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Contract issues raising stakes for several Dolphins; Fins, Heat, UM chatter; Loria's thoughts

SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN

A six-pack of Dolphins notes:

### It’s a taboo topic in the locker-room, but as you watch this team Sunday and beyond, keep a few financial realities in mind, because the Dolphins certainly will be.

It’s unclear yet if the franchise’s prolonged run of mediocrity is over, but the years of enormous cap space certainly are.

Even with Ryan Tannehill earning low salaries (by quarterback standards) through 2015, the Dolphins’ 2015 cap commitments are already $144 million, with the cap projected to fall around $145 million. They can carry over $13.9 million in unused space, but a lot of that cash will be needed simply to sign a 2015 draft class and potentially re-sign free agents Charles Clay, Jared Odrick and Knowshon Moreno.

So why is that relevant now? Because it puts even more pressure on more than a half dozen players, in particular, to outperform their contracts this season. Several figure to be cut or asked to take pay cuts.

With Dawn Aponte's help, general manager Dennis Hickey structured contracts of his free-agent signings in a way that would easily allow the Dolphins to part ways with any of them without onerous cap hits.

So keep a close eye on Cortland Finnegan (who has $6.5 million hit if he’s on the team in 2015, $1 million if he’s not), Randy Starks ($6 million to $1 million), Earl Mitchell ($4.5 million to nothing) and Shelley Smith ($3 million to $250,000).

Among Jeff Ireland pickups, keep an eye on Brandon Gibson, whose 2015 hit is $4.3 million if he’s on the team, $1 million if he’s not. (Gibson is doubtful for Sunday with a hamstring injury.) With Jarvis Landry’s development, it’s difficult to see Gibson here long-term. And Finnegan, Smith and Starks would need to play extremely well to be retained on their current deals.

Meanwhile, linebacker Jelani Jenkins’ development means we might have seen the last of injured Dannell Ellerbe, who has a $9.8 million hit if he’s on the team next season, $4.2 million if cut.

Also, safety Reshad Jones needs to play well over the next 12 games. He has a $7.8 million hit if he’s on the team next season, $3 million otherwise. (His not-on-the-team cap hit scenario has plunged next season because of his four-game suspension.) And linebacker Koa Misi ($4.4 million if here, $1.7 million if not) must stay healthy.

Conversely, Dion Jordan is one of three prominent veterans (Branden Albert, Brent Grimes the others) who have a bigger cap hit if they’re cut or traded than if they’re here. For Jordan, it’s $5.6 million if he’s here next season, $6.8 million if he’s not.

Meanwhile, linebacker Philip Wheeler $4.4 million cap number in 2015 shrinks by only $200,000 if he’s cut, which could buy him another year here. Mike Wallace should be here next season and likely will be, with a $12.1 million hit if he’s here, $9.6 million if he’s not.

### The Dolphins haven’t been able to click on any quintessential deep balls yet, but they hope they’ve struck gold with one of the shortest patterns possible: screens to receivers in a formation with three receivers or tight ends bunched to one side. That carved up Oakland, and Wallace said that could become a real staple.

“Those routes have to be the toughest [to defend],” said Wallace, who is showing his physicality more after adding eight pounds of muscle this offseason.

In Pittsburgh, “we ran every route off bunch with [then-coordinator] Bruce Arians. Every single week, [opposing players] would tell us after the game, ‘I hate the way you run offense with the bunch.’

“It’s tough to stop, especially when you have multiple routes off of it because it gives you so much more room on the field. We run every route out of it.

“It’s hard for [defensive backs] to judge it. They want to break on a route but they don’t trust it enough, because if we break it and go up the field, it’s over. That’s how it is here, too. If you execute those routes every time, it’s a nightmare to stop.”

### Brian Hartline, who had 76 catches for 1016 yards last season, is on pace for 64 and 644 but he’s not complaining:

“As long as we’re winning, I don’t care how it goes [with targets]. But if we’re not, anybody would say, ‘I want to help more so I want more targets.’”

He would love this season to become the first Dolphin players ever with three consecutive 1000 yard receiving seasons, but if he doesn’t, “I would just start over and do it again.”

### Though rookie Chris McCain had a sack in the opener, he has played only two defensive snaps since (he missed the Oakland game with a death in the family), and the Dolphins seem to be making it more difficult for him by splitting his time between defensive end and linebacker (his college position).

“McCain has got a lot to learn in terms of the coverage aspect of the pro game,” Joe Philbin said. “He’s one of those hybrid guys getting reps at dual positions.”

They’ve taken the opposite approach with the suspended Jordan, whom they had focus on defensive end even though a lot of smart football people believe he should be a linebacker….

Anthony Johnson, the promising undrafted defensive tackle from LSU, said he has been getting a lot of suspended Derrick Shelby’s practice snaps at tackle. McCain or Terrence Fede could pick up Shelby’s snaps at defensive end.

### Teammates have seen a change in Reshad Jones since his return. “He look hungrier,” Michael Thomas said. “Being away from football gives you a different perspective.”

### A bunch of Dolphins in recent years have played better before or after leaving here, but it’s puzzling with kicker Dan Carpenter, who is 6 for 9 on 50-plus yard field goals for Bills (including a game-winning 58-yarder last week) after making 5 of 10 for those in Miami. From 40 to 49, he’s 12 of 13 for the Bills but was 47 of 62 for Miami.

Caleb Sturgis? He’s 9 for 12 from 40 to 49 and 4 for 8 from 50-plus in his 20-game career. Carpenter has been the better kicker since the Dolphins opted to keep Sturgis instead.

LORIA'S THOUGHTS

### The postseason success of small market Kansas City (19th in payroll at $92 million) --- combined with Baltimore beating out three AL East teams with much higher payrolls --– should give the Marlins additional reason for optimism that they can contend next season, provided they make the right moves to augment a promising roster and provided that Jose Fernandez regains something close to his old form when he returns.

Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval --- who the Marlins like --- appears to have priced himself out of their pay range, but Rockies first baseman/outfielder Michael Cuddyer remains among several realistic potential targets.

Players said owner Jeffrey Loria’s end-of season speech was well-received. “He spoke about how we played, was proud we kept battling even when we were down in games,” Jeff Baker said.

Loria, expected to authorize a payroll hike from $49 million to more than $60 million, is bullish on the franchise’s future and shared some of his thoughts via e-mail. It’s clear the front office dynamics are better than at times in the past.

“We feel extremely optimistic about the future and confident this team is beginning to hit its stride,” Loria said. “This was a great year in many ways, in that our front office has gelled and really worked well together.

“My trust in, and relationship with, our new President Mike Hill, General Manager Dan Jennings and their teams is fantastic. Our coaching staff did a masterful job, and Mike Redmond is deservedly getting credit for continually motivating this team even though Jose was lost for the year and Giancarlo was injured in September.

“I really believe we’d be competing deep into the playoffs as we speak had they not suffered those unfortunate injuries. That said, the future is bright.  As I’ve been saying for two years, we had to move in a different direction and build this team for long-term success.”

Asked if another hitter is needed (his front office feels that way), he said: “I think our roster is really solid as it stands, although you always want to complement what you have and add quality players in the offseason.  Mike and DJ have some ideas and I will let them work through our needs this winter before they present them to me.”

On an impending multiyear offer to Giancarlo Stanton, Loria said: “I believe Giancarlo has felt a major turnaround this year, not only in terms of our win-loss column, but also the spirit of camaraderie, major consistency and passion for baseball in Miami. We all said we’d put the focus on winning during the season and agreed to speak as soon as it was over.  We’ll be sitting down with his representatives shortly.”

Look for the Marlins’ offer for Stanton to be five or six years. Also, the Marlins are expected to seek a reasonably-priced veteran starting pitcher, either via trade or free agency.

Loria might need to spend $5 million to $8 million or so more than planned if the free agent market explodes. But he did authorize extra money last February for Baker and Carlos Marmol.

And Loria, in retrospect, made the correct move by authorizing the 2012 Toronto trade, which rid the Marlins of the onerous contracts of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, John Buck and perpetually-injured Josh Johnson and ended up delivering a long-term starting shortstop (Adeiny Hechavarria), a frontline starter who’s better, younger and a lot cheaper than Buehrle (Henderson Alvarez), skilled young arms in Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani and an outfielder (Jake Marisnick) who was dealt to Houston this past summer in a package for pitcher Jarred Cosart in what so far has proved to be an excellent trade.

It feels like the franchise is going in the right direction and that can only help in the pursuit of free agents. But the right moves must be made this winter.

HEAT CHATTER

### A few thoughts from Cleveland's 122-119 overtime win over the Heat in Brazil: Yes, it's preseason. But it has to be discouraging to see how the Cavaliers, playing without Kyrie Irving, handled the Heat --- building an 18-point lead early in the third quarter --- even without much offense from LeBron James (seven points, 2 for 8 shooting). The final score was deceptive; Heat reserves --- most of whom either won't play much or even be on the team --- helped close the deficit late and send the game to overtime....

Kevin Love (25), Anderson Varajao (14), Tristan Thompson (18) and Dion Waiters (16) did much of the damage for Cleveland... Varajao had his way in the post, launching hook shots over Chris Bosh without resistance. Rebounding and interior defense remain big concerns for Miami. The Heat hopes Josh McRoberts' return from toe surgery will help matters; he expects to be back for Miami's Oct. 29 opener....

Norris Cole (two assists, three turnovers, 2 for 6 shooting) has done little to seize the starting point guard job afforded him the past two games.... James Ennis, who didn't play in the first half, continues to make a convincing case to be part of the rotation. He had 17 points in 21 minutes and helped ignite an 11-0 second-half run... Mario Chalmers left in the second half with a hip pointer and Shabazz Napier (16 points, 7 assists, no turnovers) had some good moments in the fourth quarter and overtime.... Danny Granger (1 for 5) needs to start hitting shots for this bench to be decent. 

### Dwyane Wade told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick recently that last season wasn’t fun, and Chris Bosh told me that now that the championship-or-utter-failure expectations are gone, “we’ll be able to enjoy it a little more. Like any team we will have good days or bad days.

“But not having to hear people heckle you saying, ‘You’re not going to win it this year,’ and you’re like, ‘Yes we are, we’ve got to win it this year!’ It was stressful. It was exhausting but it’s what we all asked for. [But] not having it is nice.” Those feelings will evaporate, naturally, if this team struggles early.

### Please see the last post for UM-Cincinnati postscripts, thoughts and reaction from Saturday afternoon. And please follow me on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz).

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