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The looming issues with contracts, salary cap

Talking to a Dolphins club source recently the subject of salary cap space came up.

"We're not in great shape but we're not in terrible shape," he said. "We're middle of the pack."

I am waiting on the current NFL cap numbers, but I estimate the Dolphins have approximately $10 million in cap space at this writing. So what to do with that cap space?

Free agency is over. But the Dolphins want to give themselves wiggle room in case any other "acorns" fall off a tree. If a player comes become available, as Chad Pennington unexpectedly did last season, the Dolphins want the cap room so they can be active in that market.

The club also has to sign its draft picks, needs to budget for a practice squad, and then there's the other thing:

The Dolphins have about a dozen free agents next year. The club cannot and will not re-sign all of them. But the team would like to re-sign some of them. And general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano already know which of those players they want to re-sign. They have a plan.

Of course they do, you're muttering.

Well, don't take that for granted. The fact is the Dolphins consider themselves to have an advantage over this time last year relative to their looming unrestricted free agents. Last year at this time, the new regime didn't really know its players.

Yes, Yeremiah Bell was healthy again but he had been able to play only 21 percent of the downs the previous four seasons. And the team didn't know about the player. They didn't know his work ethic and desire. So they could not and did not commit to signing him early.

Bell eventually proved himself to the club but, by the time he did, it cost more to give him a new contract in March than it would have prior to the season. The price had gone up and the Dolphins, through no fault of their own because they were playing it safe, had to pay the premium.

This offseason, Bill Parcells and his crew know their players. So they know which to prioritize.

This is an important subject because we're talking about some very valuable players that are unsigned. RB Ronnie Brown can become a free agent after 2009, so can QB Chad Pennington, CB Will Allen, OLB Matt Roth, tight ends Anthony Fasano and David Martin.

In the coming months, prior to the start of the season, the Dolphins hope to lock up some of these guys. It's not an easy situation made more uncertain by the current NFL labor situation.

Understand that unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the 2010 season will included an uncapped salary situation. But that also changes the rules of the game for free agency. Suddenly players with less than six years of experience become restricted instead of unrestricted. And teams get multiple vehicles for tying up players -- such as transition and franchise tags.

That will be interesting to see play out. But the Dolphins are operating under the assumption their will be an agreement and rules will remain the same. For their purposes they're playing this as if all of their scheduled unrestricted free agents will, indeed, be free.

So here is the scenario for you. I have just appointed you Miami's GM (I have that power, you know) and now it is your job to handle finite cap space prior to the start of the season. How do you handle it?

How much space do budget for an "acorn?" Do you try to re-sign some of the pending free agents? Which ones are your priority, realizing you can't re-sign them all? And what do you do with Chad Pennington?

He's the starting QB now. He might not be in 2010. Do you let him go into 2009 without a new contract? Do you tell him he's the backup and offer backup money for 2010 -- knowing he's probably not likely to take that?

The Dolphins need advice. What the heck should they do?