Watching Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Jared Goff lead their teams in conference championship games last weekend illuminated a well-known thought about the NFL: It's a "have and have-not" league -- teams that have franchise quarterbacks and teams that don't.
It seems clear that the Miami Dolphins are in the latter group.
Although it can't be officially announced until after Super Bowl LIII, Brian Flores is expected to become the Dolphins' next head coach. Flores -- the linebackers coach with the New England Patriots -- and general manager Chris Grier will have many critical decisions ahead of them to start a successful rebuild. They discussed some of them Wednesday night during what was labeled a second interview, per a NFL source, but is probably better described as a planning session. It's likely that none of those decisions are bigger than finding a quarterback.
It seems clear that Ryan Tannehill isn't the Dolphins' long-term quarterback answer. It's also becoming increasingly likely that Tannehill won't be the short-term answer in Miami, either.
Grier, special adviser Dan Marino and Miami's scouts spent several days this week in Mobile, Alabama, looking at Senior Bowl quarterbacks and other draft prospects.
Miami is also studying the quarterbacks expected to be in the 2020 NFL draft, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported they've thought about trying to land one of the trumpeted quarterbacks who should be available in 15 months. But if the Dolphins can find a quarterback upgrade in the draft this April, they absolutely should pounce.
There are many options via the draft, free agency or trade, but clear upgrades are scarce. The division-rival New York Jets and Buffalo Bills are further along in their rebuilds primarily because they've begun to build their teams around hopeful franchise quarterbacks.
In a recent column from ESPN's Dan Graziano detailing the 100 quarterbacks, players, coaches, decision-makers and issues that will dominate the NFL in the next three to four years, there are zero Dolphins or Dolphins-centered topics. That would indicate there isn't much going on with the Dolphins that would make them relevant on the national stage. Miami's route to fix that and achieve the "sustained winning" that owner Stephen Ross desires will hinge significantly on what they do at quarterback.
We'll examine this throughout the offseason. But for now, let's look at a few of the paths Miami could go down to find its 2019 starting quarterback:
Ryan Tannehill and other in-house options
At age 30, Tannehill still has the talent of a starting-caliber NFL quarterback, but lack of consistent health (25 missed games in the past three seasons) and inability to lead the Dolphins out of mediocrity (42-46 as a starter) make it unlikely that Flores will stay tied to him the way Adam Gase did when he took the job.
Finances make the Tannehill decision more complicated. Tannehill is due a $18.7 million base salary with a $26.6 million cap hit in 2019. 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. The Dolphins' decision to restructure Tannehill's contract to gain more cap space in March 2018 makes it more cap-prohibitive to cut him this offseason than it did previously, but this might not stop them from choosing that route.
Keeping Tannehill in 2019 -- if healthy -- would help keep Miami competitive, and he projects as a better player in 2019 than most available quarterbacks. But with a new regime, that route seems less likely than it did a month and a half ago.
Brock Osweiler, Luke Falk and David Fales were all with the 2018 Dolphins, but if any of them become the 2019 starting quarterback by choice, that would be a clear sign the Dolphins aren't serious about winning in 2019 and are all-in on drafting a quarterback in the first round in 2020. There are potential pitfalls with going that route.
Kyler Murray's decision to declare for the 2019 draft, and potentially choose football over baseball, adds intrigue and talent to what many considered a down quarterback draft class. Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins is the leading candidate to be the first QB off the board, and if the Dolphins want him, they'll probably have to find a way to trade up.
Murray likely falls behind Haskins or somewhere in the next tier, depending on whom you ask. That tier consists primarily of the top quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl: Missouri's Drew Lock, West Virginia's Will Grier and Duke's Daniel Jones. Each of them told reporters at the Senior Bowl that they met with the Dolphins.
All have strengths and weaknesses that will be dissected over the next few months. One less-mentioned option that might make sense for a team in Miami's shoes is selecting a quarterback in both the 2019 and 2020 drafts.
Nick Foles is expected to be the most sought-after option, and it isn't clear whether it will be via free agency or trade. He's a Super Bowl MVP who has played well in relief of Carson Wentz the past two seasons. Miami would need to be all-in on him, given the compensation it would take to land him. There has to be worry that Foles will be a different player outside of Philadelphia, where he had a talented and veteran supporting cast.
Colin Kaepernick still carries intriguing talent, but the entire NFL, including the Dolphins, have passed on him several times. At this point, it would be a surprise if that changed.
Teddy Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor would be interesting options for at least a trial run. Bridgewater is still just 26, and the Miami native could bring energy to a fan base preparing to root for a bad team in 2019. The fact that he hasn't played significant football in three years would make it hard to make a long-term commitment initially. Taylor seems like an ideal stopgap quarterback, which is how he was used in Cleveland in 2018.
Joe Flacco and Eli Manning could be veteran short-term fixes who, like Tannehill, would make Miami somewhat competitive in 2019, but that also would be "same old Miami Dolphins" thinking and not indicative of a rebuilding team.
The draft -- either 2019 or 2020 -- looks to be the most promising path to finding a franchise quarterback.
If the Dolphins choose the former, the path is simply to find the right one, get the right person to mentor him and stick with him through the growing pains. If they choose the latter, they'll have to choose a stop-gap quarterback to help them trudge through the 2019 season and hope they are in prime position to nab whom they want in 2020.