The Miami Dolphins haven’t ventured beyond Wild Card weekend since 2001, and general manager Chris Grier wasn’t content with a team whose ceiling topped out at 10 wins. That means a full rebuild is on the horizon in South Beach — and on March 15, that reset came for Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins’ former starting quarterback is now Marcus Mariota’s high-value backup. Miami shipped their once-prized passer to Tennessee Friday, ending a seven-year tenure that had a handful of high points, a few more lows, and mostly a long run of forgettable moments.
The move wasn’t an unexpected one for Miami. The franchise effectively announced its intention to move on from Tannehill at the end of the 2018 regular season, but held onto the sack-prone QB in hopes of recouping some value via trade. And much like the Ravens were able to re-home old dog Joe Flacco with Denver in exchange for a fourth round pick, the Dolphins were able to find a buyer — in this case, a Titans team with an injury-prone Mariota behind center.
The Titans sent a 2020 fourth round pick and a 2019 seventh rounder to Miami in exchange for Tannehill and a sixth round pick this spring. As part of the deal, Tannehill agreed to restructure his contract down to a one-year, fully guaranteed $7 million deal. That figure could reach up to $12 million depending on incentives based on playing time.
Is this going to be a bottoming out year in Miami?
It sure looks that way.
New head coach Brian Flores is getting a gimme year in his debut, as the expectations in south Florida are extremely low. No team in the league has longer championship odds for 2019 than the Dolphins’ +30000, which means a bet of $100 would return $30K should Miami raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. Half of the NFL experts polled by ESPN picked Flores’ team to own the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The problem won’t just be breaking in a new quarterback. Stalwart pass rusher Cameron Wake is a 37-year-old free agent, and even a return to his prime won’t help a defense that ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed last fall. 2018’s biggest defensive acquisition, Robert Quinn, failed to make a major impact. And while young players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Xavien Howard showcased some star potential, they got little support from a subpar supporting cast.
The Dolphins’ toothless offense got little production outside the productive duo of Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore. Danny Amendola was the club’s leading wideout and the only non-tailback to have more than 37 receptions. The club’s 2018 was one absurd miracle play and then a bunch of games that were forgotten by the following Tuesday.
2019 won’t be better. Amendola is an expensive 34 year old wideout who could be cut. So could DeVante Parker, who is owed more than $9 million following a 24-catch season. Gore is approaching 36 years old and a free agent. Ja’wuan James, an effective right tackle, may leave as well. And while the club can fill some of these holes through free agency and the draft, it may make sense to languish for a season, pick up a premier 2020 draft slot, and rebuild around a young core rather than limp along at 7-9 in perpetuity.
What’s next for Ryan Tannehill?
A release would have meant joining a robust market of flawed veteran quarterbacks competing for starting jobs in a saturated field. Instead, he’ll have the chance to prove himself behind Mariota, who has missed an average of two games per season since joining the league in 2015. That should give the veteran quarterback a chance to shine this fall, though his opportunities will be limited.
Tannehill is a decent replacement passer when upright and capable of winning games. But he’s also a massive injury risk after missing 24 games the past three seasons, and he’s a bit of a damage sponge; he’s averaged more than 41 sacks per season as a pro and was sacked on 11% of his dropbacks in 2018.
A change of scenery could be a boost for a high-floor, low-ceiling veteran. The Dolphins’ efforts to surround him with receiving talent failed to pay off, and a new group of targets could spur a Case Keenum-ish renaissance in the right spot. Of course, Keenum’s breakout 2017 season only came after he agreed to join the Vikings as their third option at quarterback, so Tannehill will have to catch some breaks to prove himself this fall.
Tannehill’s career has proven he’s good enough to go around .500 with a mediocre supporting cast. That’s a valuable trait for a backup quarterback, but not the kind of passer around which a franchise can be built. The Dolphins realized that and ate $13.4 million in dead cap space just to jump start their rebuild. Now it’s up to another team to take on a low-risk reclamation project and get a useful second string passer in the process.
What does this mean for the Titans?
Tannehill gives the club some always-needed Mariota insurance while Tennessee works to figure out the next steps for its franchise passer. The former Dolphin provides an upgrade over Blaine Gabbert, who was underwhelming in three starts last fall. Gabbert is still under contract for 2019, so whether he’ll be released or thrown into a backup QB competition with Tannehill for the upcoming season has yet to be seen.
The Titans excised $7 million of their estimated $31m in cap space to add Tannehill, but that’s not a big sacrifice given the lack of remaining impact free agents still on the market. They also get a quarterback who could take over the team’s starting role should it decide to move on from Mariota. The former No. 2 overall pick is entering the final deal of his rookie contract this fall, and while he’s been brilliant in stretches his lack of consistency means it is no guarantee he signs a bank-breaking extension in Nashville this summer.
Tannehill isn’t the answer to the Titans’ franchise quarterback question; even at his best he tops out at “OK.” He’s a useful plan B, however, and if Tennessee moves on from Mariota — unlikely but still possible — the club will have its bridge quarterback already on the roster. There’s a lot that can go wrong for the Titans in 2019, but having Tannehill around mitigates some of that risk as the club works to get back to the postseason.