions with Reggie Bush to sign him to a contract extension. Despite the fact that Bush is currently Miami's most explosive weapon, he does not appear to be in the team's long term plans. With Bush unlikely to return, second year back Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller will be closely evaluated in attempts to determine if they are the future of the Dolphins backfield. These two running backs have the potential to compliment each other very well considering Miller's dynamic style of play and Thomas' ability to gain the tough yards on the goal line or in short yardage situations. If the duo fail to find success, letting Reggie Bush walk in free agency would only create another need on this team.
WR Brian Hartline
The focus of this offseason will surely be to surround Ryan Tannehill with as many weapons in the passing game as possible. Brian Hartline, who has been the team's top wideout this season, is having the best season of his career in a contract year. With Tannehill throwing to him, he is only 109 yards short of his first 1000 yard season. Hartline's play over the final four games will go a long way when the front office decides on his future as a Dolphin. Assuming that he continues to impress in a break out year and surpasses the 1000 yard marker, Hartline would be a viable No. 2 or 3 option for Tannehill next season.
TE Anthony Fasano and Michael Egnew
Anthony Fasano is on pace to have his worst season in a Dolphins uniform over the five years he's spent in Miami. A security blanket was exactly what Tannehill could have used in his rookie season, however the 28 receptions and 224 yards that Fasano has totalled doesn't do much to help his quarterback's development. The next Dolphins draft bust could very well be in the making with Michael Egnew. Taken in the third round of April's draft, Egnew has yet to make an apperance in the regular season. With not much else for the Dolphins to lose this season, now may be the time for the coaching staff to activate him and see what he can contribute to the offense. The tight end position has continued to show its increased importance to successful offenses this season, however it still remains a need for Miami. Luckily for the Dolphins, the 2013 free agent class features several talented tight ends including Jared Cook and Dustin Keller that the 'Phins would be wise to invest in.
Although the Miami Dolphins are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and a win over the 49ers would get the team right back in the AFC Wildcard mix, thorough player evaluation over the final four games should make for more educated decisions by the front office as one of the most important offseasons in Dolphins franchise history approaches.