MIAMI - Barry Sanders would include the Dolphins high among the teams he would want to play for if he comes out of retirement next season, according to his agent.
Agent David Ware also said while Sanders has not decided whether to return to the NFL, any deliberation about coming to Miami would not be dissuaded by the uncertainty over Jimmy Johnson's future as coach.
"What I want to do is put Barry in a position where he can make a decision," Ware said from his Atlanta office. "I've tried to avoid dealing in hypotheticals with him. But if we put him in a position where he can go to another team, certainly Miami would be high on his list of places where he would like to play.
"But the Lions need to relinquish his rights. I don't think there is any scenario where he would play for Detroit again."
A Jan. 11 arbitration hearing is scheduled in San Francisco to determine Sanders' future. The Lions want Sanders to return $5.5 million in signing bonus money they say Sanders owes the team after his unexpected retirement this summer.
Sanders, according to Ware, is willing to repay the Lions, but in return wants the club to relinquish its rights to him. That would make Sanders an unrestricted free agent.
The Lions, who believe they will win the arbitration hearing, do not want to relinquish their rights to Sanders under any circumstances. Both sides have been talking periodically to try to reach a settlement before the hearing.
In the unlikely scenario that Sanders is granted his release, the perennial Pro Bowl running back would be able to sign with any team. If the Lions retain his rights, the only way to acquire Sanders would be via trade.
Either way, the Dolphins are likely to be interested.
Johnson was among the first to call the Lions to see if they would consider trading Sanders after he retired. At the time, the Dolphins were searching for a premier running back.
This offseason, the Dolphins still will be searching for ways to upgrade a running game that ranks No. 25 among 31 NFL teams.
If Sanders is a free agent, the Dolphins are among the few teams with enough salary cap room to fit such a player onto the payroll. If the Dolphins have to trade for Sanders, they would likely have to give up young, outstanding players because the team lacks a first-round pick in the 2000 draft.
Sanders, 32 next season, has plenty of reasons to be attracted to the Dolphins.
Johnson recruited him to Oklahoma State before moving on to the University of Miami. Dolphin tight end coach Pat Jones succeeded Johnson as OSU's head coach and was there throughout Sanders' Heisman Trophy-winning college career.
Dolphin offensive line coach Paul Boudreau was also the offensive line coach of the Detroit Lions from 1994-96 when Sanders gained nearly 5,000 yards.
"Barry likes South Florida," Ware said. "It's warm. He owns a place down there, and he has connections to people down there. It makes sense."
Ware said Sanders is aware the Dolphins may undergo significant upheaval this offseason. Johnson and Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino are among the key figures who may not return next season.
But Miami's reputation as a signature NFL franchise and owner Wayne Huizenga's perpetual pledge to give the Dolphins carte blanche in their chase for a championship seemingly overshadow the uncertainty.
"Barry would consider the move whether or not Jimmy is the coach," Ware said.