A Dolphins dilemma with former Utah Ute Paul Soliai

By Armando Salguero

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, July 23 2011 7:00 p.m. MDT

MIAMI — Jeff Ireland wants to know where Paul Soliai is, whether he is in shape, and what he has been doing for the past few months.

That's what he told The Miami Herald last week when asked about the Dolphins' long-range plans for their $12 million franchise player. But because the NFL lockout remains in place Sunday, Ireland isn't allowed to call Soliai or even talk shop with Soliai's agent, David Canter.

In fact, the last time Ireland and Canter saw each other, at a Broward bagel shop a few months ago, Canter said the two limited their exchange to family matters and other pleasantries.

But as I am neither an agent regulated by the players union nor an employee of the locked-out NFL, I can serve as messenger and ask the business questions.

So here's your answer, Jeff.

"Paul's 7 or 8 pounds under his assigned weight," Canter said. "He's been out in Utah working out twice a day with a bunch of Pro Bowl guys like Haloti Ngata, and he's in the best shape of his career. I haven't talked to him today, but I do talk to him just about every day so I should know."

I'm assuming Canter isn't engaging in agent embellishment because he knows the scale will scream the truth once the lockout is lifted and Soliai reports to the Dolphins.

And once the NFL lockout ends — probably sometime in the coming week — the Dolphins instantly will be faced with a dilemma involving Soliai that curiously is both of their own making and a product of sheer fate.

That dilemma is about size, as many things are with the 6-4 and 355-pound Soliai. This is about finding a way to fit Soliai into the team's long-term plans and, more importantly, within the club's $120.3 million salary cap.

That will be no easy task, and not just because Soliai is the size of a Volkswagen.

When the Dolphins designated Soliai their franchise player, they did so to protect their interests. They did so to keep him from becoming an available free agent who could go to the highest bidder with no compensation in return.

But the franchise tag comes at a steep price. The Dolphins have guaranteed Soliai $12.476 million for the 2011 season. And although that is wonderful for Soliai because it is a handsome raise from his $550,000 salary of a year ago, it has to be painful for the Dolphins.

How else to portray a guaranteed salary that takes up more than 10 percent of the team's salary cap?

Soliai's cap number eats space. It is inefficient. It is limiting because it means the Dolphins cannot use that space to add other players.

If the sides had agreed on a long-term deal last year when they first started negotiating, Soliai might be counting for less than half the cap space his franchise-tag number will occupy.

Right about now, a smart accountant would suggest Miami simply sign Soliai to a multi year deal and recover that valuable cap space.

Not that simple.

The Dolphins showed only cautious interest in signing Soliai to a long-term deal when the sides began talking last fall. At the time, Soliai was looking for perhaps $4 million annually.

But at the time, Soliai was a middle-of-the-roster reserve pressed into a starting job by an injury. His first three seasons with the team were more about unmet potential and disappointing results than space-eating and run-stopping.

Then he blossomed in October, November and December. And the better he got, the higher his value got. And Miami's contract offers failed to keep pace with the growing production until Soliai's worth ballooned to franchise-tag proportions.

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