The 2016 NFL season marks a fork in the road of Ryan Tannehill's career. If new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase can’t elevate his quarterback to an upper-echelon starter, then perhaps it cannot be done at all.
Ryan Tannehill is not a bad starting quarterback. But is he a good one? Can he ever be great?
This is the conundrum facing franchises trapped in a veritable no man’s land at the game’s most important position: They lack a truly “elite” option at QB, but are still better off than those clubs that are unsure of who’ll be taking snaps in 2016. Teams in this murky gray area suffer from the NFL treadmill effect. They are led by quarterbacks who keep their teams running but struggle to ever really go anywhere.
Quarterbacks like Tannehill.
The 27-year-old has been Miami’s starter for four full seasons now, ever since he was the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft. He has 64 career starts, over 15,000 career passing yards and a total of 92 touchdowns (87 passing, five rushing) to his credit. He’ll also be on his fourth NFL offensive coordinator in the 2016 season. After he struggled to fully click with former play caller Bill Lazor, Tannehill was relegated rather openly to a game manager role under interim coach Dan Campbell and OC Zac Taylor.
And now, Adam Gase’s arrival in Miami marks a fork in the road of Tannehill’s career. If the Dolphins' new head coach, who helped turn Tim Tebow into a playoff-winning QB in Denver and then revitalized Jay Cutler in 2015 as Chicago’s offensive coordinator, cannot elevate Tannehill from that frustrating middle ground to an upper-echelon starter, then perhaps it cannot be done at all.
Tannehill is a year removed from signing a six-year, $96 million extension which carries his contract through 2020. The structure of said contract, however, puts the onus on him now. Per OvertheCap.com, the Dolphins could shave $9.9 million off their cap by releasing Tannehill prior to 2017, with the number jumping to $15.2 and $18.7 million for the ’18 and ’19 seasons, respectively.
“We do have a different group than what we had in Chicago as far as the skill set, where are our strengths are,” said Gase at the 2016 scouting combine. “We’re going to have to figure out what we do best and that’s what we're going to hang our hat on.”
How much of the perceived strength will lie with Tannehill?
Make no mistake: This is still Tannehill’s team, for the time being. New general manager Chris Grier spoke during his introductory press conference back in January of trying to “build competition ... not just for Ryan, but for [Ndamukong] Suh, everybody on our roster.” He has yet to do that under center, at least on paper. Tannehill is followed on the depth chart by longtime Miami backup Matt Moore, 2016 seventh-round pick Brandon Doughty, Cardinals castoff Logan Thomas and Zac Dysert, who spent two seasons in Gase’s system with Denver.
Barring a stunner in training camp, none of those names is a threat to push Tannehill for the 2016 job. And given the quarterback landscape around the league, Miami should be in no rush to toss out Tannehill. Barring a full-on tank so they can draft a QB early in 2017, parting ways with their current starter would leave the Dolphins in the same desperation-fueled purgatory teams like Houston, Cleveland, Denver and the Jets are in this off-season. Is an $18 million-per-year deal, like what the Texans handed Brock Osweiler, really preferable to the $20 million cap hit Tannehill will carry next season?
Right now, probably not, but Tannehill still has to prove he is worthy of such a hefty commitment under a new coaching/GM regime. The Dolphins invested heavily during this year’s draft to ensure he has pieces to work with, adding falling first-round tackle Laremy Tunsil and WR Leonte Carroo in the third round. Grier also picked up RB Kenyan Drake to pair with Jay Ajayi, the expected fill-in for No. 1 back Lamar Miller, who is now in Houston.
Yes, there are other factors at play here, like how quickly the oft-criticized offensive line jells, DeVante Parker’s health and the ceiling for an Ajayi/Drake duo. But eventually, it will all boil down to what Tannehill can and cannot do.
One change expected to be on the docket for him is more control over play-to-play operations. The Dolphins’ 2015 staffs stripped him of much of his ability to improvise on the fly via audibles at the line. Gase empowered Cutler, and Peyton Manning before him in Denver, with a great deal of autonomy.
“The quarterback in this system does have the ability to move in and out of plays, and it’s going to be how much can our group handle,” Gase said in February. “Early on, it’s probably not going to be as much as it will be later.”
Therein lies an important footnote: There will be some built-in wiggle room for Tannehill as this transition continues. Last training camp, Gase all but ensured the Bears would scuffle offensively out of the gate before finding their footing. Sure enough, Chicago’s offense needed five or six games to hit its stride.
Still, Miami has yet to top .500 with Tannehill and has made the playoffs just once in the past 13 seasons, so patience for its QB likely won’t last too long. And as Tannehill heads into his fifth year as the starter, with a substantial pay increase on the horizon, he has minimal chances remaining to show he can be anything more than an average NFL quarterback.
Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.