Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland had a simple response when asked why former franchise left tackle Jake Long will be wearing a Rams uniform this fall.
“You have to ask Jake, to be honest with you,” Ireland said Monday at the NFL owners’ meetings. “I’m not the decision maker on his choice. Certainly we felt like we put a competitive offer on the table, and hats off to St. Louis.”
Long was supposed to be protecting the blind side of Miami quarterbacks for at least a decade when Ireland and former football boss Bill Parcells made him the only No. 1 overall draft choice in franchise history. The Dolphins saw Long, a dominant four-year starter at Michigan, as a safer choice five years ago than Matt Ryan.
Instead, Ryan has become one of the league’s better quarterbacks and the Dolphins have a sizable hole in their offensive line.
Early Monday, Long chose to sign with the Rams rather than take a pay cut to return to Miami.
According to reports, Long will sign a four-year deal worth up to $36 million and $14 million guaranteed. He just finished a five-year, $57 million contract.
The Dolphins have several options to fill Long’s spot. Jonathan Martin, last year’s second-round pick, played the last four games of 2012 at left tackle after starting the first 12 at right tackle, and has been preparing this offseason to take Long’s place, a source said.
The Dolphins could seek a right tackle in free agency – New England’s Sebastian Vollmer and former University of Miami star Eric Winston are available.
The Dolphins also could keep Martin at right tackle and use their first-round pick (No. 12 overall) on a left tackle; this year’s draft has several excellent prospects. Or they could try to trade for Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert, who was given the franchise tag Monday but still could be dealt.
Nate Garner played right tackle when Martin moved over last season, but is seen as a back-up. A source said the Dolphins are close to re-signing him.
“We certainly have a contingency plan,” Ireland said. “All those things are on the table.”
Long said it was difficult to leave the Dolphins but that he enjoyed his three-day visit to the Rams.
“They really made me feel welcome — my wife and I,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was such a great family atmosphere. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
The Dolphins are believed to have stuck with their contract offer to Long through three months of negotiations.
Long, 27, reached the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, but a variety of injuries – shoulder surgery, biceps and triceps tears, ligament damage in both knees and back problems – caught up with him in 2012.
A switch to a new zone blocking scheme, which emphasizes quickness and agility over strength, was not ideal for Long. The website Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 46th-best offensive tackle out of 80 last year. He finished the season on injured reserve after tearing his triceps in Week 13.
Long’s departure pained Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a passionate University of Michigan grad.
“Probably more disappointed than anybody, because I hate to lose Michigan guys,” Ross said. “He was a class act and he was a great guy and he did a great job in Miami.”
The Dolphins still should have about $15 million in salary cap space despite the flurry of free agent signings last week. New receiver Brandon Gibson will count $1.785 million against this year’s cap after signing a three-year deal with a $3 million signing bonus and a guaranteed 2013 base salary of $750,000.
The signings of Gibson and wideout Mike Wallace – who will get $30 million guaranteed over three years – could signal the end of Bess’ tenure in Miami, although Ireland disagreed.
“I think our depth right now is exceptional,” Ireland said of the club’s wide receivers. “We’re not making any bold predictions by any means, but we certainly have a vision for Davone.”