Ryan Tannehill underappreciated so far

From Peyton Manning's entry into the NFL in 1998 to Matt Ryan's and Joe Flacco's arrivals in 2008, franchises mostly were conventional with their quarterback selections. There may not have been enough pocket-passing quarterbacks to satisfy every team, but the good ones worked well from the pocket.

Times have changed.

Spread offenses in college are making it tougher for quarterbacks to transition into NFL offenses. Good pocket-passers are harder to find. Teams are aiming for more athletic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, who played baseball and football in college. Jameis Winston pitched along with playing football. Ryan Tannehill spent a portion of his college career at wide receiver.

"It's not traditional," Tannehill said of how teams are getting their quarterbacks. "I think you are seeing more athletic quarterbacks playing the position. I think it's apparently not the only position affected. The game is evolving. You are seeing more spread offense. There are more zone-reads. You see more quarterbacks escaping the pocket, creating yards with their feet, as opposed to what quarterbacks used to do on first downs. It's more of an attack mode."

Even though the Dolphins rewarded him with a four-year, $77 million contract, Tannehill might not be receiving the appreciation for how good he is and how good he will become. Excluding quarterbacks drafted in the past two years who are still trying to build resumes, Tannehill is establishing himself as perhaps the fifth-best quarterback to come into the league since 2009.

Andrew Luck, Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton are ahead of him, but it's not a runaway. Based on what happened last season, Tannehill arguably moved ahead of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. Dalton and Kaepernick have the playoff experience Tannehill is lacking, but Tannehill is trending better with his numbers and his progress.

This year could put him over the top.

The 2014 season was his graduation year; he completed 66.4 percent of his passes, a 6 percent improvement from 2013. He had his first 4,000-yard passing season, throwing for 4,045 yards. His touchdown passes jumped from 24 to 27, and his interceptions dropped from 17 to 12. He moved to No. 16 in QBRm ahead of Newton and Stafford, and very close to luck (Tannehill was at 58.0, Luck 61.5).

Based on what we have seen in the preseason and practices, it would be no surprised to see his numbers should improve even more. He has completed 33 of 41 passes -- an 80.5 completion percentage -- for 303 yards and three touchdowns this preseason. The key improvement is his 7.4 yards per attempt, up from 6.9 in 2014. Yes, he's getting the ball downfield better.

Instead of a low trajectory on his long passes, Tannehill is starting to arch the ball on his deep throws. No one will ever confuse him with a deep-passing specialist, but his improved mechanics should lead to more explosive plays.

"Honestly, at this point, I feel like it's a bit overblown on the deep passes," Tannehill said. "It's something I focused on in the offseason. It's a factor. We didn't throw deep balls last year. Whether it was the routes, the protections or the throws, we didn't complete enough. We have to find a way of stretching the field . It will open things up."

What outsiders still don't appreciate is the learning process of being a quarterback. He was recruited in college as a quarterback but ended up playing receiver in the middle of his college career. At Texas A&M, he was a receiver from 2008 to the first half of the 2010 season before moving back to quarterback at midseason.

The move back to quarterback wasn't easy. His mechanics were behind others. Though he had success at quarterback on the field, he didn't like what he saw on tape when he returned to the class room.

"I remember looking at my fundamentals and looking at myself in the pocket and saying, 'Wow, it's so bad,'" Tannehill said. "I got better playing those games toward the end of my junior year, but I need the offseason to focus on mechanics. It was interesting to see my footwork. There are the subtle things of using my eyes in the pocket along with making play-action fakes. I just kind of rushed through it."

What helped his transition into the NFL was having his college head coach, Mike Sherman, being his offensive coordinator with the Dolphins. In many ways, he's like Jimmy Graham, a tight end who grew up playing basketball and then got a late start in football. Tannehill's time away from the quarterback position held back some of his progress in the NFL.

Talking to Tannehill, you can see he's now comfortable with his game. This comfort has allowed him to focus on team goals.

"Frankly, I'm concentrating on winning," he said. "Frankly, there hasn't been enough winning. That's the one thing we are really focusing on. It's just a matter of being consistent. Last year, we had games where we were great, but we have to find consistency week in and week out."

In three seasons, Tannehill is 23-25 as a starter and has been on teams that haven't done better than 8-8. Like Tony Romo, who came out of a cycle of 8-8 seasons, Tannehill is ready to move to the plus side.

From the inbox

Q: Could you imagine the NFL expanding rosters like MLB does? Seems like after Week 12 it would make sense given how many injuries there are. -- Pranav in Elko, Nevada

A: I can't see them making that change. First, it's a collective bargaining issue. To expand the roster, the league would have to give the union more jobs. That's costly. What I would like to see is the league expand the active roster. Maybe your suggestion would help. Instead of having 46 active players, the active roster could be expanded to 50, 51 or 52 in late November. There are still a group of owners who believe expanding the active roster would create a competitive advantage for the better teams. I contend the bottoms of all rosters are the same. Because of injuries, it would help to use those available players who don't dress on Sundays.

Q: The Fred Jackson cut was a shock to the system for some Bills fans, but did it surprise you at all given age and the position he plays? My question: Do you see another RB depth chart where a good back could be cut loose? -- Dave in Knoxville, Tennessee

A: Because of rotations of two and three backs on teams, there are plenty of backs the Bills could look for. But I don't see the Bills looking outside the organization at the moment. They still have Boobie Dixon, fifth-round choice Karlos Williams and Bryce Brown. Because the team spent so much in the offseason to help the offense, it's not surprising they made a move on Jackson, who did have hamstring problems and is 34. What they lose, though, is a very good back and a good leader.

Q: I know Kam Chancellor is great, but Dion Bailey, for one, hasn't looked too bad. Is the Seattle secondary deeper than people think? -- Eric in Pasco, Washington

A: The Seahawks need Chancellor. Sure, Bailey has done some good things in the preseason, but Chancellor is a difference-maker. He's a leader on and off the field. He's a big hitter who inspires his teammates with big hits. He's one of the top strong safeties in football. To get back to the Super Bowl, the Seahawks need him in camp, not holding out.

Q: Pick a side: A year off makes Adrian Peterson more explosive in 2015 or does a year off make Adrian Peterson a year older (and more sluggish) in 2015. Yes, of course this is a veiled fantasy question. -- Carrick in Omaha, Nebraska

A: The year off should make Peterson more explosive. Remember how he came off his ACL injury. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards. I can't see him getting him more than 1,400 yards, but I think he will have a great season. He's in shape. He's a future Hall of Fame talent. He has a good, young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. The team has plenty of offensive weapons. I still contend the return of Peterson is one of the main reasons I think the Vikings will make the playoffs this year.

Q: What is the most underrated team in the NFL based on the new FPI model, John? -- Sarah in Lubbock, Texas

A: I go with the Vikings. They rank 23rd with an -0.8 rating. The Vikings scored more than 22 points a game in Bridgewater's 12 starts. Coach Mike Zimmer cut defensive scoring from 30 to 21 last year. Peterson and Kyle Rudolph are healthy and will add to the offense. Mike Wallace will give Bridgewater a deep threat. I think the defense has added more speed and talent. You can't make the playoffs with the 23rd ranking. I put them up higher.