The most important Dolphins free agent for the team this offseason? You could argue Randy Starks. Some believe it is Jake Long, although I totally disagree there. Other think Sean Smith, although I see him as very inconsistent and wonder how he'll react to getting paid.
Nope, I believe it's receiver Brian Hartline.
As I write in my column in Sunday's Miami Herald, the Dolphins cannot have a second consecutive season in which they lose wide receiver talent. They need to add at that position and, frankly, Hartline is a certainty while players such as Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings are not.
The fact is neither we nor the Dolphins know exactly what will become of Wallace and Jennings before free agency begins. Yes, they're slated to be UFAs. Yes, they would add talent to Miami's needy offense.
But we cannot be certain they'll be available because free agency doesn't begin until the middle of March. And teams have a window during which they can sign their own free agents. And most good teams don't lose their good players.
So no one knows if Wallace or Jennings will be availabe. The Dolphins do know Hartline is a good player and is available now. My column lets Hartline talk about his feelings on returning to Miami and how he'd feel if the Dolphins don't re-sign before the start of free agency.
Hartlne, by the way, agrees with me that Miami can't be losing WR talent and hoping to get better.
“As a football guy, to get rid of your leading receiver in back-to-back years. I think that would be tough," he told me. "It’s tough to do. And I understand, they’re in a tough situation and I’m not in a position to say how to do it. I don’t do that. That’s not my job. But that’s hard to do as a franchise if you want to build something. If it costs a little more than you expected, well, that’s the nature of the NFL sometimes.”
A lot of fans often get caught up in the free agency trap of arguing about what a player is not. We all know Hartline is not a No. 1 receiver.
But good teams focus on what players are. Hartline is a good No. 2 wide receiver and if he's you're No. 3 you have a stellar WR corps.
What else is Hartline?
He can play any WR position because he knows them all. He's good in the locker room. He isn’t high-maintenance. Yes, he had one instance where he got frustrated with a coach who was asking him what he saw on the field and because he had already explained himself previously and still the ball wasn’t coming to him, Hartline shut down and simply didn’t talk.
But that was one passing moment this year. He doesn’t jack up the quarterback on the sideline. He doesn’t threaten to punch coaches if they don’t get him the ball, as one previous Dolphins receiver did in 2010.
“I was wrong but you have to let how to handle it,” Hartline said. “I understand now that I was acting hard-headed because it was a game situation. I was frustrated. It happened once because it’s a passionate sport. But it won’t happen again. It was wrong because you need to learn how to handle it. I didn’t blow up on anybody but wasn’t helping anybody so I’ve learned from that.”
Hartline wants to be signed by the time free agency opens. The ball is in Miami's court. Once free agency begins the ball is in Hartline's court.
“You know, I tell you what, if I do go elsewhere, I’ll tell you what I told Jeff [Ireland]: If we get to free agency, as much as you guys interview me, I’m going to be interviewing you," Hartline said. "Like we’re 7-9. How do you see us getting better? I want to know, too. I want to win. I need to win. That’s what I’d do with other teams, too. I’m going to interview them as much as they want to interview me.
“I want to see myself buying into wherever I see myself at – here, there, wherever. Once I buy in, I’m all in. I want don’t want to be doubting people. I know there are trusts that build over time. But as much as they’re buying into me, I’m buying into you.”
Whatever happens -- whether Miami signs Hartline before free agency or not -- the receiver understands the next couple of months will be busy.
“It’s going to hectic," he said.