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The Question of Ryan Tannehill

With two years of starts under his belt, you'd think we'd have the Dolphins QB figured out. We don't.

By the end of a quarterback’s second season as his team’s starter, his broader future has usually become pretty clear. We can’t predict every little odd bounce he’ll take along the way, of course, but after two full seasons (or something close), most quarterbacks fit comfortably into one of two buckets: problem or solution. Those are descriptors with a whole lot of room to work with, but in evaluating young quarterbacks, they’re usually useful enough. Here are the passers since 2000 who have started 25 games or more within their first two seasons of being drafted:

It’s arbitrary, of course, but there’s something to be learned here. Byron Leftwich and Josh Freeman were the only passers who looked to be above-average quarterbacks after their first two seasons before then failing to justify a long-term contract. I suppose there might have been some hope for Mark Sanchez after the Jets led him to two AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons, but that was coming from people who worship at the bizarre intersectional altar of the Jets and quarterback wins. As we get closer to the present, of course, while it seems to be a sure thing that the likes of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson will be superstars for years to come, my conscience and the fear of inflicting some variant of the #jonahhex mean I’m leaving their future status as question marks for now.

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The three passers whose fates are still up in the air — both in the short term and the long term — are Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin, and Ryan Tannehill. I covered Dalton’s issues Monday, mere hours before the Bengals signed him to a six-year contract extension. With Griffin, the real question is injury; very few doubt that he has the skills to be a franchise quarterback.

Tannehill, on the other hand? I feel like we know less about where he is and what his future looks like after 32 starts than just about any other young passer in recent memory.1 As I wrote in the Trade Value column, I think it’s safe to say Tannehill isn’t an obvious bust in the way somebody like Blaine Gabbert was going to be a failure after two pro seasons (and, in Gabbert’s case, 24 starts), but it’s also very unclear whether he’s somebody in whom the Dolphins are going to want to invest as their franchise quarterback in two years. Owing to the hazing controversy that engulfed the Dolphins last season, he is — perhaps unfairly — an enigma. To get a better idea of Tannehill’s status heading into 2014, I took a run through his 2013 season on NFL Game Rewind. Consider this his two-year progress report.

More than anything else, it was Tannehill’s head that had to make the biggest leap coming from Texas A&M to the pros. That’s not because Tannehill’s an unintelligent person — he carried a 3.6 GPA in biology through his first three years at Texas A&M — but because he was such an inexperienced quarterback. Remember that Tannehill moved to wide receiver during his freshman year at A&M and didn’t become a full-time quarterback until halfway through his junior campaign; he finished his college career having thrown just 774 passes under head coach Mike Sherman, who would become Tannehill’s offensive coordinator during his first two seasons in Miami.

Obviously, nobody doubted Tannehill’s athleticism, and he had played in a West Coast offense under Sherman, which translated to the professional level, but there were questions as to whether he would be able to avoid the mental challenges that invariably pop up at that level. After watching all of Tannehill’s passes from last season, it’s pretty clear he still has some questions to answer. Like many young quarterbacks, he’s inconsistent from week to week in terms of how he reads the field and the mistakes he makes in doing so, although the extremes with Tannehill seem to be a little higher than they are with, say, a Russell Wilson.

That likely owes something to Tannehill being stuck behind the league’s worst offensive line last season, as he was sacked a league-high 58 times and knocked down, per the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, 101 times. Only Luck and Matt Ryan hit the turf more frequently than Tannehill. It’s not difficult to imagine Tannehill being more concerned with staying in one piece behind a rapidly disintegrating pocket than with scanning the field and making plays. It was basically like Gravity at times last year, with Tannehill out there like Sandra Bullock hanging on to the space station for dear life. That would make right tackle Tyson Clabo space debris:

I would tell my mom I didn’t want to play football anymore if that happened to me. That was in Week 7. You would figure that Tannehill would have gotten worse as the season went along because Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito were both gone during the second half, but in watching the Dolphins offense, the line was far more at fault for sacks during the first half of the campaign than during the second half. As Ron Jaworski noted while ranking Tannehill as the league’s 23rd-best quarterback heading into 2014, Tannehill seems to get stuck at times on his reads and holds on to the ball longer than he should in the hopes of making plays. That became more and more obvious as the season went along, although it’s clearly an issue for Tannehill on a regular basis. Watch Tannehill get entranced by a pick play that never develops in Week 5:

Here, in the Jets’ lone sack of Tannehill in Week 13, he doesn’t proceed quickly enough through his progressions and ends up never making it to his open checkdown:

And again in the fourth quarter of Week 15 against the Patriots, where Tannehill seems to just lock up at the end of his drop:

With a better line, maybe Tannehill gets more time at the end of his drop to cycle through his options and make a safe throw, but he obviously didn’t have that going for him with Miami last season. And when the pressure does get on him, Tannehill is basically useless. FOA 2014 notes that Tannehill averaged 6.9 yards per dropback and posted a 34.5 percent DVOA on plays in which he wasn’t pressured. When Tannehill was pressured, though, he produced an average of just 1.1 yards per play, and his DVOA on those plays was a horrific -119.9 percent. That’s a difference of, yes, 154.4 percentage points, the fifth-largest gap in the league.2

It will be interesting to see how the new dynamic in Miami influences Tannehill’s play in this area in 2014. With center Mike Pouncey undergoing hip surgery that will cost him at least part of the regular season, Miami will start five new offensive linemen in Week 1, including big-ticket free agent Branden Albert ($25 million guaranteed) at left tackle and first-round pick Ja’Wuan James at right tackle. They will surely have some continuity issues and make mental mistakes, but on a talent level, they can’t possibly be worse than last year’s starting five. While Pouncey, Incognito, and departed guard John Jerry were made out to be execrable human beings in the Ted Wells report, Clabo was arguably the worst pass-blocker in football last season.3 Stats LLC credits him with 9.5 sacks allowed last season, and that’s a very generous interpretation, from what I saw.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Tannehill will be playing in a new offensive scheme that’s designed to make the game simpler and get the ball out of his hands faster. The Dolphins fired Sherman, in whom Tannehill reportedly lost faith by the end of 2013, replacing him with Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, who has both a wide-reaching background and the experience of working underneath Chip Kelly in Philadelphia’s devastating offense last season.

And now … a word from Chris B. Brown

Ryan Tannehill enters his make-or-break third season with a new offense coordinated by Bill Lazor, a promising but relatively unknown coach. Joe Philbin let his friend Mike Sherman go and brought in Lazor, who has coached with Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren, and, most recently, as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. Miami is hoping Lazor can do for Tannehill what he did for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who went from an iffy rookie year in 2012 to a sparkling 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a league-high passer rating in 2013. Nonetheless, Lazor, who, befitting his Cornell degree, looks less like an offensive coordinator than he does a management consultant, is something of a blank slate and has never called plays in the NFL before.

And while several players have intimated that the new Dolphins offense will look like Philadelphia’s, Lazor has maintained it will be a blend of what he has learned throughout his career, not just his lone season with Kelly. But while we don’t know if Lazor brought the Eagles’ playbook to Miami, we do know he is trying to replicate Kelly’s fast-paced approach. “The number one thing we want to do is play with great tempo,” Lazor explained recently. But the best no-huddle offenses in the NFL — the Broncos, Patriots, and Eagles — expertly vary their tempos, a skill Lazor is going to have to develop.

The best-case scenario for Tannehill is that Lazor:

1. Ratchets up the tempo, thereby simplifying the looks Tannehill faces just as it did for Foles.

2. Adds lots of packaged plays and other quick reads designed both to get the ball in space to playmakers like Mike Wallace and Lamar Miller and to relieve pressure on Miami’s hodgepodge offensive line.4

3. Gets Tannehill on the perimeter, where he can run or throw and use his athleticism to break down defenses, much like Kelly used Marcus Mariota at Oregon.

4. Revamps Miami’s run-blocking schemes and sprinkles in just enough read-options to keep the defense honest — which Sherman tried but never cohesively fit into Miami’s offense.5

While the focus this offseason has been on Lazor’s ability to “fix” Tannehill, one cliché that’s absolutely true is that an improved Miami running game will directly benefit Tannehill. In Philadelphia, Foles simply faced very different defenses than most other quarterbacks in the league, as the first, second, and third priorities of every defense that faced the Eagles was to stop LeSean McCoy and the league’s top-ranked rushing attack. The Dolphins, on the other hand, finished 26th in rushing yards, 20th in rushing yards per carry, and 18th in rushing DVOA last season, and even those numbers were inflated by Tannehill’s six yards per carry. Unfortunately for Tannehill, not only does he not have McCoy, he doesn’t have Philadelphia’s offensive line, and it’s definitely possible that improvements in scheme and in Tannehill’s play could be masked by their subpar play.

The last time Lazor called plays for an offense was from 2010 to 2012, when he was coordinator at the University of Virginia. Those teams ranked seventh, ninth, and ninth, respectively, in points per game in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In fairness, Virginia’s offense took a big step forward in Lazor’s first season after UVA’s failed experiment with a pass-first spread, and the Cavaliers’ 16-21 record during his tenure was the result of deeper issues in the program. But it would be silly not to expect a young quarterback, rebuilt offensive line, and first-time NFL offensive coordinator to have some growing pains this season.

Nevertheless, I’m expecting Lazor’s scheme to help Tannehill improve; it can’t be much worse than Sherman’s staid approach. Yet, until the lights come on, your guess about what to expect from Tannehill — and Lazor — is about as good as mine.

One thing Lazor will want to do is make greater use of Tannehill’s most obvious strength as a professional player: throwing on the move and out of the pocket. You’d expect throws out of the pocket to be a Tannehill strength, given that he’s an excellent athlete with the speed to beat most defenders to the corner and both the arm strength and the quick release to whip spirals off at a moment’s notice just about anywhere on the field. His best professional play — and one of the best individual efforts from any player on any given snap during the 2013 season — was this 46-yard heave to Brandon Gibson on fourth down late in the fourth quarter to extend Miami’s Week 5 game against Baltimore.

During his first two professional seasons, Tannehill’s been one of the few quarterbacks in football who is significantly better outside of the pocket than inside.6 According to ESPN Stats & Info, Tannehill’s QBR inside the pocket over the past two years is 47.3, which is a dismal 29th out of the 35 qualifying quarterbacks over that time frame. Once he gets out of the pocket, though, Tannehill’s a totally different player. His QBR once outside the pocket in 2012-13 is 57.7, which is actually a pretty significant improvement given how most quarterbacks get worse outside the pocket. He has actually been the fifth-best passer in football outside of the pocket since arriving in the NFL, per QBR, and the gap between his performance outside and inside the pocket is the third largest in football. You’ll be surprised, by the way, at some of the other quarterbacks who see their performance fall the most once they’re outside the safety of the pocket:

Despite Tannehill’s success on throws outside the pocket, the Dolphins didn’t really make rollouts and bootlegs a key component of their offense. 11.2 percent of Tannehill’s dropbacks saw him travel outside of the pocket, which is right above the league average of 10.2 percent. Tannehill’s not going to be Wilson, but 16.3 percent of Foles’s passes came out of the pocket last season; it would behoove Lazor to get Tannehill somewhere around that range in 2014.

For all of his athleticism, though, it comes back to Tannehill’s brain and how well he’ll be able to read complex defenses before and after the snap. Scouts loved Tannehill’s arm strength before the draft and his ability to throw NFL-caliber outs to the sideline, but they fretted7 over whether he would be able to deliver throws to the middle of the field, where it’s far easier to run into an unseen, lurking defender or run your receiver into a big hit. I asked Kirk Goldsberry to run his charting magic on Tannehill’s 2013 campaign, and you can see very clearly where his weakness as a passer lies:


Tannehill was twice as likely to throw an interception on passes over the middle (4 percent) as he was on throws to either sideline (2 percent). That fits the scouting report — misreads and momentary lapses of judgment on throws into dangerous places — to a tee. As Tannehill tries to prove his mettle as an upper-echelon NFL starter to the Dolphins over the next year, he’ll want to show signs that he’s delivering upon the promise of athleticism and upside that led the Dolphins to take him in the first round of the 2012 draft. After watching Tannehill and looking over the numbers, though, it’s fair to say his progress report doesn’t show much progress at all. He’s not yet a bust by any means, but Tannehill still needs to show he has developed into something more than raw tools. With a new offensive line and coordinator, 2014 will be Tannehill’s best — and possibly last — chance to prove that to be true.  

Filed Under: NFL, Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins, 2014 NFL Preview

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell