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Dolphins free agency priority: Cornerback

When free agency begins for the Dolphins and all other NFL clubs March 11 (negotiations can begin March 8) one of the priorities, indeed the top priority, the Dolphins may have is the cornerback position.

We know this because although the Indianapolis Combine is supposed to be about preparing for the draft in that draft-eligible players are inspected in almost every way imaginable, the last five days was also about meeting with the representatives for free agents. It was about meeting with agents for some of Miami's pending free agents as well as those representing potential free agents about to hit the market.

And the position the Dolphins asked these agents most about during Indianapolis was, you guessed it, the cornerback spot, according to multiple league sources.

This makes sense.

The Dolphins have needs at offensive line, safety, defensive tackle and probably running back. But cornerback is perhaps the second-most obvious need after OL because Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll -- the starters most of 2013 -- are both pending unrestricted free agents.

Moreoever, the Dolphins might be deciding that keeping Dimitri Patterson and his $5.4 million cap hit that comes with his inconsistent durability is a luxury they cannot afford.

Obviously, the team is interested in bringing back Grimes at what new general manager Dennis Hickey has been calling a Dolphins value. That means the Dolphins decide what a player is worth to them and they would be willing to pay. (Unfortunately, in some cases, that Dolphins value and the player's value of himself are not equal.)

Signing Grimes, who will be 31 in before the season, to a four or five-year contract is a tricky proposition. It simply isn't done in the NFL with a cornerback that age.

The Dolphins might also consider a franchise tag on Grimes, although that doesn't make a ton of sense. The franchise tag on a CB is expected to be approximately $11 million, all of it in a lump sum salary-cap space swallowing chunk. The Dolphins should be able to add two cornerbacks for that kind of cap hit.

The Dolphins have until March 3 to designate a franchise player.

So cornerback will be a position of heavey activity for Miami the next two weeks.

Why not offensive line or one of the other positions, you ask?

Well, the Dolphins will probably do work there, too. But the coming draft is replete with good offensive linemen. So the Dolphins can add good, young, cheap talent at offensive line during the draft. Miami may come away with two or three offensive linemen in the draft and add an offensive lineman in free agency as well.

The Dolphins can adress safety in the secondary free agency market or the draft but after signing Reshad Jones to a big contract extension last year, they are not likely to allocate more money big money on the back end. The team also knows it can bring back either Paul Soliai or Randy Starks and there are some options at the defensive tackle position that might come available as well.

Running back, meanwhile, it is not a priority free agency spot. Paying big money for a free agent running back is not often wise.

So the Dolphins are looking around with cornerback being a focus.

And there might be some significant cornerback talent in free agency. If one considers only last season's performance, the best cornerback on the market might be Aqib Talib of the New England Patriots. And it would make sense for the Dolphins to be interested in him as Hickey was in Tampa Bay when the Buccaneers drafted him in 2008.

But, of course, all is not simply about last year's performance. The Dolphins have to consider other factors before ever thinking of Talib. Firstly, Talib's depature from Tampa Bay was forced in part because the red flags many teams had on him before the draft (he was actually off the Miami draft board in 2008) manifested themselves soon after he was drafted.

He got into a fistfight with a teammate at the 2008 rookie symposium. In 2009, he allegedly battered a taxi driver. In 2011, he was arrested in Texas for battery with a deadly weapon when he allegedly went after his sister's boyfriend. Those charges were dropped in 2012 but only in time for Talib to be suspended by the NFL for violating the NFL drug policy for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

The Patriots got Talib in trade in November of 2012 for a fourth-round pick.

And he's been great for them. He locked down the other team's best pass-catcher, regardless of size or speed. He went one-on-one with Jimmy Graham when the Patriots beat the Saints in 2013.

But Talib has also shown the penchant for getting hurt. He missed time last year with a hip injury. He had a hip injury in 2010. He finished the 2011 season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.

The point is Talib is great ... when he's not suspended, or in trouble or injured.

Oh, and he wants to return to New England. So there's that.

But the Patriots, with only approximately $7 million in projected 2014 cap space, might not have the way to get Talib signed. They want to but ... well, you get the idea.

So that name is out there.

Other names that resonate as possibilities for the Dolphins?

Green Bay's Sam Shields is a player coach Joe Philbin should be familiar with. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a fine cornerback and may be difficult for the cap challenged Broncos to re-sign. Walter Thurmond is a solid No. 3 if the Dolphins aren't able to re-sign Nolan Carroll.

And perhaps the best player of the class -- all things considered -- might be Alterraun Verner. He's very young at 25. He's a fine player. He makes plays. And because the Titans already paid a mint for their other cornerback, Jason McCourty, they might not be able to pay Verner, too.

Verner doesn't have the off-the-field issues of Talib, the age issue of Grimes, and he's more consistent than DR-C.

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