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Big season looming for potential 2016 Dolphins free agents Miller, Vernon; Heat, Marlins, Canes, local radio personnel notes


For a franchise that too often has eschewed drafting University of Miami standouts, the Dolphins’ decision (specifically Jeff Ireland’s) to snag Olivier Vernon and Lamar Miller in the third and fourth rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft was smart and commendable.

Both have proven well worth the investment --- Vernon collecting 18 sacks over the past two seasons, Miller seizing a starting job and ranking among the league leaders in per-carry average in 2014.

But with both players a year away from unrestricted free agency, questions about their futures will linger until resolution.

The Dolphins, who open training camp on Thursday, prefer to keep both players but cannot say for sure if they will be able to, according to a club source.

They have had preliminary discussions with Miller but no in-depth negotiations yet. And there have been no discussions with Vernon.

Even though the Dolphins already stand above the projected 2016 salary cap, keep in mind that they can clear out substantial cap space in a variety of ways, some relatively painless.

In Miller’s case, the Dolphins might have a possible replacement in Jay Ajayi --- every top Dolphins executive keeps calling Ajayi a three-down back --- but nobody has seen nearly enough of the rookie to know that for sure.

Be very careful not to underestimate Miller; his 5.1 yards per carry average last season was second among all NFL backs (behind only Baltimore's Justin Forsett) and tied Ronnie Brown (2007) for the highest per carry average (minimum 30 carries) by any Dolphins running back since 1981, when Tony Nathan averaged 5.3.

And Miller was better in short yardage than the perception: On 3rd and 1 or 2 last season, Miller converted 11 of 14 chances into first downs, averaging 4.9 yards on those 14 carries. He converted one of two chances on 4th and 1 or 2.

Miller, who ran for 1099 yards and eight touchdowns last season, showed his breakaway speed --- something the Dolphins would love to see more of --- with his 97-yard touchdown run against the Jets in the season finale, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said last year that Miller improved in every area the coaching staff asked of him, including breaking tackles.

Consider that last season, Miller caused defenders to miss 32 tackles, which was 13th in the league among 57 qualifying running backs despite having fewer carries than half of the players in the top 12.

ESPN’s KC Joyner, who meticulously breaks down film, said Miller averaged 8.8 yards per carry last season when he gets good blocking. “The top backs average 9 or 10,” Joyner said.

Miller’s 4.6 career rushing average (in 444 carries) is excellent. Among active running backs with at least 750 carries, only Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and DeAngelo Williams are higher.

The Dolphins value Miller. But this is also a league when some teams prefer not to pay big money for running backs.

As for Vernon, defensive end Cameron Jordan’s new five-year contract with the Saints could provide a floor for a Vernon deal if Vernon excels in 2015. That Jordan deal is costly: five years and $55 million, with $33.5 million guaranteed and $27 million over the first two years.

Corey Liuget's five-year, $51.5 million extension with San Diego, and Cam Heyward's six-year, $62 million deal with Pittsburgh ($33.5 million guaranteed) also might be used as floors for a new Vernon deal. And Vernon had far more sacks over the past two years than Heyward (12.5) or Liuget (10).

If Vernon has a big season, do not be the least bit surprised if Vernon asks for more than any of those contracts (potentially five years, more than $60 million, with more than $40 million guaranteed). Such is the market for young, talented defensive ends in a league that places a premium on pass rushers.

For perspective, Vernon had 103 tackles and 18 sacks over the past two seasons, his second and third in the league. Jordan had 98 tackles and 20 sacks over those two seasons, his third and fourth.

Last season, among 59 qualifying defensive ends who play some in a 4-3 defense (Jordan also plays in a 3-4), Pro Football Focus ranked Vernon 17th and Jordan 29th. So the Jordan/Vernon comparison --- previously noted by our Armando Salguero --- is valid.

Vernon assuredly wants to raise his sack total, which dropped from 11.5 in 2013 to 6.5 last season. PFF ranked him 21st of 59 defensive ends against the run last season, second among Dolphins linemen behind Derrick Shelby.

There’s also a chance the Dolphins could place a $15 million franchise tag on Vernon for 2016.

Vernon’s value to the Dolphins beyond this season is magnified by the fact that Cameron Wake will be 34 to start the 2016 season; Shelby is entering the final season of his contract and might leave in free agency; and the Dolphins cannot count on Dion Jordan, who’s suspended for all of 2015. Terrence Fede is the only other returning defensive end.

### Please see the last post for information on the Dolphins' roster additions today.


### As our Clark Spencer noted, Cleveland is among teams expressing interest in a trade for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who was hitting .344 with four homers and eight RBI in 17 games in Triple A entering Tuesday.

According to a Marlins friend of Ozuna, there is growing concern and frustration that the Marlins might be leaving him in Triple A for financial reasons.

To be eligible for arbitration after this season, Ozuna likely would need to be back with the Marlins by Aug. 8, WINZ’s Andy Slater noted in a piece over the weekend.

Agent Scott Boras declined to give an opinion on that arbitration issue but told me that when the Marlins demoted Ozuna on July 5 (with his average at .249), Ozuna “was told by [president/baseball operations] Michael Hill that as soon as he gets his rhythm back, he will be right back. And the manager [Dan Jennings] reported to me he was hitting the ball well at Triple A.”

Asked when Ozuna will be brought back to the majors, Jennings said Tuesday that the Marlins have studied video of Ozuna and "will dispatch evaluators there to make sure he's accomplished what we want him to." 

The Marlins could save several million dollars by leaving him in New Orleans for a couple more weeks, because that would also push back his free agency clock. Ozuna declined a multiyear offer over the winter, and you wonder if that is also a factor in this.

### Several teams have called on Martin Prado, but Jennings said Tuesday the Marlins don’t want to move core players who are signed beyond this season (like Prado)…The Marlins have focused in on a trade for Mat Latos, who has drawn interest from the Yankees, Dodgers, Toronto, San Francisco and the Cubs, among others. [UPDATE: Latos and Michael Morse are expected to be traded to the Dodgers for three minor leaguers]…. Dan Haren remains in play, too, though his $3 million in potential incentives complicates matters.

### Marlins right-hander Henderson Alvarez had shoulder surgery in Sarasota today and Jennings said it's unclear if he will be ready for spring training. Alvarez, who is arbitration-eligible, went 0-4 this season before being sidelined by shoulder problems.

### One NBA general manager who spoke to the Heat said Heat brass realized Shabazz Napier “was not good enough. At that size (6-1), you have to be really quick or a very good shooter, and he’s neither.”... Please see the last post for details on Josh Richardson's signing.

### Josh Friedman and Chris Wittyngham are moving from evenings to the 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot on 104.3 FM/790 AM The Ticket, at least temporarily, in the wake of ESPN Radio parting ways with Colin Cowherd. A decision is still pending on whether Dan Le Batard will take over Cowherd's slot nationally on ESPN Radio and locally on The Ticket.

### With four-star Coral Gables standout Amir Rasul (widely considered the state’s best running back and ESPN’s No. 83 player overall) flipping from UM to FSU this week, that means 7 of the 21 UM oral commitments for 2016 are four-star prospects (top 300 players nationally) in the eyes of Rivals.com; none are five-star players.  

Rasul’s move leaves West Palm Beach-based Travis Homer as the highest-rated running back in UM's group of 2016 oral commitments. Rivals.com ranks him the 15th-best back in the country and a three-star prospect. Conversely, Rivals rated Rasul the 12th-best and a four-star prospect.

Hallandale-based Zack Moss, rated by Rivals as the 31st-best back in the 2016 class, also is orally committed to UM.

Twitter: @flasportsbuzz