Has Jeff Ireland learned from mistakes?

On the first day of offseason, GM takes center stage

 Steve Ross and Jeff Ireland

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (left) talks with Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland (right) during the fourth quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Sun Life Stadium. (Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE, US PRESSWIRE / September 16, 2012)

There's only one question for Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland on this first day of the NFL off-season, and it's not why he still has this chance, what he'll do with $48 million and five high draft picks to spend or whether the next few months will define his football reputation, once and for all.

It's simply this: What has he learned these last five years?

They've been pockmarked by draft mistakes, free-agent issues and problems that have translated into four straight losing seasons. Few general managers survive such a run. Ireland has.

So what lessons are learned as another Super Bowl with winning models passes by? Let's hope:

1.Don't trade the 12th overall pick. Come on, we're not going to have this discussion again this off-season, are we? Ireland traded out of the 12th pick in 2010. He got Jared Odrick (28th overall) and Koa Misi (40th) for that pick. They're average starters.

But look what opportunity was missed. With the 14th pick, Seattle took safety Earl Thomas, an All-Pro the past two years. With the 15th pick, the New York Giants took pass-rusher Jason Paul-Pierre, who helped them to a Super Bowl title.

When you trade down from a high spot, you lessen the odds for greatness. And great players are what the Dolphins lack. Forty-one percent of this year's Pro Bowl selections (32 of the 78 every-down selections) were picked among the top 15. So trade down from their 12th pick? Let's hope not.

2. With any Top 15 pick, choose someone who can score touchdowns through the air, rush the quarterback or make game-changing plays on defense. Defense and running games aren't winning titles anymore. That game's gone. Baltimore scored 12 post-season touchdowns. Ten were passes. Six were at least 20 yards.

Baltimore and San Francisco are built and coached as traditionally as any contending team, too. Both teams scored in the 30s in the Super Bowl. San Francisco had nearly double the rushing yards (182-93) as Baltimore.

Until the last draft, the Dolphins' blueprint was backward. Take Ireland's 2011 draft. His first two picks were old school: Mike Pouncey, a great center, and running back Daniel Thomas, whom he used a third-round pick to trade up for.

Look what San Francisco and Baltimore did with those picks. San Francisco took pass-rushing defensive end Aldon Smith and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Baltimore took cornerback Jimmy Smith and receiver Torrey Smith. They used their most valuable picks to win the way the game's played today.

3. Get a red-zone target. Who did Ryan Tannehill have to throw to in the red zone? Baltimore beat New England in the AFC Championship because it held Tom Brady to one touchdown in five possessions inside the 25. Notably, 6-7 tight end Rob Gronkowski was out injured.

Baltimore beat San Francisco because 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn't have a completion in five attempts inside the red zone. Again, defending the pass is a way to win. And, again, you need a proven red-zone target.

4. Choose free agents judiciously for fit and impact. For Irelands' first three years, the Dolphins spent wildly. And dumbly. Who can forget giving center Jake Grove a guaranteed $14 million? Or getting exactly what they feared and overpaid for in the trade for Brandon Marshall?

Ireland now has the salary cap under control. His last two off-seasons of small, free-agent activity suggest his ideas differ from Bill Parcells, who had final say those first three years. He'll no doubt buy a free-agent receiver: Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe. That's necessary.

Baltimore and San Francisco again showed the winning model is to build through the draft with significant add-ons. Baltimore signed receiver Jacoby Jones, for instance, for two years and $7 million. He scored two Super Bowl touchdowns.

5. Speed wins. Again, the Parcells Way was big and strong. Ireland has tried, by increments, to change that the last two drafts. But the reason the Dolphins have trouble causing turnovers is end Cameron Wake and safety Reshad Jones are the only players with speed on the defense.

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome's No. 1 tangible for picking players? "Speed,'' he said in Super Bowl week.

So before we get to the question of what the Dolphins do as the NFL now turns to the off-season. It's something simpler. What has Ireland learned these last five years?

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