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With free agency looming, Lions and Dolphins have key decisions to make

With names like Bush, Long and Starks in flux, Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland has work to do. (USATSI)

INDIANAPOLIS -- The question came quickly during Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland's meeting with the media at the combine Thursday.

He was asked if this a "do or die" offseason for the team. A question that hints at job security and the proverbial "hot seat," and speaks to the daunting task he faces in trying to remake the franchise.

These coming weeks will indeed be telling about what progress, if any, the Dolphins make toward getting back to the postseason as another middling season will likely lead to more changes there. In the NFC there is a similar focus on the Lions, who, like the Dolphins, are under pressure to be a factor in their conference, and who are staring at a long list of potential free agents of their own with the market set to open in mid-March. It can be a precarious perch, with expectations growing and the past gains no longer resonating quite as crisply.

[Top 100 free agents]

Both franchises have massive decisions to make on what to do with their recent first overall picks: Dolphins tackle Jake Long and Lions quarterback Matt Stafford. In Detroit's case it's not so much what to do, as they desperately want Stafford around for a long time; it's how exactly to get that done. And it won't come cheaply, with Stafford carrying a cap charge over $20 million for 2013 and the Lions in need of more space. Miami has to determine if it's truly willing to let Long walk, in his mid-20s, at one of the most critical positions on any roster. And the work just begins there.

This very well could be a defining offseason for each of these teams, and though the league year doesn't begin until March 12, time is already of the essence for these clubs with so many key players on the cusp of departing. Given the depths to which these franchises are trying to climb out of, neither is in a position to be a feeder system for the rest of the league in free agency, but that just may end up being the case.

Ireland, as one would expect, blanched at the notion of this being "do or die" for him, but surely he knows his team must make positive inroads this year.

"I would probably say neither of those," Ireland said in response to the "do or die" probe. "I think it's a very, very important time period for this offseason. We have put a lot into getting into this position, so obviously we are in a position by design and so we plan to use some of the money and plan to draft the best players available if we can and try to address some of the needs and musts that we have on our football team."

Actions tell much more than words as the Lions and Dolphins have been as active as any clubs in the NFL in meeting with agents for their pending free agents, and their players in need of restructured contracts. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew revealed at the combine that he is focused on trying to retain nine of the team's 22 free agents, but keeping the best of the bunch -- end Cliff Avril and safety Louis Delmas -- won't be easy. That once vaunted defensive line doesn't look nearly as nasty on paper right now with Avril on the verge of departing and after the release of Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Lions cleared about $9 million in cap space with cuts and restructurings and are currently about $2 million under the cap.

The team will not utilize the franchise tag as Mayhew has said as much repeatedly in no uncertain terms and a team source said there are no contingency plans to change that stance between now and the March 4 deadline to tag players. So a year after tagging Avril, he may hit the street with some strong sack numbers and just entering his prime. That would be a significant blow. Delmas has knee issues and is oft-injured, but when he does play he alters the entire scope of that defense. During his meeting with the media here at Lucas Oil Stadium, Mayhew said the team is still gathering information on that knee, which has clearly clouded his future with the team.

Detroit -- up tight against the cap -- has been largely bargain hunting for free agents in recent years, and Mayhew has declared the desire again to bolster the team in that avenue this offseason. Getting a new deal done for Stafford is paramount to that, and they could end up getting $10 million or more in cap savings from getting his contract extended.

But at what cost?

Stafford was 33 yards shy of having consecutive 5,000-yard seasons, and while his touchdown and interceptions totals suffered, there is no denying he could be very good for a very long time. His injury past makes things a bit murky. Also, the fact he is negotiating off a massive deal from the old CBA, and his agent, Tom Condon, is famous for shattering records in terms of quarterback compensation won't make it any more simple to get a deal done. Finding a comparable player for Stafford could be tricky, as he is already out-earning many of his peers based on his rookie contract alone.

But reality is the Lions haven't had stable, above-average or even average quarterbacking for a long, long time, and Stafford is the franchise at this point. Just as with Calvin Johnson a year ago, this has to get done, and I believe it will in the coming weeks. Detroit also must curb the rut of arrests and character issues that seemed to come in waves last offseason, and parting with troubled but talented receiver Titus Young right after the Super Bowl sent a clear message that things won't be tolerated moving forward.

Mayhew has already helped do what was once thinkable -- build a Lions team that was 0-16 not too long ago into one that reached the postseason. I still believe the Lions could be the second-best team in the NFC North. But if they lose youngsters like Avril and Delmas, the talent drain must be offset by corresponding moves, and not just in the draft. The Lions want to upgrade the secondary, the offensive line and finally establish a running game. Some help will surely come from talent secured in recent drafts, but I'm not sure that alone will be enough.

The Dolphins have been busier than the Lions in spending time with the agents for their key free agents. It started with emerging top corner Sean Smith on Tuesday and has included meetings with Long's agent, and those of receiver Brian Hartline, running back Reggie Bush, and versatile defensive lineman Randy Starks. In other words, all core players for them. The latest meeting was scheduled with Starks's agent, Tony Paige, for Friday night.

They are determining a price point for the players and playing coy about whether or not they will use the franchise tag. Ireland has told plenty of people, including some agents, that he doesn't expect to use it. But few rival execs or agents I speak to believe Ireland would actually let both Smith and Long potentially hit the market and leave without at least securing one. And if they remain far apart on a long-term deal for Smith, I still think they tag him in the end, especially given that the Dolphins are sitting on about $50 million in cap space.

"There is certainly a likelihood that we could use it," Ireland said of the tag, "but on particular who we haven't made that decision yet."

It will take substantial offers to keep Bush, Starks and Hartline from seeing what is out there on the open market, sources said, given that we're now only weeks away from them being able to do so. It's shocked many around the league that the Dolphins weren't more proactive, much sooner, in really taking a run at signing some of these guys to long-term deals. At this point it appears most will end up at least exploring other options.

Losing a bunch of those guys, no matter how much money the Dolphins have to spend, wouldn't be a good thing. The problem is, all except for Long, boosted their value with how they performed in 2012. But Long is still a former first-overall pick who has shined in the past and he plays a position where people are willing to overpay. He'll have suitors if Miami lets him walk, and that creates yet another area of the roster that needs upgrading.

Ireland said here that he wasn't looking at the timing of having all of these guys still unsigned as being a big issue, but the reality is that players are more likely to latch on to a deal before or during a season while risks like injury are on their minds. At this point, as we're pushing into March, the siren call of other teams are becoming loud and clear. And trust me, there is still rampant tampering going on in this league even with the new changes in the start of free agency in place this year, and that can't help Miami's position.

"I don't think that we had to get them done on the first of January," Ireland said, "or there was no date. Right now the date that I have in my head is March 9th is to get those guys done before they get into that period. So we have taken on the evaluation of our coaching staff we have been very thorough in that process, finding out what fits and when you have as many of them as we do you just can't make knee jerk reactions on certain guys and getting certain guys signed."

The Dolphins badly want to land a top free-agent receiver, but at what price? And there will be risks in giving Mike Wallace $11 million a year or Greg Jennings more than that. This must be a huge developmental year for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and he needs more talent around him. They will be hard-pressed to find better options than Starks on the open market, though they do have depth at running back, where Bush could be expendable despite his unique skillset.

Any of these free-agents-to-be has to like his chances of cashing in next month. The offers will be flying around soon enough, and for the regimes in Detroit and Miami, there will be particular intrigue in the days leading up to that. The more they get accomplished with their own players, the less shopping they will have to do after.

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