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Dolphins' free agents options on defense; plus Cespedes, Heat, Duke Johnson


For as much as the Dolphins want to find another impact pass rusher, keep one of their two free agent defensive line starters and add safety help, their level of aggressiveness in free agency will depend largely on how much they spend at quarterback.

If they use much of their cap space (which is between $12 million and $16 million, depending on where the cap is set) on Peyton Manning, general manager Jeff Ireland will need to look for reasonably priced players on defense or get very creative clearing more cap space. A quick Dolphins-flavored free-agent defensive primer as March 13 approaches:

### Defensive line: It’s unlikely the Dolphins keep Paul Soliai; using the franchise tag on him would take up all of Miami’s space. Though they suggest they will make an effort to re-sign Kendall Langford, keeping him is iffy at best.

They could re-allocate that money on a pass-rusher to play opposite Cameron Wake in a 4-3. Among 4-3 ends, the most skilled available would be Detroit’s Cliff Avril (11 sacks), Atlanta’s John Abraham (9.5 sacks), New England’s Andre Carter (10 sacks in 14 games) and the Colts’ Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks). Arizona and former UM standout Calais Campbell (eight sacks) is more of a 3-4 defensive end.

Avril, 25, recently expressed optimism he will reach a longterm deal with the Lions. “Avril is the one you want from that group, exactly what Miami is looking for,” said former Browns scout Matt Williamson of ESPN’s Scouts Inc. “Campbell will be very expensive and he’s not the best fit in the 4-3, or that different enough from Langford.”

Campbell is just 25, but Abraham is 33, Carter 32 and Mathis 30. The Dolphins have told people they like Mathis, but he’s pricy. Jacksonville's Jeremy Mincey (eight sacks) and Patriots reserve Mark Anderson (10 sacks) also are available as skilled pass-rushing ends.

If they can’t afford any of those, cheaper options include Baltimore’s Cory Redding (4.5 sacks), ex-Dolphin Matt Roth (3.5 in nine games for Jacksonville), Seattle’s Raheem Brock (three sacks as a backup; nine in 2010), Chicago’s Israel Idonije (five sacks) and Philadelphia’s Juqua Parker (15.5 sacks over past three years).

Among free agent defensive tackles, only the Jets’ Sione Pouha (ranked first of 87) and San Diego’s Antonio Garay (31st) ranked ahead of Soliai (37) in Pro Football Focus’ final 2011 rankings. But those three are better in a 3-4 defense, and all would be too expensive for Miami.

Saints free agent Aubrayo Franklin, past his prime, can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3. So can Tennessee's Jason Jones, who's just 25 and played well at tackle before moving to end last season; his former coach, Jeff Fisher, could try to lure him to St. Louis, but he would make some sense for Miami if reasonably priced and if the Dolphins don't keep Langford and move Jared Odrick to defensive end.

Ireland said the Dolphins feel comfortable playing Odrick at either end or tackle in a 4-3. He could play tackle alongside Randy Starks if Miami uses its money to acquire a pass-rushing 4-3 end.

### Linebacker: Ireland said Karlos Dansby is well-suited to play middle linebacker in a 4-3, which eliminates the need to pursue a free agent from a deep group including Atlanta’s Curtis Lofton, Seattle’s David Hawthorne, Cleveland’s D’Qwell Jackson, Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch and Carolina’s Dan Conner.

Kevin Burnett will play another linebacker spot, and the Dolphins will look to add a third starting-caliber linebacker to compete with, or start ahead of, Koa Misi. Nobody would be surprised if Ireland pursues Dallas free agent Anthony Spencer, drafted by the Cowboys during Ireland’s tenure there.

Spencer, a three-year Dallas starter, had six sacks and four forced fumbles last season, but Dallas is reportedly unlikely to keep him. He has played in a 3-4 his whole career “but would be a strong side guy in a 4-3,” Williamson said.

If Houston franchises elite linebacker Mario Williams as expected, that leaves a mediocre group of free agent outside linebackers, headlined by the 49ers’ Ahmad Brooks (seven sacks), Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson (2.5 sacks) and Green Bay and ex-Dolphin Erik Walden (three sacks) and Seattle's LeRoy Hill (four sacks). Excluding Williams, “there’s nobody on that list better than what you have,” Williamson said, adding Miami should stick with a 3-4.

In retrospect, the Dolphins last July should have signed former FIU linebacker Antwan Barnes, who had 11 sacks in a part-time role for San Diego last season and is signed for one more year.

### Safety: The Dolphins hope to find a reasonably priced playmaker to upgrade over Reshad Jones/Chris Clemons. Williamson said two are logical targets: Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson (who played for new Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle the past four years) and San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson, who emerged this season, with six picks and a Pro Bowl invite.

The ex-Gator Nelson – who had 85 tackles, four interceptions and two former fumbles – “is not an especially physical guy but can run and played well for the Bengals this year,” Williamson said. Nelson was ranked 28th among safeties by PFF; Jones was 56th. This would be a very realistic signing.

Other free agent starting safeties available include Washington’s injury-plagued LaRon Landry, the Jets’ Jim Leonhard, Atlanta’s Thomas DeCoud, Oakland's Tyvon Branch and Tennesee's Michael Griffin. If the Dolphins ask Yeremiah Bell to restructure his contract and he balks, then they could be looking to replace him instead of Jones.

### Cornerback: Ireland gave a vote of confidence to Sean Smith, suggesting coaches need to put him in better position than the previous staff did. That, plus other needs, make it unlikely Miami will spend big on a starting cornerback such as Cortland Finnegan, Brent Grimes, Ladarius Webb, Carlos Rogers or Tracy Porter. But expect them to add a nickel back unless they re-sign Will Allen.


### Some Dolphins players are upset about the prospect of switching to a 4-3 base defense because they believe they’re better suited for a 3-4, according to NFL sources who has spoken to several of them. (The Dolphins say they will use both formations and point out that they used a lot of 4-3 last year.)

No tears are being shed over Mike Sherman replacing Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator; one prominent offensive player said Daboll would tell a player one thing about his role and playing time, then do something different.

### So how do you explain Mario Chalmers’ shooting percentage jumping to 50.5 – well above his 40.9 career average - and 46.6 percent on threes (eighth in the league)? Credit Chalmers for lofting 500 shots every day during the lockout – something he hadn’t done since he left Kansas. “My balance is better,” he said. “Having two healthy legs helps - the ankle injury bothered me last season.”

And LeBron James points to another issue: “Last year, his confidence got played with a lot” because the Heat experimented with Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby. (Not that confidence should be an issue; Erik Spoelstra says Chalmers acts like the most confident player on the team.)

But now Chalmers knows he’s the unquestioned starter. His 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is worse than his 2.2-to-1 career average, but he’s No. 1 on the Heat and fourth in the NBA in plus/minus, with the Heat outscoring teams by 184 points with him on the floor. FYI: The top three NBA players in plus/minus are Jrue Holiday, Luol Deng and LaMarcus Aldridge; James is eighth at plus 169.

### Among the issues UM coaches say they will discuss in the coming months: determining creative and varied ways to use elite running back addition Duke Johnson, who averaged 10 yards per carry and scoring 29 TDs at Norland last season. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch suggests studying how Southern Cal employed Reggie Bush. “You don’t always have to line him up in the backfield,” running backs coach Terry Richardson said. “Get the ball to him in different ways.”

### Coveted Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes arrived in Miami on Tuesday from the Dominican Republic and will meet with Marlins officials on Wednesday. The Marlins are cautiously optimistic, though several other teams are pursuing him, including the Cubs and White Sox.

"It would be good to play here," Cespedes told reporters at Miami International Airport, including one from El Nuevo Herald. "I would like to play in front of the Cubans here in Miami, but I don't know.... Hopefully, I can play for the Marlins.''

Cespedes, 26, might begin the season with a short stay in the minors, though he said Tuesday, "I'm ready to play in the big leagues.'' Other suitors are expected to travel to Miami to meet with him.

His agent has said he expects Cespedes to sign with a team by the start of spring training in a couple of weeks. He can agree a contract orally but cannot sign with a team until he is legally cleared by the U.S. Treasury Department. 

Cespedes, who defected from Cuba last season and received a travel via from the Dominican, hit .333 with 33 homers and 99 RBI in 90 games for the Cuban national team but batted just .143 in a brief stint in the Dominican Winter League.


### In Carlos Zambrano, the Marlins not only are getting an established yet temperamental starter (125-81 career record), but only the second pitcher since 1960 (with Gary Peters) to hit at least one home run nine straight seasons. That streak is ongoing for Zambrano, who has smashed four homers twice in a season and six homers once.

In fact, Zambrano’s 23 homers are the most by a pitcher since Bob Gibson retired with 24 in 1975. He’s a .241 career hitter (.318 last year) but 1 for 8 as a pinch hitter.

### The Marlins are on pace to sell 15,000 season tickets at their new stadium – triple what they sold at Sun Life Stadium last year - and will “draw 30,000 every night, for sure,” team president David Samson said. The new ballpark will seat 37,000.