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.

Now it's going to take a mint to sign Soliai to a multi-year deal. And the leverage the Dolphins clearly held last October now seemingly belongs to the player because he will be just fine without that long-term deal.

"I want to do a multi-year deal with the Dolphins," Canter said. "But we don't have to do one."

Canter won't discuss his strategy, but it is obvious the Dolphins are going to have to pay Soliai at least $10 million or more per season to get a long-term deal. And although that new deal probably wouldn't include the $40 million in guaranteed money Albert Haynesworth got two years ago, it could be in the neighborhood of the $25 million in guaranteed cash Vince Wilfork got last year.

If the Dolphins decide that is too expensive, Soliai can take his guaranteed $12 million and become a free agent next year. And if the Dolphins franchise him again, they would have to pay him 120 percent of this year's $12.476 million, or nearly $15 million.

That would net Soliai a guaranteed $27 million over two seasons. He would be crazy to settle for less over the same span in a long-term deal.

A painful option for the Dolphins would be to swallow hard and keep the franchise tag on Soliai this year and not franchise him again next year. But that would only prevent them from enjoying cap relief this season and likely watching Soliai leave in free agency next year.

Great for Soliai.

3 comments on this story

Terrible for Miami.

The Dolphins could argue they remain wary of Soliai tanking in 2011 and reverting to his former self. Did I mention he is 6-4 and 355 pounds? And 27 years old?

He's still going to get paid in free agency next year if he's available.

So how are the two sides going to resolve this dilemma? That will be up to Ireland and Canter to work out. They won't need me once the lockout is done.