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Miami’s Gamble: What Does Tannehill’s New Contract Mean?

The Miami Dolphins are committing to their future in the form of a huge extension for their work-in-progress quarterback.

The Dolphins have secured their quarterback of the near future. Now they just need to figure out if that future was worth locking up. Miami already had starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill signed through 2016, but on Monday it came to terms on a contract extension that could keep him in town through 2020 and pay him up to $96 million. The structure and real value of the contract, however, make it clear the Dolphins are still evaluating their young quarterback. In fact, the deal vaguely evokes a disastrous figure from a member of this organization’s recent past.

You can basically ignore those numbers above. The chances that Tannehill will play this deal out to that end are slim. If he flops, he’ll never see the end of the contract. If he continues to develop, the Dolphins will almost surely restructure the deal and give him an extension in 2019 or so. This is a contract designed by vice-president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum and general manager Dennis Hickey to basically secure Tannehill’s immediate future; simultaneously, it leaves the Dolphins with a series of options down the line that will allow them to retain their quarterback at a below-market rate and use the leverage from that rate to negotiate friendly terms on his next contract extension.

To understand what the Dolphins did, let’s start with the hand they were previously holding. Entering the offseason, Tannehill was about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, which had a total cap hit of just over $4 million. That figure was entirely guaranteed, and most of it was the remnants of the $7.7 million signing bonus he received upon entering the league. In April, however, Miami elected to pick up Tannehill’s fifth-year option, which would have come in at $16.2 million. That figure was guaranteed for injury, so while Tannehill would have received the money if he were to have suffered a career-altering injury in 2015, the Dolphins would have had the ability to cut Tannehill for poor play before 2016 without owing him anything.

With that leverage, the Dolphins were able to claw meaningful concessions out of Tannehill in the case that he does turn into a superstar. Reports suggest he’s getting $45 million in guaranteed money, but in the NFL, guarantees aren’t always guarantees. Jason La Canfora of CBS reports that Tannehill will immediately receive $21.5 million in fully guaranteed money for the first two years of the deal; the Dolphins must then decide in March 2016 whether to fully guarantee an additional $3.5 million of Tannehill’s salary for the 2016 season. That March deadline will repeat itself for the 2017 ($14.5 million guaranteed) and 2018 ($5.5 million guaranteed) seasons. The final three years of Tannehill’s deal, 2018 to 2020, come in at an average of $19 million, which the Dolphins can bail on without penalty.

So what’s the right way to think about this deal? If you assume the Dolphins were already going to keep Tannehill in 2015 and 2016, it’s basically giving Tannehill about $7 million in new guaranteed money. In return, the Dolphins are likely getting extra cap space in 2016, where they already had a staggering $164 million committed after signing Ndamukong Suh this spring. They’re also getting the option to pay Tannehill for 2017 at a well-below-market rate and for 2018-2020 at a rate closer to (but still likely below) league average.

That’s a very logical move by the Dolphins, who now retain the upside of having a possible top-10 quarterback signed for reasonable money over the next six seasons. If Tannehill continues to grow and his market value increases, the Dolphins don’t have to worry about a Joe Flacco situation. With Flacco, the Ravens were stuck with no negotiating leverage at the end of his rookie deal and were forced to give their Super Bowl–winning passer an onerous contract extension that has materially affected their planning over the past couple of seasons.

Flacco’s cap hit almost doubles from $14.5 million to $28.5 million next year, which would leave him with the second-largest cap hit in football, coincidentally behind Suh. The Ravens will likely be forced to either restructure Flacco’s deal (which will create further cap problems in the years to come) or give Flacco another contract extension to get out from under the first one. Neither option is especially appealing, and you can see why the Dolphins would want to avoid that sort of situation by giving up a little extra money now.

The worst-case scenario is exactly what Tannenbaum went through during the final days of his run with the Jets. After New York’s failed brief pursuit of Peyton Manning during the 2012 offseason, Tannenbaum responded to the news by basically giving his incumbent starting quarterback a hefty contract extension as an apology. That quarterback, of course, was Mark Sanchez.

The structure of Sanchez’s rookie deal, signed before the current CBA, was different from Tannehill’s, but the concept of the extension was roughly the same. The Jets didn’t owe Sanchez any more guaranteed money, but the extension turned likely-to-be-earned figures into full guarantees totaling $20.5 million over the two ensuing years of the deal. Tannenbaum’s Jets then had three annual options on Sanchez at cap-friendly figures of $12.5 million, running through the 2014-16 seasons. The deal also cleared up $6.4 million in cap space for the Jets.

The only way this sort of contract really fails is if the quarterback in question has a disastrous first season as part of the new deal and isn’t worth evaluating in his second year. That is, as you may remember, exactly what happened with Sanchez in 2012. His numbers continued to decline, and he was eventually benched during a game in December for Greg McElroy.

The Jets unquestionably would have cut Sanchez after the year, and under the terms of his rookie deal, they could have done so while saving $5 million on their 2013 cap. Instead, they owed Sanchez $12.9 million because of the extension, a figure that would have risen to $17.6 million had they cut their starter. They were stuck keeping Sanchez on the roster and attempting to win with him around, a move that became irrelevant when he suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason.

Tannenbaum wasn’t around for that drama. He was fired by the Jets after the 2012 season, almost assuredly in part because his bet on Sanchez had failed. That’s part of what makes this Tannehill deal so fascinating; Tannenbaum is making an essentially identical bet on a quarterback at a similar point of that passer’s career. It’s hard to imagine that it will fail as suddenly and destructively as Sanchez’s extension failed in New York, and I wouldn’t suggest that the Dolphins should have shied away from this sort of deal just because the Sanchez contract imploded, but there is some risk attached.

To the Tannehilt

Dolphins fans will say Tannehill is further along in his development than Sanchez was, and while I agree with that sentiment, it’s also not unfair to say Sanchez was perceived in some circles to be about as good of a quarterback at the time of his extension. Wins, you know. Sanchez received some undue praise for his 27-20 regular-season record (and his 4-2 mark in the playoffs) during his first three years in the league, ignoring that much of that came down to the work of his running game and defense.

Tannehill has no such argument in his locker. The Texas A&M product has gone 23-25 during his first three seasons, and his performance over that time frame has also roughly been around league-average. Among the 22 quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 passes or more over the last three seasons, Tannehill surrounds the middle of the pack in each of Pro-Football-Reference.com’s index statistics. He’s 16th in completion percentage, 14th in interception percentage, and 19th in passer rating.

The other number we often use to assess a quarterback is the one that concerns me with Tannehill. He’s last in yards per attempt in the past three seasons, averaging a league-low 6.8. Throw in Tannehill’s propensity for taking sacks — which improved last year behind a massively rebuilt offensive line, but not by much — and he also finishes last in the Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt Index. The only passers since 2000 to throw 1,000 passes over their first three seasons and post a worse ANY/A+ are Sam Bradford, Sanchez, David Carr, Joey Harrington, and Christian Ponder. Not overwhelming company.

Tannehill backers will note that his completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating have steadily improved over his three pro seasons. That’s promising, but again, there are reasonable concerns about the factors that aren’t being considered in those numbers. Tannehill’s usage rate went up dramatically as the Dolphins were unable to run the ball in 2013, resulting in a massive attempt spike that masked an otherwise stagnant second season.

And while Tannehill’s numbers did rise impressively across the board last season, I wonder how much of that amounts to the change in his offensive scheme. While running a West Coast offense under Mike Sherman in Miami during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Tannehill rarely got the ball out on short throws and screens, which was curious given the issues with the offensive line. Tannehill averaged 8.7 yards in the air per pass attempt, which was the 12th-highest figure in football.

Last year, under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in a hybrid attack, Tannehill threw screens more frequently, and his average yards in the air per attempt plummeted. The average Tannehill pass traveled just 7.4 yards in the air, which was 28th in the league. Only Russell Wilson, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Blake Bortles, and Alex Smith threw shorter average passes.

A difference of 1.3 yards per throw doesn’t seem like much, but it does help explain a fair amount of the spike in his completion percentage, which rose from 60.4 percent in 2013 to 66.4 percent in 2014. Charting numbers also agree with those considerations; Tannehill virtually never underthrew his receivers and had the fourth-lowest rate of “bad throws,” per Football Outsiders, last season.

Naturally, then, the fear with Tannehill is that he isn’t doing enough to make opponents worry about him as a downfield passer. His performance on those deep throws did decline last year; after posting the league’s 21st-best QBR on throws 15 yards or more in the air between 2012 and 2013, Tannehill’s 81.9 mark was 26th in the league last year. While he certainly has all the arm strength he needs and is capable of some downright magical downfield plays, he hasn’t scared teams getting the ball deep.

It’s fair to say that most observers point some of those problems toward the now-departed Mike Wallace. I’m not so sure. Wallace caught only 12 of the 36 deep passes thrown to him by Tannehill last year, but he also didn’t drop any of them (per ESPN Stats & Information). Miami’s other receivers dropped a combined six of Tannehill’s 28 other pass attempts of that distance. In all, with 5.9 percent of his deep passes dropped by receivers last year, only three other quarterbacks (Flacco, Andy Dalton, and Drew Brees) had their bombs dropped more frequently than Tannehill. Tannehill’s drop rate on those throws in 2012-13 (4.4 percent) was far closer to league average (4.2 percent), so those 2014 drops are likely a fluke that should resolve themselves this year.

There are certainly other things to like about Tannehill. He’s a quietly effective runner, more so within the zone-read than as a scrambler. The Dolphins employed the read-option on 44.3 percent of their rushing plays last year, which was right behind the league-leading Eagles (44.5 percent). They quietly averaged the second-most yards per rushing attempt (4.7) in football last season, and on Tannehill’s 27 zone-read keepers, he averaged a whopping 10.3 yards per carry and picked up 14 first downs.

As I think about this deal, though, I think more and more about Sanchez. That has little to do with Tannehill as a player and more with how each of those quarterbacks was perceived. Sanchez was a middling quarterback who managed to convince a meaningful subset of the league (including his general manager) that he was great because his team had won a bunch of football games. When the team around him collapsed, Sanchez wasn’t able to elevate his game, and the wheels quickly fell off Gang Green.

Tannehill has his strengths and weaknesses, but as the Dolphins are still in the process of evaluating him as a passer, they’re still evaluating themselves as a franchise. Tannehill has been a league-average passer for a league-average team for three seasons, and it’s fair to wonder whether Tannenbaum thinks his new roster is going to take a leap forward into the playoffs. Hopes should be higher after adding Suh and hearing the news about Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, but this is still a roster with major question marks on both sides of the football. This is a wary, measured step in the direction of committing toward Tannehill, and simultaneously, it’s a wary, measured step for the Dolphins toward believing that they’re ready to take on bigger things in the AFC.