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Dolphins planning significant defensive changes; Free agent options; Kaaya's pro stock; UM, Heat, Panthers, Marlins


The defense that the Dolphins thought would be a strength stands 27th in yards allowed per game, 30th in rushing yards relinquished and 23rd in points permitted. And now they’re prepared to invest resources to fix it.

The person who picks the players (Mike Tannenbaum) already is in place.

Here's a look at what the Dolphins are thinking defensively (from what we're told) and their free agent options:

### The Dolphins believe they need to add two cornerbacks this offseason.

The Dolphins believe Brent Grimes is still an effective player at 32, and they aren't ready to simply release him, but asking him to restructure his contract to reduce his $9.5 million cap number is a strong possibility (though nothing has been decided for sure). 

We've also been told that Miko Grimes’ degrading comments about Ryan Tannehill will not affect the team’s decision on Grimes.

Miami should be able to land one of the draft’s high-end cornerbacks --- FSU’s Jalen Ramsey or UF’s Vernon Hargreaves --- if it chooses.

And presuming Carolina will do what it takes to keep Josh Norman, the in-their-prime free agent corners who would warrant consideration for Miami include the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson (rated fifth among corners by Pro Football Focus), the Chiefs’ and former Dolphin Sean Smith (11th), the Rams’ Janoris Jenkins (23rd), Green Bay’s Casey Heyward (25th), the Giants’ Prince Amukamara (35th), the Titans’ Coty Sensabaugh (86th), Arizona’s Jerraud Powers (88th) and Dallas’ Morris Claiborne (109th).

Grimes, by the way, is rated 62nd and Dolphins slot corner Brice McCain is rated 64th.

Claiborne, a competent player who hasn’t lived up to what’s expected of a sixth overall pick, is 26 years old. So is Powers. The other free agents from other teams that are mentioned above are between 27 and 29.

If Miami is willing to invest in an older corner, the Bengals’ Leon Hall (22nd by PFF) and Adam Jones (14th) warrant a look, as does Pittsburgh’s William Gay (40th).

Of those corners excluding Norman, Overthecap.com estimates that Smith and Jenkins will be the most expensive, with deals averaging in the $8 million to $12 million range annually.

### Though Michael Thomas played well at times, the Dolphins would like to add another safety opposite Reshad Jones. Walt Aikens hasn’t developed as hoped.

San Diego's Eric Weddle, an impending free agent, would welcome a Dolphins' offer, but he would be costly.

### As far as defensive end is concerned, Miami wants to keep Cam Wake,  coming off an Achilles’ injury, and there’s a good chance they will look to restructure his deal, to lower his $9.8 million cap number. But make no mistake: The preference is to keep him; they believe he's still a very good player.

They also have interest in re-signing free agent Olivier Vernon, who was rated the NFL’s third-best edge defender, but economics will play a factor.

The Dolphins haven’t decided how much to offer and with every player, there’s a ceiling with how high a team will go in the bidding. Using the $15 million franchise tag on Vernon is another option that can't be ruled out. The Dolphins, as we've noted previously, have the ability to clear out more than $50 million in cap space.

“I only get one shot [at free agency], so I’m not [doing] a hometown discount,” Vernon said. “I want to help bring [the Dolphins] back to something relevant” but if it doesn’t work out and “if it entails going somewhere else, then that’s what has to happen.”

If Vernon should move on, the Dolphins can either gamble on drafting one of the four high-end defensive ends or try to sign one of a limited number of free agent starting defensive ends, a group that includes the Giants’ Jason Pierre Paul (one sack in seven games since his July fireworks accident; ranked 34th by PFF), Houston’s Jared Crick, San Diego’s Kendall Reyes, Detroit’s Jason Jones and the Giants’ Robert Ayers (rated eighth by PFF).

Of those, Vernon and Wake are arguably better pass rushers than any of those players, considering Pierre Paul's setback.

If Miami shifts to a 3-4 defense, there are two other appealing free agent options that would warrant consideration: Denver teammates Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, both 26. Wolfe is one of the NFL’s best run-defenders.

Among free agents, we excluded Muhammad Wilkerson (the Jets figure to do what it takes to keep him) and Dallas’ Greg Hardy, whose domestic abuse history makes him toxic for most organizations.

The Dolphins’ Derrick Shelby, an impending unrestricted free agent who’s rated the No. 22 edge defender by PFF, said having a chance to start will factor into his decision. Another team figures to offer more than Miami will.

Miami hasn’t decided whether to keep Quinton Coples on a restructured deal and isn’t counting on suspended Dion Jordan.

### The Dolphins, who aren’t sure if they will run a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, want to add at least one starting linebacker and possibly two.

They would like to upgrade over Kelvin Sheppard in the middle and haven’t made a decision whether to keep Koa Misi, who has a $4.3 million salary if he stays. The Dolphins save $3.7 million against the cap if Misi is cut.

They will consider moving Misi back to the mike position if they can’t find an upgrade over Sheppard in free agency.

That group of decent free-agent inside linebackers, which isn’t deep, is headlined by the Jets’ Demario Davis (a good player in his prime, at 26); Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (33, but has had a very good year with two picks and two forced fumbles and is ranked seventh among all linebackers by Pro Football Focus), Indianapolis’ Jerrell Freeman (104 tackles; ranked fifth by PFF) and Denver’s Danny Trevathan (a will linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 defense; has 100 tackles, two picks; ranked sixth by PFF).

There isn’t much beyond that among unrestricted free agent linebackers: Cincinnati’s Vincent Rey; Dallas’ Rolando McClain (suspended four games this year for violating NFL’s drug policy); the Giants’ Jasper Brinkley, Chicago’s Shea McClellin and a bunch of backups. 

The draft’s top inside linebacker, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, was a projected top 10 pick before sustaining a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.

If the Dolphins move Misi back inside, they would explore outside linebacker free agents such as Bruce Irvin, Courtney Upshaw and others.

Couple other quick things:

### We'll deal with offensive issues in a future column, but to reiterate: The Dolphins are totally committed to Ryan Tannehill for next season. So don't spend your time analyzing QBs Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch, two potential top 10 picks.

### Check out Armando Salguero's blog for the latest on the coaching search, and Dennis Hickey's ouster. Armando will be taking the lead on the coaching situation. And check out Adam Beasley's story with Dan Campbell's reflections on how he handled his big career break this year.


### UM quarterback Brad Kaaya said of Mark Richt’s hiring (to our David Furones): “I couldn’t ask for a better scenario to finish my last two years of college.” But turning pro might become a consideration next spring because his stock keeps rising.

“I do think Kaaya has the potential to become a first-round pick,” ESPN’s Todd McShay e-mailed. “He needs to add bulk and get stronger to withstand the punishment. But I like a lot of aspects of his game: fast eyes, reading progressions, processes info quickly. Mechanics are above average. He is patient in the pocket but is not a robot. He needs more game reps and needs to continue to improve his consistency. But I think he has enough tools and smarts to develop into a solid to good NFL starter.”

### Two high-level UM Board of Trustee members said the trustees on the athletics advisory committee, with support from athletic director Blake James, authorized a substantial increase in pay for football assistant coaches, as needed, to hire the best staff possible. That helped lure respected defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.

Before hiring Manny Diaz on Saturday, Miami made a competitive bid for well-regarded Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, but he took a $1.3 million annual offer from LSU. 

### Four issues that should concern the Heat about its play late in close games (final five minutes, with a margin of five or fewer):

1) They’re bad on “clutch” threes: 6 for 28, a byproduct of the roster’s limitation in that area.

2) The Heat doesn’t shoot free throws well under pressure (39 for 57, 68 percent).

3) Chris Bosh’s clutch shooting, very good for many years, has plunged to 8 for 26 (30.8 percent). His track record suggests that should change.

4) For a former third-team all-NBA player, Goran Dragic doesn’t (or isn’t given a chance) to assert himself late. Dwyane Wade has taken 38 clutch shots (made 18) and Bosh 26, but Dragic has attempted just four (and made one).

### Can't say enough about the Panthers' defense and goaltending. Even before tonight's 3-0 shutout of the Rangers --- featuring 39 Roberto Luongo saves --- the Panthers were allowing the third-fewest goals in the league per game (2.24).

Luongo, meanwhile, is 11th in goals against average at 2.16 and eighth in save percentage (.926).

With their eighth straight win, the Panthers regained the lead in the Atlantic Division with 48 points and reclaimed the No. 2 seed in the East behind Washington, which has 58 points.

### Former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent told me: “I was involved in Miami getting a team. I thought it would be great market and it is a big disappointment in every way.”…

So far, 69 free agents have signed with teams, for $1.6 billion. Miami accounts for one of those: Career .194 hitter Jeff Mathis, who re-signed for $1.5 million.

Twitter: @flasportsbuzz