Standing outside the Miami Dolphins' locker room, in a dark tunnel leading to the field where his players were preparing for a December game against the New England Patriots, general manager Jeff Ireland made something candidly clear.
He recognized, like everyone else, that Miami needed more playmakers in the passing game if his handpicked quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, was going to succeed as Ireland had long suspected he would.
He realized this even before he selected Tannehill -- who was always part of his offseason plan last year (the team's brief flirtations with Peyton Manning notwithstanding) -- with the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. But Ireland made a considerable miscalculation, something he now recognizes privately to those around him: He undervalued the market for top-flight wide receivers.
Specifically, he did not anticipate the contracts that Vincent Jackson (who went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for five years and $55.56 million) and Pierre Garcon (who went to the Washington Redskins for five years and $42.5 million) -- two players he would have liked on his roster -- would fetch. And now, on the cusp of the free agency period, sources have said Ireland is prepared to make amends.
If all goes as planned -- and yes, there is a plan -- Ireland will have a corps of pass catchers within the next week that includes Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, sources said. The plan ("Plan A," at least) does not include Greg Jennings, who isn't as valued by the organization as many outsiders believe him to be.
The Dolphins covet Wallace because of his ability to make plays in the end zone, recognizing their high reliance on field goals in close games last season. They covet his speed, which would add a dynamic that was missing on a team without a player who could force defenses to respect the deep ball.
But just how much do they covet him? Is Ireland, who has taken a conservative and methodical approach to the construction of his roster, willing to suck it up and open his owner's wallet to make sure the deal gets done?
Everything, to this point, suggests that yes, he is.
Here's what many fail to recognize about Ireland and the Dolphins: They aren't overly cheap -- they're overly conservative. The general manager isn't afraid to spend money -- he's afraid to spend money on the wrong players. And his aversion to gambling has resulted in a roster full of meat and potatoes, but no filet mignon.
While the slow growth of the team has frustrated its fan base, Ireland's conservative approach has also led to this defining moment of his career as an executive. After finally repairing a salary-cap situation that helped drive former coach Nick Saban out of town following the 2006 campaign, Miami now has some coin to play with.
But the general manager must change his spending habits -- at least temporarily -- to make it happen.
Ireland has been far from perfect during his tenure. Receiver Brandon Marshall and cornerback Vontae Davis didn't work out. Offensive tackle (and free agent-to-be) Jake Long, whom the Dolphins drafted over quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, is no longer the player he was. And Miami has let far too much homegrown talent escape South Florida to star elsewhere in the NFL.
Yet Ireland's patience in certain situations now has him in a position to strike. He didn't pay big money to land quarterbacks like Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton and Matt Flynn. And he resisted any urges to overpay, even when it seemed dangerous to let Long, Hartline, cornerback Sean Smith and defensive tackle Randy Starks play out their contracts without extensions.
As a result, the GM now has about $37 million of cap room (after applying the franchise tag to Starks) to redefine his career in Miami -- and his job will depend on it. In the coming days (or hours), sources said the team will finish a deal to pay Hartline just under $7 million per season to keep him with the Dolphins.
The true challenge, though, will culminate in the coming days. And the team believes it all starts with Wallace, who is being targeted as a player capable of changing the dynamic of Miami's offense.
Wallace has a body of work, including multiple plays in 2012, that the Dolphins believe validates his worth as a speedy scoring threat: His one-handed catch in November against the Kansas City Chiefs. ... His tap-dancing ability to toe the sideline on a long touchdown catch against the New York Jets in September. ... The way he used his body on his second touchdown catch against the San Diego Chargers in December. ... And the 60-yard catch -- after he got behind the secondary -- that put his team on the 1-yard line against the Dallas Cowboys in that same month.
The problem last offseason wasn't an inability to recognize free-agent talent; it was an inability to properly predict the market. The size of Jackson's contract surprised many people -- not just Ireland -- within league circles. And the size of the contract Wallace gets this year will likely cause many heads to shake, as well.
Ireland, however, isn't expected to be among those caught off guard this time.
Put it this way: According to sources, the Dolphins valued Jackson more than any receiver in last year's free agency class, including Dwayne Bowe (who would have hit the market if he hadn't been slapped with the franchise tag by the Kansas City Chiefs). And Bowe set the market for this year's class by getting a contract from the Chiefs that is similar to (but worth slightly more than) the deal Jackson received last year.
The Top 2013 Free AgentsTake a look at the top players that will be available when free agency opens on March 12.
A little math -- and the Dolphins have done that math -- should be enough to forewarn anyone who doesn't think Wallace is about to get a contract that will exceed the deals given to both Jackson and Bowe. That's especially true considering that the Dolphins anticipate competing with the Minnesota Vikings in bidding for Wallace's services.
Unlike last year, Ireland will have a new rule working in his favor. Because teams get three days this year to negotiate contracts before free agency begins March 12, the Dolphins believe they won't risk undervaluing the market as they did in 2012. They'll have more time to pinpoint the marketplace, according to team sources, which will allow them to be more proactive than reactive, especially as it pertains to coveted players like Wallace.
So as the Dolphins move forward, learning from their past as they attempt to direct their future, they recognize just how critical these coming weeks will be. The plan is established. The funds are available.
Now it's time for Ireland to pull the trigger. It's time for the Dolphins to finally make their moves.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.