Cohen: Keeping Important Pieces As Crucial As Adding Pieces

Posted Mar 8, 2013

Taking a close look at defensive tackle Randy Starks, wide receiver Brian Hartline and quarterback Matt Moore and what it means that all three will be back next season.

These are good steps. Important steps. Undeniable indications that the Dolphins have a clearly-defined plan of attack as this wild offseason begins to unfold. And keeping an important nucleus intact is certainly part of that plan.

First keeping defensive lineman Randy Starks, then locking up wide receiver Brian Hartline to a long-term contract, and then re-signing quarterback Matt Moore, thus taking them all off the free agent market, are all smart, prudent moves.

For Starks, it assures that one of the most valuable components on a good defense will remain in place. Starks is a stud who makes plays in a variety of ways and who also provides a real sense of leadership.

For Hartline, it is smart because the Dolphins saw first hand last season what he is capable of doing in this Joe Philbin orchestrated offense and because of the rapport he has quickly developed with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Look at the numbers. This is a player coming off one of the best seasons a Dolphins receiver has had and there is every reason to expect more of the same.

For Moore, it is smart because the Dolphins understand his value as a quarterback who can step in and lead this offense, a quarterback who has a real comfort zone with these coaches and players.

Three important players. Three building blocks. Three things the general manager can check off his offseason “to do” list.

Give Jeff Ireland credit for these signings. They make sense. These players are the answers far more than the questions.

The Dolphins will be the first to tell you that this is only the beginning, that with the team’s financial ammunition available in free agency, with five draft picks in the first three rounds of April’s draft, that this offseason could have many defining moments. But understand this: The signing of Hartline and Moore and the ability to keep Starks are important for many reasons.

These are players in the prime of their careers, players you, plain and simple, just want to keep on your roster.

Smart moves. Smart money. A nice start.

The fact that Hartline played so well last season – 74 catches for 1,083 yards – as the top receiver on an offense lacking significant firepower tells you of his potential once some additional upgrades enter the mix over the next few months.

I’ve always believed that while Hartline has many of the gifts needed to be a No. 1 receiver, he will be best served once the Dolphins surround him with more big-play threats. A stretch-the-field receiver. A high impact tight end. Maybe another long distance threat at running back. These are the much publicized offensive priorities – firepower as Ireland puts it -- of this football team heading into free agency and the draft.

Let Hartline go and the holes become deeper. Let Moore sign elsewhere and there is a gaping hole at quarterback. Let Starks test the open market and who is going to replace him on the defensive line? Sign them as they did and it makes the objectives of this offseason easier to attain.

And with Hartline now in the fold for years to come, with free agency no longer on his radar, the Dolphins are assured of having their top two receivers – Hartline and Davone Bess – back on the team next season.

It doesn’t lessen the need for new stars, but it does provide a measure of continuity that can prove to be invaluable in the building of this football team.

What Hartline accomplished last season should not be understated. Facing the undivided attention of every defense, often seeing double coverage, Hartline shrugged off an injury-plagued training camp to have a season that was defined by important catches and game-defining moments.  His record-setting game in Arizona was one of that will not soon be forgotten. Some of his acrobatic catches still boggle the mind.

He is consistent. He is tough. He is smart. And just when you think he doesn’t have another gear, he will shock some defender with a burst that often buys him the few steps he needs to make an important catch. No, we are not talking about one of the few elite receivers in this league. Hartline will be the first to tell you that.

But not everybody can be Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. What Hartline clearly is, though, is a first-rate receiver with the physical tools to be a significant part of this offense for a long time. Don’t under value that. You would have seen Hartline’s worth if the Dolphins had let him go. My sources around the league tell me that no less than six teams would have bidded for his services. You don’t want to let a player like that go, certainly not when you’re trying to add more players like him.

“This is where I want to be,” Hartline said earlier this week.

And this is where he will remain, a fourth-round pick who in four seasons has caught 183 passes for almost 3,000 yards, averaging 15 yards a catch. This is the type of player you clearly want to build around, a player who buys into the system, who works well with the young quarterback and who could very well have his best seasons ahead of him.

The same can be said for Matt Moore. How can you measure the impact he has had on Tannehill? How can you not admire his selfless attitude, the way he approaches his job, the efficiency he demonstrates whenever called upon? Look around the league. How many teams have a group of quarterbacks like this? The list is a very short one.

Where does Ireland go from here? We won’t have long to wait. With free agency starting Tuesday, with so many rumors swirling, with those five picks in the first three rounds waiting in late April, the Dolphins find themselves in excellent position to make this an impactful offseason.

Keeping Starks, Hartline and Moore was a nice way to start, an undeniable indication that the important core of this football team will remain intact.
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