SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
With the Dolphins trying to upgrade their offense – especially at quarterback, right tackle, right guard and tight end – here’s some early chatter on their options and potential fits when free agency begins March 13:
### Quarterback: The timetable could be tricky, with Peyton Manning expected to be released by March 8, Matt Flynn hitting the open market March 13, and the unknown variable of when Manning’s arm will be strong enough to throw as well as he did before his neck injury.
If the Dolphins are led to believe by agent Tom Condon that they’re a serious contender for Manning when he's released – and that his arm should be strong enough by the start of the season – then they are expected to wait as long as necessary on Manning if he doesn't make a decision quickly. That's because owner Stephen Ross is infatuated with the idea of signing him. The Dolphins believe they have a realistic chance of luring Manning, who owns a condo in South Beach and has an affinity for South Florida.
If Manning doesn't choose a new team by March 13, the Dolphins would risk losing out on Flynn, whom they like but have clearly less conviction about than Manning. But that would not concern the Dolphins if they believe they can land Manning. Unless Cleveland or another team makes a big offer, Flynn might be better served waiting a short time, if needed, for Manning’s situation to sort out because some of Flynn’s potential suitors (Miami, Washington, Seattle) likely will pursue Manning first.
So after Manning chooses his next team, Flynn could get better offers from the losers of the Manning sweepstakes. But if Manning, 35, delays signing until May or June while his shoulder strengthens, then it’s unrealistic for Flynn to wait.
A close associate of Flynn, 26, said he likes and respects new Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, his former offensive coordinator in Green Bay. That would play into his decision if Miami and another team make comparable offers, but probably not if there's a big gap between offers.
One Packers front office official whose opinion I trust said he’s confident Flynn will be a quality starter: “He’s going to be good. He’s got moxie, accuracy, good control of the game.”
But former Browns scout Matt Williamson, of ESPN’s Scouts Inc., said, “Flynn worries me, considering what it’s going to cost in terms of the contract. Those guys like Kevin Kolb scare me. They look good in a really small sample size in good offenses.
“In terms of physical skills, there’s a reason Flynn was a seventh-round pick. He’s really cerebral, moves well, does everything well pre-snap. But he’s not overwhelming physically. He will be an average starter who maybe goes to a Pro Bowl once.”
Williamson see Flynn’s ceiling as that of Houston's Matt Schaub. If Flynn becomes another Schaub, he’s worth the investment. But CBS’ Charley Casserly said Flynn is “a little like Matt Cassel. Accurate, but not necessarily accurate deep. He doesn’t have a big arm.”
Flynn, 26, has completed 82 of 132 passes and 1015 yards in four years as a backup, with nine touchdowns, five interceptions, three fumbles and a 92.8 rating. (Matt Moore’s 2011 rating was 87.1, incidentally.) Six of those Flynn touchdowns and 480 of those yards came in last month’s regular-season finale against Detroit.
With Drew Brees (Saints) and Alex Smith (49ers) expected to stay put, that leaves – beyond Flynn and probably Manning - a weak free agent class including Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Dennis Dixon, Rex Grossman, Chad Henne, Brady Quinn, Charlie Whitehurst, Josh Johnson and Patriots restricted free agent backup Brian Hoyer.
### Tight end: The Dolphins – eager for a stretch-the-field threat to complement or replace Anthony Fasano - obviously would love Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley, but he’s expected to get the franchise tag. Other notable free agents: Washington’s Fred Davis (59-796 in 12 games before a drug suspension), Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe (36-409), Carolina’s Jeremy Shockey (37-455), Seattle’s John Carlson (missed last year with torn labrum), Buffalo’s Scott Chandler (38-389) and Dallas’ Martellus Bennett (Jason Witten’s backup; 17 for 144).
“Davis could be that stretch the field guy, but if he’s busted one more time, he’s suspended a year,” Williamson said. “All the other guys are not much different than Fasano. Carlson is slow. I’d rather have Fasano than Shiancoe: more sure-handed, better blocker. Bennett has a lot of ability, but effort is an issue.”
If Manning signs with the Dolphins, another possibility would be Colts free agent tight end Jacob Tamme, who caught 67 passes for 631 yards in 2010 but 19 passes in 12 games without Manning this season.
Because Davis is seemingly too risky, the Dolphins might look for a skilled receiving tight end in the draft, perhaps Clemson’s Dwayne Allen, Stanford’s Coby Fleener or Louisiana Lafayette’s Ladarius Green.
### Guard: With the Dolphins needing to save their cap space ($12 million to $15 million) for other needs, it’s unlikely they would offer big money to top guards Carl Nicks (Saints) and Ben Grubbs (Baltimore). Williamson said the most affordable “attractive” option to replace free agent Vernon Carey would be Eagles free agent Evan Mathis, who finished as the No. 1 ranked guard by Pro Football Focus this year after being cut by Miami in 2008. John Jerry is an option, but the Dolphins hope to do better.
The other free agent guards that PFF ranked above Carey (who was 44th): Nicks (2), Grubbs (12th), Tennessee’s Jake Scott (seventh, but run blocking has declined) and Cincinnati’s Bobbie Williams (23rd but on the downside at age 35).
### Tackle: If the Dolphins don’t sign a right tackle to replace Marc Colombo in a weak free agent class, they’ll draft a potential starter (perhaps Iowa’s Riley Reiff in the first round) or rely on Lydon Murtha (who missed 2011 with a foot injury but is valued by GM Jeff Ireland) or perhaps Jerry.
Free agent tackles, with PFF rankings: Jared Gaither (tied for 17th, better for Chargers after Chiefs cut him); Buffalo’s Demetrius Bell (tied for 17th, but has more value at left tackle), Pittsburgh’s Max Starks (33, but off a torn ACL in January), Detroit’s Jeff Backus (32) and the Giants’ Kareem McKenzie (65). Not a good group. “McKenzie had a real bad year,” Williamson said. “Gaither has a ton of baggage. I’d be shocked if Backus leaves.”
### Running back: Ireland – happy with Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas – won’t go free agent shopping from a group that includes Ray Rice and Matt Forte (who both are staying put) and Peyton Hillis.
### Receiver: It’s doubtful Miami spends on top free agents Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson or Marques Colston - barring them striking out at quarterback and on a pass rusher. Reggie Wayne - whose streak of seven straight 1000 yard seasons was snapped this year (he had 960) is an option - at age 33, if Manning joins the Dolphins.
We’ll examine defensive options later this week.
### After we wrote in this space about the Heat’s interest in Shane Battier last summer, one NBA scout warned us his skills had diminished. “Even Memphis told me last year he was having trouble guarding guys laterally,” the scout reminded us last week.
Now, not only is Battier shooting 32.6 percent – well below his 44.2 career average, but his rebounds and assists per minute are down. Only Corey Maggette and Jason Kidd entered the weekend with worse shooting percentages among players who have played as much as Battier.
On the plus side, Battier has had some good moments defensively late in games, and remains a good team defender, as a second scout noted. Plus, Erik Spoelstra said he’s like another coach on the floor. But the second scout said it would be difficult to justify playing Battier more than Mike Miller (a better shooter and rebounder) in the playoffs if Battier doesn’t snap out of his shooting slump. And for the first time all season, Spoelstra went with the lineup of the Big Three, Miller and Udonis Haslem in the decisive moments of Friday's win at Philadelphia.
### One change to expect in UM’s offense, style-wise: “We’re going to have to push our tempo,” coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “We have to get more plays run.” Several NFL teams called Fisch last month (including the Bears). But Fisch told us last week, “I want to spend many years here with Al Golden.”… Receivers coach George McDonald calls UM signee Malcolm Lewis of Miramar “the most underrated person in the state – one of the best, if not the best, receiver in [Florida]. He has so much upside, him and [Homestead’s] Herb Waters. I’m so excited all about six” new receivers, including Angelo Jean-Louis. And Fisch said Robert Lockhart "is a stud - unbelievable, explosive player.''
### Marlins executives spoke on many occasions with Hanley Ramirez this winter, waiting for him to embrace moving to third base, which they're confident he finally has. "When something happens immediately, there's a surprise," Marlins president David Samson said. "And then all of a sudden, it ends up being OK. I told him, 'If we tell you to pitch opening night, that's your job.'... Larry [Beinfest], Michael [Hill] and I have spoken to him numerous times.''
### Here's how the Marlins' bench looks, presuming they keep 12 pitchers and five backup position players: Greg Dobbs, Donnie Murphy, catcher Brett Hayes and two of these five outfielders: Aaron Rowand, Bryan Peterson, Chris Coghlan, Austin Kearns and Scott Cousins. Rowand (.233 for the Giants last year) is a favorite for one job unless he bombs this spring. “When we did our plan for 2012, we didn’t think Chris Coghlan would have to earn a job,” Samson said. "He has to earn one of 25.''
Coghlan hit .230 (five homers, 22 RBI) before his injury/demotion last season. Peterson (.265, 2, 10) had the best average of the five last season. If the Marlins get outfielder Yeonis Cespedes, he could begin the season in the minors.