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More tough decisions: The Dolphins secondary

I am a product of my generation, one that grew up watching Dan Marino and Mark Duper and Irving Fryar and Keith Jackson and Bruce Hardy and Mark Clayton do amazing things on a football field. I grew up watching and admiring great offensive football in Miami.

And lately I've covered a team that is incomplete on offense. Even as the Dolphins rose from the ashes of 1-15 to the heights of 11-6, the offense didn't really do it for me. The receiver corps lacks a No. 1 guy. The quarterback, brilliant and cagey and a great leader, cannot make all the throws. And the interior of the line is a work in progress that requires much attention.

So I've been focused on that side of the ball of late, particularly in light of the amazing offensive performances I witnessed during the playoffs and Super Bowl. But can we take a breath?

Can we take a serious look at the Dolphins overall?

A sober look at the team reveals one need that glows in neon right now: The defensive backfield. It is a mess.

Maybe you haven't noticed but starting cornerback Andre' Goodman is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Starting free safety Renaldo Hill is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Starting strong safety Yeremiah Bell is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.

In other words, three-quarters of the starting secondary is looking at free agency.

And that means the secondary will be the area most affected by change this offseason because we all know it's unlikely the Dolphins will be able to retain everybody.

And even if the Dolphins make the attempt to keep everyone, that only means they would be keeping a group that had issues at times during the 2008 season. The Miami secondary had a handful of meltdown games -- Arizona, Houston, New England in November, and Kansas City -- that also suggested the unit needs attention.

So where does that leave the Dolphins?

You might know I wrote a Sunday column outlining a couple of tough roster decisions the Dolphins must make in the coming weeks. Add the decisions in the defensive backfield to the list of tough decisions.

It seems possible, perhaps even likely, the Dolphins will address the free safety position in the draft or free agency. Yes, they could re-sign Hill as long as he doesn't want to break the bank. But the team clearly wanted an upgrade at that spot last year when it tried Chris Crocker and Jason Allen as starters while Hill was still mending from ACL surgery the year before.

Hill is 30 years old now so it seems unlikely the Dolphins are looking at him as the long-term answer at the spot. So while his ability to keep order and make the right calls at free safety impressed the Dolphins, the position will require a long-term solution. 

Bell is also 30 years old and eager to get his first, and perhaps, only big NFL contract. A late bloomer who suffered injury setbacks in the past, Bell had an outstanding season in 2008 and he's in line for a contract that pays him among the top 10-15 strong safeties in the NFL.

That means the Dolphins will have to cough up anywhere between $4-$5 million annually to re-sign Bell. That would keep him below elite strong safeties like Troy Polamalu ($6.8 million in 2008) but would bring him into the same company as a Rodney Harrison ($3.7 million in 2008). Bell made a bargain $520,000 in base salary in 2008.

The expense is one the Dolphins must weigh against the possibility of losing their leading tackler and arguably most dynamic and consistent player in the secondary. The Dolphins have signaled they want to keep Bell, but I'm told no serious negotiations might be done on this front until later this week and going up until the Feb. 27 start of unrestricted free agency.

Then there is Goodman. He also is 30 years old and seems pointed toward free agency absent a deal in the next two weeks. He led the team with 5 interceptions and 19 passes defensed. Goodman admitted to me midway through the season that he started 2008 poorly.

But I believe you'll agree he was nails the season's final month or so. Four of Goodman's five interceptions came on Nov. 30 or later.

Top 10 NFL corners earned, on average, $8.3 million in 2008. I think we can agree Goodman is not on that plateau. But he's going to want a deal that averages at least $3 million per season. Why?

Will Allen, Miami's other starting cornerback, is scheduled to make $3 million in base salary in 2009 and I doubt Goodman's agent will allow his client to be paid less considering his client produced more last season.

Regardless of what the Dolphins do with Goodman short-term, the cornerback spot is one the Dolphins will have to look at adding talent to this offseason. Allen, you must remember, is not signed beyond 2009. (This is where the fact Jason Allen is a bust hurts Miami because if he weren't, he would be the young guy, the former No. 1 pick waiting on deck to step into the starter's role. But Allen isn't ready for that and coaches know it.)

So looking at the entire portrait of the Miami secondary, you see uncertainty and the need to address those uncertainties. Did I mention Miami has tough decisions to make?

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