- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland has a lot to feel good about. He’s in the process of completing arguably the most successful free-agent period in team history, and there is a significant buzz in South Florida regarding its pro football team again.
Optimism is running high with the Dolphins, and Ireland is leading the charge. He has 11 draft picks at his disposal, which is tied for the third most in the NFL. Miami also is a popular sleeper pick by some, including the AFC East blog, to push for a playoff spot next season.
As surprising as it may seem, the once-embattled Ireland's stock clearly is on the rise. But his job is only half complete. In order for the Dolphins to make a complete turnaround in 2013, Ireland cannot botch the upcoming draft.
“Obviously, we like the progress,” Ireland said during his pre-draft news conference this week. “We felt like we’ve made some progress. There’s been a lot of work that went into it obviously. I’ve got a lot of people to thank.”
Things were not so rosy for Ireland one year ago. After three straight losing seasons from 2009-2011, Ireland became the second biggest villain in South Florida sports, after Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.
Last year, Dolphins fans picketed outside the team’s training facility to send a message. The “Fire-land” movement was prevalent heading into the 2012 season.
But Ireland quieted critics by nailing last year’s draft. He landed a potential franchise quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) in the first round, a starting offensive tackle (Jonathan Martin) in the second round, a pass-rusher off the bench (Olivier Vernon) in the third round and an eventual starting tailback (Lamar Miller) in the fourth round. That set the foundation for last year’s 7-9 campaign. It was Miami's fourth straight losing season, but the team finally appeared to be going in the right direction.
This is a make-or-break year for Ireland, and the general manager is doing all he can to ensure the Dolphins take the next step in 2013. That partially explains why Ireland spared no expense to land top free agents on the open market, such as receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, tight end Dustin Keller and cornerback Brent Grimes. Miami’s win-now approach to free agency not only reflects the team's attitude, but also Ireland's sense of job security.
Part of the turnaround is linked to the decision to hire head coach Joe Philbin. Many believed Ireland should have been fired with former coach Tony Sparano last year. However, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross trusted Ireland to find the right head coach.
The first year of Philbin and Ireland teaming up together went smoothly. The two are much more on the same page than Ireland and Sparano were.
“One of the things I liked about Joe in the interview process was that he and I see players pretty much the same,” Ireland said. “Schematically is where maybe it’s changed. Character and makeup, those things, we see very much eye-to-eye on. I’m probably a little bit more of a risk-taker than maybe Joe, but we certainly see eye-to-eye.
“We want guys that are highly competitive. We want guys that have a specific combination of intangible ingredients that form a desired football personality. That’s absolutely what we’re trying to look for.”
Ireland signed off on approximately $200 million worth of contracts to land free agents and keep in-house players such as defensive tackle Randy Starks, receiver Brian Hartline and backup quarterback Matt Moore. It’s rare for NFL teams to have immense cap room and so many draft picks in the same year. Ireland was afforded that luxury, and this offseason will be the most important of his career. What he does now will set the tone for the franchise for many years.
Free agency strengthened Miami’s roster to the point where Ireland doesn't need all 11 of his draft picks. Miami has five picks in the first three rounds, which could be valuable as trade chips with other teams.
“I’ve got enough ammunition to get to the first pick if I wanted to,” Ireland explained. “But I don’t see myself doing that personally. I don’t know. It depends on what’s there and we haven’t gone through the process of [figuring that out] and talking to other teams at this point and seeing where we would go up or back. Right now, we’re trying to get the board right and we’re kind of grinding through the process.”
Free agency is pretty much in the books, and the Dolphins certainly did well in that phase of the offseason. If Ireland finishes strong with a quality draft in two weeks, Miami will be poised to contend in the AFC East.
As optimism rises for the Dolphins, so does the perception of Ireland in South Florida. Who would have thought the general manager many Dolphins fans recently wanted fired would spearhead the team's resurgence just one year later?