The franchise tag pretty much guarantees keeping the player for the 2013 season, but it comes with a hefty price tag. The final exact figures on the tags won't come in until March, but they are expected to range from $5.96 millions for tight ends to $14.64 million for quarterbacks, based on numbers published in December by NFL.com.
Here's an important caveat to remember, though: If a player's salary was higher than the tag number, then his tag figure becomes 20 percent above his previous salary. That comes into play with Dolphins tackle Jake Long, whose franchise tag number would be somewhere around $13.44 million based on his 2012 salary of $11.2 million.
The Dolphins players scheduled to become unrestricted free agent on March 12 at 4 p.m. — the start of the 2013 league year — are, in alphabetical order, RB Reggie Bush, S Chris Clemons, TE Anthony Fasano, OL Nate Garner, WR Brian Hartline, K Nate Kaeding, T Jake Long, DT Tony McDaniel, QB Matt Moore, CB Sean Smith and DT Randy Starks.
That's 11 players, but you can already eliminate the non-starters, Garner, Kaeding, McDaniel and Moore.
That leaves seven free agents-to-be under the tag discussion. You can also eliminate Bush and Clemons from consideration, given the questions about Bush's exact role and the price tag that would come with tagging Clemons, who had his best season in 2012 but doesn't justify earning the projected safety tag of $6.8 million.
So we're down to five, and we'll also whittle down Fasano and Hartline, both of whom are solid players the Dolphins would want to have back but are not "franchise-type" players.
So we're left with Long, Smith and Starks. With all three, the issue is the financial commitment versus the value of the player.
Starting with Long, it's awfully difficult to justify paying him $13.4 million next season after his last two seasons ended on injured reserve. Long remains a top-notch offensive tackle, actually one of the best in the league when he's healthy, but he's had his share of injuries in recent years. That has to factor into it and it's why we don't see it happening with him.
Smith has been sort of a tease since joining the Dolphins as a second-round pick in 2009 because you always think he's ready to become an elite cornerback and then he always seems to take a step back. Make no mistake, there's an awful lot of ability there, a 6-3 corner with long arms and good athletic ability. But the franchise tag for a cornerback is going to be in excess of $10 million and that's just too rich for a player who has yet to become a consistent performer.
So that leaves Starks, who has made the Pro Bowl two of the last three years and probably is one of the most under-appreciated players on the team.
Truth is, he was every bit as good as Cameron Wake in the first half of the 2012 season before his play tailed off a bit. But also consider that he was dealing with a personal situation in those final weeks, a situation that caused him to miss a lot of practice time.
The bottom line is that Starks is a very important player on the Miami defense. The franchise tag for defensive tackles is expected to be around $8.3 million and Starks no doubt would merit consideration for it if the Dolphins can't re-sign him.
In fact, as it stands right now, we'd predict the Dolphins will not use the franchise tag on any of their upcoming free agents, but if they do, it likely will be on Starks.