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By David Dwork

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The ink is barely dry on the Miami Dolphins 2016 season but the time to begin planning for 2017 is already here.

The Dolphins took a big step forward in head coach Adam Gase’s first season, picking up 10 wins and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Miami did that despite losing several key players to injury, such as the Pro Bowl pair of center Mike Pouncey and safety Reshad Jones.

Both are expected to be ready for next season, but there are plenty of other areas of the roster that will need attention prior to training camp.

Two of Miami’s biggest free agents are wide receiver Kenny Stills and defensive end Andre Branch.

Both played important roles, with Branch emerging as a dangerous pass rusher and Stills leading the Dolphins with nine touchdowns while becoming the team’s deep threat in the passing game.

“Kenny is an important part. He made a lot of big plays for us,” said Dolphins general manager Chris Grier on Wednesday from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. “It’s a young group of receivers. Those guys all bring a different skill set, so it’s a good group. It’s important for us to bring him back. We’d like to have him back.”

Miami would like to re-sign both Stills and Branch, but they are unrestricted free agents that can test the market and see how much teams are willing to offer for their services.

Knowing that, it’s an important thing for the Dolphins to try and not only hang on to their free agents, but also bring in some key new players that will fill the glaring needs that showed up on the team as the season wore on.

“We’re going to prioritize them,” Executive VP of Football Operations, Mike Tannenbaum said of Miami’s free agents. “We’re going to try to keep our own the best we can. We’ll continue to do that and hopefully if we’re sitting here in August, not only have we kept some of our own but hopefully we’re also talking about two or three meaningful extensions of guys that are prospective free agents heading into 2018 because that’s something that again is going to be really important to us.”

Miami will push hard to re-sign both players, as well as tight end Dion Sims, before the NFL’s free agency period opens on March 9th.

The goal is to go into the new league year knowing exactly what your needs are and with a game plan to fill those holes.

Locking down guys like Stills and Branch will go a long way towards reaching that goal.

Another priority for the Dolphins will be to extend the contracts of wide receiver Jarvis Landry and the aforementioned Jones.

Both are signed through 2017 so the urgency isn’t the same, but make no mistake that Miami will put forward plenty of effort in keeping them in aqua and orange for many years to come.

“We’re going to meet as a staff here next week, with the coaches, and we’re just going to go through the process and be very deliberate,” Grier said when asked about an extension for Landry. “Again, just making sure we evaluate our roster right and then we’ll worry about the guys right now with the immediate free agents and then we’ll start working towards the guys that are still under contract.”

After struggling mightily on the defensive side of the ball, Miami is expected to make every effort to revamp the unit.

Defensive end, linebacker and the secondary are all places that the Dolphins will look for upgrades and depth.

“I think the offseason is one big continuum and we’re going to look at every avenue to improve the team,” said Tannenbaum. “That can be trades that start around the [NFL] Combine and then we’ll get into free agency. Again, our focus philosophically though is we’re going to try to keep our own the best we can and then be opportunistic, be it in free agency or trades and obviously just try to draft as well as we can. Sometimes, it’s been my experience, if we have a need, sometimes you fill it both in free agency and the draft and again, we’ll try to be opportunistic and use any avenue we can to improve the team.”

Miami will also need to add depth to their offensive line, though the unit is in better shape overall than it has been in a long time.

A healthy Pouncey and Branden Albert, who has been quietly debating retirement, will be crucial towards the o-line’s success.

Last year the additions of Jermon Bushrod, Kraig Urbik and Sam Young proved to be pivotal.

Young was given a contract extension through 2017 by the Dolphins in December and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them try and hang on to Bushrod and Urbik as well.

Grier and Tannenbaum will need to find similar success in rebuilding other areas of the team, such as linebacker and cornerback.

The last time the Dolphins made the playoffs in consecutive seasons was 15 years ago, during the 2000 and 2001 seasons.

When Miami ran the wildcat all the way to an AFC East title in 2008, they followed that up with a 7-win 2009 campaign and things only went further downhill from there.

Things are different now as Gase, Tannenbaum and Grier have a lot of positives to build on after last season.

The foundation is there to build a team that can be a contender for years to come, but the offseason mistakes have to stop. Now.

Perhaps this is the regime that can bring Miami back into the NFL spotlight.

Only time will tell, but the next couple months will go a long way towards proving that last season was no fluke.


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