NFL Nation: Paul Soliai

W2W4: Miami Dolphins

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
The Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons open the preseason Friday night at the Georgia Dome.

1. Lazor focus: Much has been made this offseason and in training camp about offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s new scheme. Dolphins players and coaches have praised Lazor for the job he’s done with Miami’s offense, and Friday is the first time everyone gets to see it in a game situation. Lazor arrived in Miami this season after a stint with Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Dolphins are adding many of the concepts from Kelly’s high-powered offense. Does Miami have the personnel to pull it off? It’s been up and down early in training camp. But performing well against Atlanta will give Miami’s offense some confidence.

2. Tannehill kicks off Year 3: Just as Lazor’s offense will be in focus, a lot of eyes will be on Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as well. The third-year quarterback is 15-17 as a starter and enters a make-or-break season. Tannehill is learning a new offense and could use some early momentum in the preseason opener. He was inconsistent this week in training camp. Tannehill threw seven interceptions in the past three practices. Tannehill is not expected to play much more than two or three series on Friday.

3. Familiar faces: It’s just a preseason game, so don’t expect regular-season intensity. However, it is worth noting Miami will face former longtime Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai for the first time. Soliai spent seven years with the Dolphins from 2007-13 and wanted to stay in Miami this offseason as a free agent. However, the Dolphins disagreed on Soliai’s value and the Falcons signed him to a $33 million contract. Soliai could be motivated to perform well in his limited playing time. Friday also marks the return to Atlanta for Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes. He played against the Falcons last year in the regular season in Miami.
Mike NolanScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won't be lacking depth up front in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't panicking -- at least not yet -- over their inability to secure a top pass-rusher this offseason.

Sure, it would have been a nice luxury to land a proven talent such as Brian Orakpo or even a promising rookie such as Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack or Dee Ford. But the Falcons have a game plan, regardless of what outside perception might say.

The coaches and players fully understand the urgency. They know how pathetic the pass rush was last season, when the Falcons sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on just 22.4 percent of dropbacks, second-worst in the NFL. Not to mention the Falcons allowed opponents to convert 45.93 percent on third down, resulting in the league's worst third-down defense.

You know you're in trouble when you make Geno Smith look like an All-Pro.

So how are things supposed to improve? There is plenty of reason to be skeptical, including the absence of a speed-rusher. But I believe a collective effort will help the Falcons take significant strides with their defensive pressure and compensate for the lack of an elite pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsAthletic rookie Ra'Shede Hageman could give a boost to the Falcons' pass rush in 2014.
Really. I do.

Altering the defensive approach is the first step. Although coach Mike Smith continues to preach defensive multiplicity without revealing much detail, the Falcons will have more of a 3-4 look in 2014. Believe that. It was obvious when players started talking about it immediately after last season. Then the Falcons added bulky nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson up front. Drafting defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman was further confirmation.

Think of it more as the Falcons building toward a 5-2 alignment, with three linemen and two outside linebackers getting pressure. As long as the Falcons can do so with consistency, they'll be fine.

The Falcons hope that having heavy hitters up front will create more stress on opposing offensive linemen and open lanes for the linebackers to make plays. And if he develops quickly, Hageman has the potential to be an outstanding inside rusher and a J.J. Watt-type pass-deflector. He is the wild card in this whole equation. He'll be motivated by fiery defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

In regard to the true pass-rushers, the Falcons have plenty of faith in third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi, who had four sacks last season and has played defensive end. His athleticism should be on display more often from the outside linebacker spot in 2014. Massaquoi told me this offseason that he feels the need to atone for not taking advantage of his opportunities last year.

Stansly Maponga and rookie Prince Shembo are the other two young players that intrigue me. Both have pass-rush ability, although Maponga was used sporadically last season. Folks who watched every game Shembo played at Notre Dame believe he is a much better pass-rusher than run defender or coverage guy.

And don't forget about veteran Osi Umenyiora. He led the team with 7.5 sacks but wore down as the season went along. Yes, he's 32 years old and his best days are behind him. But the Falcons could get a lot out of him as a strictly designated pass-rusher, the same role he played at the end of last season. Umenyiora has spent a significant amount of time trying to improve his technique and speed this offseason. To me, that sounds like a veteran determined not to go out with a thud.

When guys like Massaquoi, Maponga and even Umenyiora don't have to bang against offensive tackles regularly, like they did most of the time in a typical 4-3 alignment, they'll be fresher and able to sustain a consistent pass rush. The defensive linemen also should benefit from a strong rotation, considering the Falcons brought back Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry while adding Soliai, Jackson and Hageman.

There will be an adjustment period all around, particularly for those players getting accustomed to standing up rather than playing with their hands in the ground. The guy who shouldn't flinch is Kroy Biermann, who has experience in both roles. But Biermann -- who played just two games in 2013 because of an Achilles injury -- will be counted upon more against the run than the pass.

Of course, let's not forget the key figure in this whole equation: defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Last year wasn't indicative of what type of defensive mind he is. He's had success in the past out of a 3-4 base. He couldn't be too "multiple" last season, based on personnel. Nolan knows how to disguise coverages and dial up blitzes, when needed. And he'll have more to work with this season, including more capable bodies to sub in and out to keep the pressure consistent.

When you talk about facing the likes of Drew Brees and Cam Newton twice a year and having to contend with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers in Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, it only emphasizes the importance of pressure for a Falcons team trying to return to playoff contention. It won't be about a guy such as Massaquoi suddenly exploding with double-digit sacks, though the Falcons would take it. It will be more about consistency, getting contributions from a number of different players, and keeping bodies fresh over the duration of 60 minutes.

A more balanced offensive attack with a little more emphasis on the run surely wouldn't hurt in terms of keeping the defense off the field. But when it comes down to it, the Falcons' defenders have to pin their ears back and have the desire to get after it.

The pressure is on.
Paul SoliaiDoug Murray/Icon SMIAfter seven seasons in Miami, Paul Soliai will begin a new chapter in Atlanta.
Suddenly, there was silence.

The team on the phone line had to be thinking all sorts of random thoughts at that moment. Was something said to make negotiations fall apart? Was another team trying to call and get in on the action? Was a cell tower down in the area?

No, there was a simple explanation why agent David Canter's conversation with Atlanta Falcons contract negotiator Nick Polk got cut off while they discussed 30-year-old nose tackle Paul Soliai.

Blame it on the baby.

"I was holding my 2-year-old son, Austen, because we were talking very early in the morning, and my son pressed the button and hung up on them," Canter explained with a laugh. "I called Nick right back because I didn't want him to think I hung up on him."

Their contract talks got back on track in a big way. Canter's numerous discussions with Polk and the Falcons during the three-day NFL negotiation period resulted in a five-year deal for Soliai worth $33 million, with $14 million guaranteed -- somewhat defying the odds of age and position.

Canter was on a pirate-ship cruise with his wife and sons in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when multiple teams, including the Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts, started to inquire about Soliai on March 8.

"We were docking at 12:08 p.m. that Saturday when the first call came in," Canter recalled. "I really don't remember what team it was because I literally hung up the phone on them to take a call from another team. I honestly didn't expect a phone call Saturday right after noon."

A big part of Soliai wanted to remain with the Miami Dolphins, who drafted him in the fourth round out of Utah in 2007. But there was a natural fit in Atlanta, where his former defensive coordinator for the Dolphins, Mike Nolan, now holds the same title.

"When you're Mike Nolan and you're [general manager] Thomas Dimitroff and you're sitting there in your meetings and you're talking about moving to a 3-4, you need an anchor for a 3-4," Canter explained. "There's no better anchor, in my opinion, than Paul Soliai."

Here is the evolution of Soliai's free-agent contract through the eyes of the guy who negotiated it.

Testing the market

They had been through this process before.

In 2012, Canter and Soliai had thoughts of moving on from Miami. In fact, they were set to take a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos. But the trip to Denver was canceled at the last minute.

"Paul looked me in the eyes and said, 'I'm not comfortable leaving Florida,'" Canter recalled. "He said to me, 'I know you're close to terms with the Broncos, but call Miami and tell them I want to come back.' So we took a two-year, $11.5 million contract to remain in Miami."

Signing just a two-year deal allowed Soliai to test the market again this offseason. Canter tried to facilitate an extension with the Dolphins, but it never materialized. He said he met with former general manager Jeff Ireland in the parking lot following Miami's loss to the New York Jets in the 2013 season finale. Ireland told Canter that Soliai was one of the Dolphins' top three offseason priorities. But Ireland and the team parted ways in January.

So Canter felt somewhat in limbo with a client who wanted to stay put, yet likely wasn't going to be offered the compensation he desired.

"I actually needed a number from Miami in August," Canter explained. "We had a three-year extension on the table, but the major issue was guaranteed money."

Canter felt Soliai was taking a chance by playing the '13 season without an extension. The agent's worst fear almost became a reality when Soliai suffered a knee injury in Week 2 against the Colts. It knocked him out of just one game -- against, coincidentally, the Falcons.

The Dolphins, under new general manager Dennis Hickey, apparently made another attempt to re-sign Soliai the Friday before free agency began. Canter said the offer was similar to the two-year, $12 million deal defensive tackle Randy Starks accepted to remain in Miami.

When contacted for this story, the Dolphins declined to comment on their talks with Soliai.

Canter knew what type of money he desired all along. He huddled with his analytics consultant, Brian McIntyre, at season's end and figured $6 million to $8 million per year would be the price range for Soliai.

Atlanta, intent on beefing up both the offensive and defensive lines, made the most sense. Soliai's lone Pro Bowl season came under Nolan in 2011. And current Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox was the Dolphins' pass-rush coach that same season.

"With Atlanta, we heard rumors that there might be a change to a 3-4, so we started really looking at Atlanta as possibly an attractive team in January," Canter said. "But you really don't know until you get to Indianapolis at the combine because teams want to see the other defensive linemen that are out there."

Canter proclaimed himself open for business at the combine by hand-delivering analytics packages he developed with McIntyre that broke down all 12 of his free agents, including Soliai. The information also was distributed via email to all 32 teams before the combine.

The section devoted to Soliai emphasized that teams shouldn't focus on him being an aging guy playing an undervalued position.

"The first thing you had to fight wasn't the position; the first thing you had to fight was the age," Canter said. "There's ageism in the NFL. There's this belief that a player that is 30 years old just isn't worth any money anymore, or not nearly as much money."

Soliai hadn't necessarily taken the pounding you would expect from a seven-year interior lineman. He played just 45.7 percent of the Dolphins' defensive snaps in 2013.

"The reality is that snap count is what matters," Canter said. "Now, that can be a positive and a negative for Paul. He didn't, for whatever reason in Miami, play on third down a lot. So some teams would say, 'He's not a three-down player.' I disagree with that. Paul disagrees with that. We've proven when he is in on third down, with our analytics packages, that the team actually performed better."

Soliai missed only one game the past four seasons, which Canter pointed to as a sign of durability. Even after the brief knee scare in 2013, the tandem felt little to worry about in free agency.

"This guy doesn't have an injury history," Canter said of Soliai. "To use Paul's quote, 'I'm Samoan. We don't get hurt.'"

Sealing the deal

By Monday, March 10, the eve of free agency, Canter believed the Falcons would be the major player in the Soliai deal. There were a few more discussions with Polk, including one during which Dimitroff jumped on the line for 10 minutes. Canter figured he would get at least the $6 million per year range from the Falcons with at least $10 million guaranteed. He said seven teams total inquired about Soliai.

"Monday afternoon, I started to get the feeling that I was going to lose teams," he said. "I thought I had another team that I was going to really be able to play against Atlanta. Obviously, I couldn't call them because I'm going to lose leverage.

[+] EnlargePaul Soliai and David Canter
Courtesy of DEC ManagementSoliai and his agent, David Canter, reviewed the nose tackle's contract at an Atlanta restaurant.
"So Monday afternoon, after I hung up the phone with Nick, I started sending text messages to teams and said, 'Hey, if you want in on Paul, here's the range we're going to be in. Can you beat that? Can you get to $6.5 [million average per year]?'" Canter said. "A lot of teams, they won't say no, flat out. They'll say, 'We have something else working. If we don't get that done, we're coming to you.' That's not good enough for me."

Once Tuesday came, Canter and Soliai knew it was all but a done deal. Late that afternoon, Canter tried to push for a little more.

"There was a point in time when the Atlanta deal almost went away," he said. "I was set on $8 million a year for the first two years. Obviously, Atlanta wasn't going to go there. And we didn't get there. But we got $7 million a year. So, then I pushed for $15 million over two years fully guaranteed. During those conversations, I felt like we had to pause and reset and they had to pause and reset."

The sides eventually agreed to the five-year deal with $11 million going to Soliai in the first year.

Without discussing financial terms, Dimitroff explained the negotiations from the Falcons' perspective.

"When going through any negotiation, the ultimate goal is to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial for both the team and the player," Dimitroff said. "I think the three-day period in which you can talk with agents has become very beneficial for both sides. It is important to have constructive and honest dialogue during that time. And if that is the case, it can help you when free agency begins."

After the deal was done, Canter texted Miami out of courtesy, and he said the response back was, "Tell Paul we wish him the best of luck."

When the agreement was announced, Canter was watching with McIntyre on ESPN and actually negotiating the delivery of a Range Rover to another client, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith.

"I had to get free window tinting thrown into the deal for Sean because the truck was late being delivered," Canter said.

Soliai still had some questions that needed to be answered, such as where the nearest Wal-Mart or Super Target was located in relation to the Falcons' facility and how he could avoid the "challenging" traffic in the city. He nixed the possibility of living in a subdivision popular among the players because it wasn't close enough to a grocery store.

Any last-minute concerns Soliai had calmed when he saw the contract numbers in front of him. The final step in the process occurred at the popular Bones restaurant in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Soliai, his family and Canter dined with a group that included Dimitroff, assistant general manager Scott Pioli, head coach Mike Smith, Polk, Nolan and Cox. As Canter dug into a bone-in filet and Soliai into a veal steak, Canter reiterated to Soliai how fortunate he was to join such an organization.

"There are so many amazing football minds in that building, and that's kudos to Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and [owner] Arthur Blank for putting together a hierarchy of coaches and front-office people who have been either general managers or head coaches or pro personnel directors," Canter said. "It blew our minds at dinner."

Canter and Soliai scanned the contract details at the dinner table. Canter tried to go line by line over the contract, but Soliai just wanted to sign.

"Ever since I signed with David, I've been in good hands," Soliai said. "My family has been taken care of."

So now Soliai was set to call Atlanta his new home. He mentioned renting out his place in Florida because he already has a residence back in Utah.

As for Canter, he didn't leave town without making one final push: He tried to nudge the Falcons to sign more of his free agents, including safety Steve Gregory and cornerback Brice McCain.

"I went up to Thomas Dimitroff and [director of player personnel] Lionel Vital and I was like, 'Let's do another deal. Let's get another guy in the building,'" Canter said. "Maybe I'm a little too aggressive. But that's why guys hire me."

Free-agency review: Dolphins

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
[+] EnlargeBranden Albert
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesBranden Albert should help stabilize Miami's porous offensive line.
Most significant signing: Left tackle Branden Albert is clearly the biggest free-agent addition to the Miami Dolphins' roster this offseason. Miami paid handsomely. Albert is making $47 million over the next five seasons. However, it was a signing the Dolphins needed to make after allowing a franchise-record 58 sacks in 2013. Miami needs to know if young quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the long-term solution, and the Dolphins can't determine that if Tannehill spends too much time getting hit and laying on his back. Albert, who made the Pro Bowl last year, should buy Tannehill more time next season protecting the blindside.

Most significant loss: The Dolphins' haven't suffered any debilitating losses in free agency. But if I had to pick the biggest loss to this point, it would be starting defensive tackle Paul Soliai. He was a homegrown talent as a former fourth-round pick. Soliai worked hard to become a one-time Pro Bowler, but the Dolphins didn't want to spend too much to keep him. He signed a $33 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons. The Dolphins lessened the loss by signing Earl Mitchell ($16 million) and bringing back Randy Starks ($12 million) at more affordable rates.

Biggest surprise: It was the worst-kept secret in sports that Jonathan Martin could not return to the Dolphins following last year's high-profile bullying scandal. But what was a surprise was how quickly the Dolphins were able to ship Martin to another team and at least get some value in return. Miami traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers on the first night of free agency for a conditional late-round pick. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached and recruited Martin at Stanford, felt he could make the most out of the former second-round pick. The list of suitors was not long, and the Dolphins were fortunate to get something instead of an outright release.

What's next: The Dolphins did most of their big spending on positions such as left tackle (Albert), defensive tackle (Mitchell, Starks) and cornerback (Cortland Finnegan). Now, look for Miami to bargain hunt to see if it can fill any remaining needs on its roster. The Dolphins still have two starting jobs available on the offensive line at right tackle and guard. They could also use another threat at running back to boost their 26th-ranked rushing attack from last season.
DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius PeppersGetty ImagesHow will aging pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers fare in free agency?

If you blinked Monday afternoon between the hours of 4 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. ET, you probably missed a few transactions during an intense open to the 2014 NFL free-agent market. By my count, 28 players agreed to terms on multiyear deals with new teams in about 120 minutes. Another dozen or so scheduled visits with teams they seemed likely to sign with.

A late-night round of action capped a remarkable day for the safety position. It also left available three Hall of Fame pass-rushers, strengthened the Atlanta Falcons, revealed the desperation of the Cleveland Browns and called into question the long-term plan (if there is one) of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.

Let's run through the highs, lows -- and everything in between -- on Day 1.

  • The frequency of agreements in the first few minutes of the open market revealed the reality of the preceding three-day "negotiating period." Plenty of under-the-table deals were completed long before 4 p.m. ET, despite rules to the contrary. I don't have a problem with it, to be honest. Discussions about contract parameters naturally lead to common ground. There's no reason to fight it, and the NFL might as well remove the stipulation "preventing" agreements during this period in future years.
  • As noted by ESPN Stats & Information, the class of 477 total free agents was the smallest since 2009 (444). That trend speaks to the growing number of players who re-signed with their existing teams before free agency began.
  • I don't think anyone would have guessed that six safeties would sign market-level deals in musical-chair fashion during the opening hours of free agency. But there was Donte Whitner signing with the Cleveland Browns, T.J. Ward moving from the Browns to the Denver Broncos and Antoine Bethea replacing Whitner with the 49ers. Later, Jairus Byrd signed with the New Orleans Saints to replace Malcolm Jenkins, who had agreed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Oh, and Mike Mitchell moved from Carolina Panthers to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Got all that?
  • [+] EnlargeByrd
    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesJairus Byrd was one of the many safeties who found a new home on Day 1 of free agency.
    Byrd's six-year, $54 million deal was the second-most lucrative for an unrestricted free agent on Day 1, based on the $9 million average per year (APY). When the week began, the Saints had about $3 million in salary-cap space, so for the moment it's a mystery how they can sign Byrd while still being in compliance. Trading running back Darren Sproles and restructuring some other deals would help. Regardless, the Saints couldn't pass up the opportunity to pair a three-time Pro Bowl player with rising star Kenny Vaccaro in their defensive backfield. Byrd has 22 interceptions since he was drafted in 2009. Only Asante Samuel (25) has more over that stretch.
  • Why were safeties valued so highly? (Other than Ward, each member of the group got at least $5 million annually.) I posed that question to Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for Williamson pointed to several reasons, including the increasing difficulty of devising schemes to face athletic tight ends. Many teams consider big safeties the best antidote, especially considering the prevalence of "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Williamson believes defenses will continue countering "12" personnel with "big nickel" schemes that feature three safeties and two cornerbacks rather than the other way around. And finally, we can't forget that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have two stud safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Thomas, in fact, tweeted late Monday night: "Copy cat league."
  • I wonder if that new ideal for big defensive backs extended to cornerback Aqib Talib who pulled in a stunning haul from the Broncos that included $26 million guaranteed. Talib is excellent in coverage but is built like many safeties at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. Still, this qualifies as arguably the riskiest decisions of the day. In seven previous seasons, Talib has never played in all 16 games.
  • Almost all of the players who signed big deals Tuesday, and really over the past few weeks, were under 30 years old. That fact brings up a fascinating philosophical issue that will play out over the coming days: How much should a trio of Hall of Fame pass-rushers, all on the wrong side of that unofficial age limit, get paid? Julius Peppers (34) and DeMarcus Ware (31) were released Tuesday, while Jared Allen (31) is an unrestricted free agent. Of the three, Ware seemed most likely to cash in after his unexpected release. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Denver Broncos were the favorites to sign him. But age and Ware's 2013 production decrease are all part of the negotiating pot.
  • Speaking of age, the Browns got older at safety and linebacker with their decision to sign Whitner and Karlos Dansby, respectively. Whitner is a year older than Ward, while Dansby is two years older than D'Qwell Jackson. Dansby will turn 33 in November and the Browns still guaranteed him $14 million. It's rare in this NFL climate to see that combination of numbers. The Browns were in a hurry on Tuesday. To do what? I'm not entirely sure, but to do something.
  • The Falcons took a step toward a more traditional 3-4 defense by signing a true nose tackle in Paul Soliai and a big defensive end in Tyson Jackson. Anyone who watched the Falcons' defense last season knows it needed to get stronger up front; they allowed the second-highest average per rush (5.0) on carries between the tackles last season. The Falcons paid handsomely to fix that problem, giving Soliai more than $6 million annually and Jackson about $5 million, but they filled an important need.
  • The Falcons' spending was overshadowed in their own division by the Saints' acquisition of Byrd and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spending spree. The Bucs remade their defense in a hurry by signing defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Coach Lovie Smith has final say over personnel, and it's pretty clear he didn't want to wait until the draft to get to work.
  • Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is operating 180 degrees from mentor Ted Thompson, who spends his money almost exclusively to retain internal prospects. McKenzie, armed with more than $60 million in salary-cap space, allowed two of his young players to leave and gave one of the biggest contracts of the day to an offensive lineman the St. Louis Rams were willing to part ways with. The Arizona Cardinals poached left tackle Jared Veldheer with a contract that was lower in value (about $7 million annually) than what McKenzie paid to sign guard/tackle Rodger Saffold (more than $8 million annually). McKenzie also let the Chicago Bears sign defensive end Lamarr Houston and the New York Giants sign running back Rashad Jennings. I'm willing to be patient and see what else McKenzie might have planned, but I'm not sure if owner Mark Davis will be. (Update: Overnight, the Raiders signed offensive tackle Austin Howard to a contract that included $15 million guaranteed, per Schefter. They also made plans to host free agent defensive end Justin Tuck and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.)
  • As expected, receivers paid the price for what is expected to be a deep draft class. All seemed quiet with Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, James Jones and most of the other veterans available. Only Golden Tate, who had a visit scheduled with the Detroit Lions, seemed to get any action.
  • At the moment, at least, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be in good standing with the team. He has been given a chance to rebuild quarterback Blaine Gabbert, whom the 49ers acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick. Harbaugh also got another ex-Stanford player when left tackle Jonathan Martin was acquired from the Miami Dolphins. Both of those moves have Harbaugh's fingerprints all over them.
  • I can hardly wait for Day 2.
It was clear from the outset how the Atlanta Falcons wanted to approach free agency: Get stronger up front.

The offensive and defensive lines struggled miserably last season. So if money was going to be spent on free agents, it was bound to be spent on offensive and defensive linemen, not safeties or tight ends.

Such was the case when the Falcons agreed to terms with defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Starting with Soliai, the Falcons rewarded the big nose tackle with a five-year contract with a max value of $33 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Soliai immediately becomes the Falcons' most intimidating defensive lineman. And he'll be counted upon to take on double teams and pave the way for the linebackers to make plays with the Falcons expected to move toward more of a 3-4-based scheme.

Jackson (6-4, 296) will be a key figure up front, too. The former third-overall pick in 2009 was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli when Pioli was the Chiefs' general manager. Jackson reportedly received a five-year deal worth a max of $25 million.

And Asamoah, who also agreed to a five-year deal (financial terms were not immediately available), might be the guy with the biggest burden to carry. The offensive line has been horrendous, allowing Matt Ryan to be the league's most pressured quarterback last season. The Falcons hope Asamoah steps in at right guard and develops into a stabilizing force. He is known for his pass protection and should be able to provide support as a run-blocker.

"Jon is a physical, experienced offensive lineman that will add a veteran presence to our offensive line," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Asamoah.

The Falcons got it right. They addressed the most pressing needs from the outside and also re-signed two other key figures in center Joe Hawley and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Hawley should start in the middle with Asamoah and left guard Justin Blalock next to him. Babineaux should add depth to the defensive line rotation.

It all could equal a climb back to the top for the Falcons, although other aspects still need to take shape. The release of former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud means the Falcons have to find a capable replacement next to strong safety William Moore. There is still a void at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retiring, although Levine Toilolo will be counted upon to elevate his game.

More importantly, the Falcons need to look at adding an offensive tackle and pass-rusher, maybe through the draft. The names that immediately come to mind are Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Right now, the Falcons hold the sixth-overall pick in the draft.

It will make for some interesting decisions to come. But for now, the Falcons made the right choice.

"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines, and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Certainly the Falcons have much more to accomplish.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts want to improve on being 26th in the league in stopping the run last season.

There’s no better place to start than at nose tackle.

Aubrayo Franklin is a free agent after starting there last season.

The Colts are still high on Josh Chapman, but that’s a position where you need multiple bodies.

A name to keep an eye on once free agency starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET is Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Colts coach Chuck Pagano is familiar with Jones from when he was defensive coordinator of the Ravens.

Jones had a career-high 53 tackles to go with four sacks last season. Franklin and Chapman combined for 44 tackles and zero sacks last season.

The Colts have the salary-cap space to pay Jones, who is only 27 years old.

“He has definitely put himself in a position that teams could definitely bid on him very high because if you put the tape on, they’re going to like him a lot,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters during the NFL scouting combine last month. “… It’s probably the one contract that he’ll have a chance to sign, a real big one. Guys that sign two big contracts, that’s very unusual. Three almost never happens, so you never feel bad about a guy getting an opportunity.”

Here’s a look at some other defensive tackles who will be on the market:

Top free-agent roundup: AFC East

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
In years past, our ESPN NFL divisional bloggers would compile lists of the top free agents within their respective divisions. We're continuing that tradition this offseason, but with a twist: We asked each of our ESPN NFL Nation bloggers to rank their team's free agents, which then were compiled into a master list for each division.

With the free-agent signing period opening Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, here's our AFC East free-agent ranking:

1. Jairus Byrd, Bills S: Ball-hawking safety had four interceptions last season and was named to his third Pro Bowl in five years.

2. Aqib Talib, Patriots CB: Matchup man-to-man cornerback was a centerpiece in the Patriots' game plans in 2013, with injuries the only real blemish on his resume.

3. Julian Edelman, Patriots WR: Coming off a career-high 105-catch season -- staying healthy for all 16 games for the first time -- the receiver is poised to cash in.

4. Austin Howard, Jets T: An ascending player who would generate significant interest if he hits the open market.

5. Paul Soliai, Dolphins DT: He is one of the top run-stuffers on the market. Soliai can fit in the middle of a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, which adds value.

6. Scott Chandler, Bills TE: A 6-foot-7 tight end who posted career highs in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655) but was a non-factor in the red zone.

7. Randy Starks, Dolphins DT: The Dolphins used the franchise tag on Starks in 2013 but only used him as a rotational player. A change of scenery is probably best for him.

8. LeGarrette Blount, Patriots RB: The 250-pound running back was tough to bring down once he got rolling late last season; deserving of an upgraded contract.

9. Ryan Wendell, Patriots C: Undersized center has the smarts and durability that could appeal to a team looking to fill a void in the pivot, but sometimes gets overpowered.

10. Brandon Spikes, Patriots LB: Hard-hitting linebacker is a top player against the run, but struggles at times in coverage.

11. Calvin Pace, Jets LB: Recorded a career-high 10 sacks last season, but there will be a limited market because he'll be 34.

12. Chris Clemons, Dolphins S: He's a decent safety with plenty of starting experience. Clemons is strong in run support and a sure tackler, but he struggles at times in pass coverage.

13. Nick Folk, Jets K: Designated as a franchise player.

14. Dan Carpenter, Bills K: Kicker is coming off his best season as a pro, converting 91.7 percent of his field goals, including every kick in the second quarter or later.

15. Alex Carrington, Bills DL: Versatile lineman can play tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4; started first three games in 2013 before an injury ended his season.
The potential for a significant change in strategy seems likely to determine how the Atlanta Falcons approach the official start of free agency on Tuesday.

There have been whispers among Falcons players about a switch to a 3-4-defensive scheme. Such a move could be a wise one, if the Falcons can put together quality personnel to effectively execute such a defense.

At season's end, head coach Mike Smith said he would evaluate every aspect of the team, including scheme.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan brought in some 3-4 principles after joining the Falcons, but his base has been a 4-3 look. When he came over from the Miami Dolphins in 2012, many wondered if the Falcons would immediately switch to a 3-4.

[+] EnlargePaul Soliai
AP Photo/Gary WiepertNose tackle Paul Soliai has found success playing in Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme before.
"It's my philosophy that you build your scheme around the players, not the other way around," Nolan said back in January of ‘12. "What has been built (in Atlanta), I think is a very solid foundation on a 4-3 defense."

That was then. This is now.

The Falcons are coming off an atrocious season in which they finished dead last in third-down defense, second-to-last in run defense, and tied for 27th in total defense. They allowed two unheralded running backs -- Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey (163 rushing yards) and Arizona's Andre Ellington (154 yards) -- to bust loose for career-best rushing efforts. Stopping the run and eliminating big plays has to be the Falcons' defensive focus in ‘14.

Asking the current group of players to switch defenses on the fly would be a challenge but manageable. However, adding two or three guys with more 3-4 experience could make such a transition seamless.

If a change is indeed in the works, the Falcons would be smart to look into Miami's Paul Soliai, if they haven't made a call about the big nose tackle already. He was an integral part of the Dolphins' defense under Nolan in 2011, when Miami ranked third against the run, sixth in scoring, and seventh on third down.

At 6-foot-4 and 340-pounds, the 30-year-old Soliai would be the ideal guy to help plug the middle for a Falcons defense in dire need of run-stuffers. He takes on double teams with vengeance and has a knack for deflecting passes.

If not Soliai in the middle, maybe the Falcons could turn their attention to veteran nose tackle Ryan Pickett (6-2, 340) from Green Bay. Pickett, who turns 35 in October, has been disruptive in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. He could return to Green Bay, however.

In terms of the defensive ends to pair with the nose tackle, one player immediately makes sense: Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296). The former third-overall pick was drafted in Kansas City by Scott Pioli, currently the Falcons assistant general manager. Dallas' Jason Hatcher, who has experience in the 3-4, also has been linked to the Falcons this offseason. The Falcons also could look at recently re-signed Corey Peters as a defensive end in a 3-4 look, provided he recovers from an Achilles tear.

Any talk of a 3-4 might explain why the Falcons would have targeted outside linebacker Brian Orakpo as a pass-rusher had he not been franchised by Washington, why they're not in a rush to re-sign veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, and why defensive end Osi Umenyiora reportedly was asked to take a pay cut. Umenyiora essentially wouldn't have a role in such a scheme.

But a 3-4 would accommodate some of the young, athletic outside linebackers/pass-rushers coming out of college these days such as Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr. Such a player could be paired with Kroy Biermann, who has experienced in a hybrid role, as the outside linebackers. Paul Worrilow and a healthy Sean Weatherspoon could comprise the inside tandem, if the Falcons decided to go in the 3-4 direction.

Of course, the Falcons also have some tweaking to do in the secondary, with free safety Thomas DeCoud likely to be released. Top free-agent safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo is likely to be out of the Falcons' price range, but they still could look into Byrd, Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea, and Carolina's Mike Mitchell. The Falcons also could look at veteran defensive back Champ Bailey as a nickelback and mentor to young corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

The Falcons are $18,649,379 under the cap right now with $7 million more set to be added once retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez comes off the books.

Free agency, as well as the possible shift to the 3-4, will determine which way the Falcons lean in the draft

Free-agency primer: Dolphins

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: DT Randy Starks, DT Paul Soliai, S Chris Clemons, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, OT Bryant McKinnie, OT Tyson Clabo

Where they stand: The Dolphins are expecting major turnover on their offensive line this offseason. Four starters -- Incognito, Jerry, McKinnie and Clabo -- are unrestricted free agents; most are not expected to return after Miami set a franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed and were 26th in rushing. Incognito and Jerry were both involved in Miami’s high-profile bullying scandal. McKinnie and Clabo are older veterans at the end of their careers. So the Dolphins will look to get younger at offensive tackle. Starks and Soliai are solid defensive tackles who could get interest on the open market. Clemons is an average safety who has starting experience.

What to expect: Incognito and Jerry are as good as gone. Both were cited in the 144-page Ted Wells report. The Dolphins will let them go elsewhere in order to distance the franchise from that ugly scandal. Miami has plenty of cap room and will look to spend it at offensive tackle. Free-agent tackles like Eugene Monroe and Branden Albert could be high priorities. If the Dolphins can land one of them, that rules out a return for McKinnie. The defensive tackle position is interesting. Miami may aim to bring back Starks or Soliai, but nothing is guaranteed if neither player is signed before March 11. There is a chance the Dolphins could lose both players and need a contingency plan.

Free-agency primer: Steelers

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.

Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.

What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.
ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian put together multiple playoff teams and a Super Bowl winner with the Indianapolis Colts. This year, Polian put together a free-agent tracker Insider for that rates the top players.

Polian had some interesting thoughts on pending free agents for the Miami Dolphins. Here are several that stood out:

Player/position: Chris Clemons, safety

Polian's grade: B

Polian's comment: "Though Clemons often aligned to the strong side for the Dolphins' defense, he is a capable free and strong safety who has been highly productive against the run. He has good production as a deep-field pass defender and has the ball skills and route recognition to handle the middle of the field. A sufficient man-to-man coverage player who also adds special-teams value, Clemons is a starting-level safety."

Walker’s thoughts: I believe Polian overrated Clemons. It also was curious that Polian had Clemons rated higher than Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes (B-), who had a career year in 2013. Clemons is a sure-tackler and good in run support, but he often struggles defending tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. Clemons is Miami's top-rated free agent this year, which I disagree with.

Player/position: Randy Starks, defensive tackle

Polian’s grade: B-

Polian’s comment: "A veteran coming off a year in which he played with the franchise tag, Starks is a starting defensive tackle who can play on three downs with his ability to defend the run and rush the passer. He has good interior quickness to be a one-gap shooter and disrupt plays in the backfield."

Walker’s thoughts: Polian is spot on with Starks, who at 30 is still a productive player. Starks should get interest in the open market with his ability to rush the passer. He has 36.5 career sacks, which is solid for an interior defensive lineman. There’s a chance Starks and the Dolphins are heading for a mutual parting of ways.

Player/position: Paul Soliai, defensive tackle

Polian’s grade: C

Polian’s comment: "A rugged, stout run-defender, Soliai stands tall and wide at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds. He has a fire-hydrant build and is difficult to move at the line of scrimmage. He can handle double teams and help to build a wall in run defense."

Walker’s thoughts: I would put Soliai in the same grade range as Starks, despite both being different players. Soliai is a specialist; he stuffs the run and is difficult to move. I assume Polian's low grade was the result of his lack of pass rush and often coming off the field on obvious passing downs.
Free agency begins in five days for the Miami Dolphins and the rest of the NFL. Defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks can become unrestricted free agents next Tuesday

Will any of this change in the next few days?

Soliai and Starks have been significant contributors for the Dolphins over the past several seasons. Soliai has been a full-time starter the past four years in Miami and made the Pro Bowl following the 2011 season. Starks has been in Miami since 2008 and made the Pro Bowl in 2010 and 2012.

They were part of a rotation with fellow defensive lineman Jared Odrick last season. The group didn’t work well for Miami, despite all three being good individual players. The Dolphins surprisingly were 24th against the run last season and often wore down in the second half of games.

However, Soliai and Starks are good players who should get interest on the open market. Soliai is a natural run-stuffer capable of fitting in the middle of a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, which adds value. Starks is more of a play-making defensive tackle who has 36.5 career sacks.

It’s possible the Dolphins could wait and let other teams set the market with their two defensive tackles. If the price is too high, the Dolphins could let them walk and examine other options. Miami also could try to retain the least expensive of the two.

But time is ticking for the Dolphins at defensive tackle. There is no guarantee Soliai or Starks will return to Miami once they hit the open market. With several days remaining before free agency, it is not too early for Miami to put together a contingency plan via the draft or free agency.

Franchise/transition tags: Dolphins

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
The window has opened Monday for all 32 NFL teams to use the franchise tag on star players. The Miami Dolphins have used the tag two of the past three years, on defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, respectively.

Will Miami utilize the franchise tag in 2014?

I expect the Dolphins to use the exclusive tag on Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes this year. Miami cannot afford to lose its most consistent defensive player from last season and also one of the few proven corners in its secondary. Perhaps the nonexclusive tag is a possibility, considering no team would want to give up two first-round picks for Grimes. The transition tag would be too dangerous, as other teams could outbid Miami for the star corner.

Grimes was phenomenal in 2013 after signing a one-year contract. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions. But Grimes’ coverage was so consistent that opposing quarterbacks often threw to the weaker corner on the other side.

Grimes also showed he could bounce back 100 percent from Achilles surgery in 2012. He made his second Pro Bowl and even got an interception in that game. I asked Grimes at the end of the season if this was his best year, and he said it was.

The Dolphins have a lot of free agents this year. But Grimes is the only legitimate candidate for the franchise tag. The Dolphins will try to work out a long-term extension with Grimes, but the one-year franchise tag is a major bargaining chip in the team’s favor.

Miami would be wise to tag Grimes if both sides cannot reach an agreement soon. There is flexibility with the tag that still allows both sides to negotiate an extension well into the summer. The worst mistake the Dolphins could make is to let Grimes hit the open market on March 11, when there is a solid chance a bidding war could commence and Grimes might not return.

Dolphins-Bills final injury report

December, 20, 2013
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills released their final injury report leading into Sunday's game.

Here is the game status of both teams:


Questionable: RB Daniel Thomas (ankle)

Probable: DT Paul Soliai (ankle), CB Brent Grimes (groin), LS John Denny (ankle), S Chris Clemons (hamstring, knee), CB Nolan Carroll (knee), S Reshad Jones (groin), DE Olivier Vernon (ankle), CB Jamar Taylor (hamstring)

BILLS (5-9)

Out: QB E.J. Manuel (knee), WR Stevie Johnson (personal), S Aaron Williams (ribs)

Probable: CB Brandon Smith (ankle), RB Fred Jackson (ribs), DT Marcell Dareus (ankle), DT Kyle Williams (Achilles)

Analysis: The Dolphins are healthy going into this Week 16 game. The biggest injury scare all week has been Grimes, who is Miami's top corner. Grimes didn't finish last week's win over the New England Patriots but said in the locker room that he's good to go for the Bills. However, Miami's tailback depth could be an issue if Thomas can't play. The weather conditions are expected to impact the game where the Dolphins have to run the ball. Miami starting tailback Lamar Miller must step up if he has to shoulder the load. Buffalo will be without their top quarterback (Manuel) and one of its top wide receivers (Johnson). That should make things easier for Miami's defense.


Roster Advisor