Tannehill’s injuries -- he has missed 25 games in the last three seasons, including five this year -- have clouded their ability to assess their franchise quarterback in his seventh season. This offseason, major decisions must be made. Even though he is playing at less than 100 percent with a shoulder injury that kept him out for five games, Tannehill knows he is likely playing for his long-term starting job this December, starting Sunday against the Bills.
“If you’re on the field, you’re getting evaluated,” Tannehill said. “That is what it is. Whatever you put on tape, that’s what this team and every other team has to go on."
Reaching the ceiling?
Tannehill, 30, said he hasn’t received any assurances from the Dolphins about his long-term future.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase has said publicly that he believes Tannehill can lead this team to greater pastures. Gase might soon have to ask himself if he’s willing to bet his job on that.
“He has some rare qualities that you can’t find in a lot of guys physically,” Gase said earlier this season. “The more that he keeps playing, he keeps learning game to game. That’s something to me that puts him in position to where, where’s our ceiling at? I don’t think we’re close to it.”
The Tannehill-Gase connection led Miami to the playoffs in 2016, but injuries have derailed Tannehill’s last two seasons.
When he has played, Tannehill has been certainly starting-caliber, but also a mixed bag. He has a 40-43 record as a starter. Tannehill has a career-high 97.2 QB rating this season, which ranks 15th in the league. His completion rate (66.2 percent) and yards per attempt (7.6) are middle-of-the-pack, too.
One question sticks out: How long do you wait for Tannehill to be something better than he has been throughout his career?
“He’s very average. What is he really good at?” one AFC scout said about Tannehill. “Always hurt, too.”
But many of Tannehill’s teammates love him -- his work ethic, his fight, his command.
“I don’t think a lot of people get to see it, but when you spend time with him outside of this building, you realize how competitive he is,” receiver Kenny Stills said. “It’s something that we admire and respect from him."
Availability is the best ability
Tannehill didn’t miss a game in his first four seasons. Nobody should confuse his recent injury history as a lack of toughness, but the facts are the facts: Tannehill has missed 25 games in the past three seasons, including the Dolphins' lone playoff game this decade.
“That’s 25 games you’re not getting reps at, 25 games you’re not mastering the system, 25 games where you can’t really gauge your football team because the most important person isn’t out there,” former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “Can you trust Tannehill to stay on the field and make you AFC championship contenders? The answer can’t be an empathetic yes, and it’s probably no.”
His injuries have been fluky. A knee sprain, then a torn ACL, cost him the last four games of 2016 and all of the 2017 season. A right shoulder capsule injury, suffered on a hit from behind, cost Tannehill five games in 2018.
Gase, like many coaches, believes “availability is the No. 1 thing that you’re always looking for in the NFL, because if you’re not on the field, you can’t really help us.”
The money factor
Tannehill’s $26.6 million cap hit ranks sixth among all NFL players in 2019, and his $18.7 million base salary ranks seventh.
If Miami decides to cut Tannehill before June 1, the Dolphins can save $13.2 million against the cap while carrying a $13.4 million dead-cap hit. None of the remaining money on Tannehill’s deal is guaranteed.
“His 2019 and 2020 salaries [$19.5 million] are fairly reasonable, given the market,” former agent and NFL cap analyst J.I. Halsell said. “That said, they still need to find his successor.”
Three 2018 QB cash payouts are similar to what Tannehill may get if he were released: the Browns’ Tyrod Taylor ($16 million), the Broncos’ Case Keenum ($18 million) and former Cardinals QB Sam Bradford (made $15.9 million, had max of $20 million on deal).
Former agent and CBS salary cap analyst Joel Corry said he would advise Tannehill against taking a pay cut, believing he would at least be in the Keenum/Bradford/Taylor range if in the open market.
Corry said the Dolphins’ decision to restructure Tannehill’s contract in March, kicking the can down the road to save salary-cap space in 2018, makes it more costly to get out of the contract in 2019.
“I don’t think there is a scenario that makes sense to just release him this year,” Corry said. “It might just make sense to roll with him in 2019, draft a QB fairly high and then make the decision on him in 2020.”
A common refrain within the Dolphins organization regarding replacing Tannehill has been the simple question: With who? It’s not expected to be a strong free-agent or draft-QB class.
“You can’t refuse to make the decision for fear of not having the plan because you just waste another year,” Orlovsky said. “You’d be doing yourself a disservice as an organization to truly be reliant on him another year.”
The Dolphins haven’t drafted a quarterback before the seventh round since picking Tannehill in 2012. That seems likely to change in 2019, whether Tannehill returns or not.
We’ve seen the benefits of teams taking a chance on finding a great quarterback instead of being content with average or good, such as Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs had a decent quarterback in place in Alex Smith, but still rolled the dice with Mahomes at No. 10 overall in 2017, and they have been rewarded.
Miami, long stuck in mediocrity, could face a similar choice next spring.
Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum has scouted quarterback prospects in recent weeks. He attended the Michigan-Ohio State and Oklahoma-West Virginia games last week to get an in-person look at Will Grier, Dwayne Haskins, Shea Patterson and Kyler Murray.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones also are among the top quarterback prospects who could potentially be available in next April’s NFL Draft.
Free agent/trade options
Teddy Bridgewater is likely to be the top free-agent quarterback on the market, and Miami had interest in him in the past. Bridgewater, a 2014 Vikings first-round pick, is also from Miami.
Of course, Bridgewater will have plenty of attention in free agency. He also hasn’t started a regular-season game since 2015 after his horrific knee injury.
Bridgewater and Tannehill have similar career stats:
Tannehill: 62.9 percent completion rate, 116 TDs, 71 INTs, 7 yards per attempt, 87 QB rating
Bridgewater: 64.7 percent completion rate, 28 TDs, 22 INTs, 7.2 yards per attempt, 86.2 QB rating
Bortles is a downgrade. Flacco and Manning have Super Bowl rings but seem to be about equal to Tannehill in terms of production at this point in their careers. Winston might be a slight upgrade, but his off-field issues are troubling. Stafford and Carr could be upgrades, but at what cost? The Lions and Raiders would likely demand at least a first-round pick on top of their significant salaries. Neither has a playoff win on his résumé, either.
The best solution
The common takeaway is that Tannehill is good enough to be a starter, and, when healthy, good enough to lead a team to the playoffs. But he hasn’t proven to be anything more than that, and the Dolphins aren’t progressing if they stand pat.
But given the options available and factoring in financial considerations, Miami’s best option seems to be bringing back Tannehill for 2019 and drafting a quarterback early in the draft. Somebody like Grier might fit well with Gase. In essence, this is the plan the Baltimore Ravens used this offseason, drafting Lamar Jackson late in the first round and keeping Flacco as the starter.
This scenario would create an open competition and a succession plan from Tannehill when the young quarterback shows he is ready. It would also allow Miami to compete with Tannehill in 2019 without Gase having to reteach his system to a new roster of quarterbacks.