- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Miami Dolphins have five draft picks in the first three rounds and more than $40 million of salary-cap room this offseason. If this were a poker game, Miami would hold the most chips at the NFL table.
But the person holding all the cards in Miami often makes Dolphins fans nervous. Embattled general manager Jeff Ireland will be calling the shots for the Dolphins during their most important offseason in recent memory. For better or worse, Ireland's decisions over the next few months will significantly impact Miami's franchise for the next three to five years.
Ireland is a polarizing figure in Miami. He is 20-28 since taking over full time for former Dolphins president Bill Parcells in 2010. Ireland's track record the past three years has been inconsistent, and many Miami fans wanted him out before the start of the 2012 season.
Ireland's free-agent signings have been littered with misses. Last year alone, quarterback David Garrard, cornerback Richard Marshall and receiver Chad Johnson were all free-agent busts. Ireland also has been hit-and-miss in the draft. Some of his good picks include rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and center Mike Pouncey. But Ireland's misses also include tailback Daniel Thomas, receiver Clyde Gates and rookie tight end Michael Egnew. The Koa Misi pick over New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2010 also is hard to forget. That poor decision by Ireland only furthered the gap between Miami and its biggest rival.
So is Ireland the right person to manage more than $40 million and 10 total draft picks? His track record proves the Dolphins are taking a risk.
This is a make-or-break year for Ireland, who still has a lot to prove as Miami's general manager. The good news is Ireland is coming off his best draft in Miami. His 2012 picks included Tannehill, starting offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and contributing reserves Olivier Vernon and Lamar Miller. This group helped lead Miami to a respectable 7-9 record and provided optimism for the future.
"I was impressed with Ireland this past offseason and they are loaded with picks going forward," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I would target 2014 to be highly competitive for Miami. It's very achievable."
Of course, all of that is contingent on Ireland making the right calls in 2013.
Ireland's first order of business is taking care of his in-house free agents. The Dolphins have plenty of cap room because many key players are coming off the books. Starters like left tackle Jake Long, leading rusher Reggie Bush, leading receiver Brian Hartline, No. 1 corner Sean Smith and defensive tackle Randy Starks will look to cash in this offseason. These are all tough calls. Miami cannot pay all of them.
It will be up to Ireland, with some input from rookie head coach Joe Philbin, to determine who stays and who goes. Ireland must walk a fine line of paying enough money to keep his own key contributors but still leave enough cap room to chase outside free agents. It will take some shrewd decisions and masterful self-scouting by Ireland. He cannot overrate or overpay his own players, which is a mistake general managers often make.
One of the most important things Ireland must accomplish is getting the right skill players around Tannehill. The rookie quarterback showed a lot of potential in his first year but was hamstrung by limited receivers and tight ends. Tannehill still managed to throw for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his first season.
The good news is the wide receiver position is very strong in free agency this year. Free-agent receivers Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace are possibilities for the Dolphins, who have the money to spend. Jennings played under Philbin for several years in Green Bay and knows the West Coast offense. Bowe is a Miami native who could return home, and Wallace has the deep speed Miami needs. Each player has the potential to fit well in Miami's offense and provide a boost for Tannehill.
"Wallace's speed would be ideal for Miami, but I trust him the least," Williamson said of this year's free-agent receivers. "Jennings is the most familiar but I worry that he might be on a slight decline. Bowe is really solid and from Miami. I would sign one and still draft a receiver high."
Tannehill also needs a better receiving tight end. This was a staple in Philbin's offenses in Green Bay, but Miami was limited with that position last year. Aging tight end Anthony Fasano could not stretch the field and is a free agent who may not return.
Following free agency, the Dolphins will enter the draft with a first-round pick (No. 12 overall), two second-round picks and two third-round picks. Miami picked up an additional second-rounder last summer from the Indianapolis Colts via the Vontae Davis trade. The Dolphins also got an extra third-rounder from the Chicago Bears for trading receiver Brandon Marshall. These key picks will be used to plug additional holes on the roster.
These are exciting and promising times for Miami. The Dolphins are in prime position to close the gap with the Patriots in the AFC East and perhaps make a playoff run in 2013. But it will be up to Ireland to wisely spend Miami's immense offseason resources.