The big news on Sunday was the announcement that Jay Cutler had been swayed into signing with the Miami Dolphins with the status of would-be starting QB Ryan Tannehill very much up in the air.
His knee injury, however, doesn’t just cloud his immediate future. It has serious ramifications for his future with the franchise.
Tannehill signed a four-year, $77 million extension prior to the 2015 season that appeared to lock up his future with the franchise, especially following a strong start with new head coach Adam Gase in his first season with the quarterback in 2016.
But following Tannehill’s second ACL injury in a span of nine months, that future in Miami has to be considered far less certain now. The fine print of his contract reveals a key reason why: Tannehill is due a fully guaranteed portion of his salary ($5.525 million, protected for injury) on the fifth day of the league year in 2018 and carries a mere $4.6 million in dead money going forward.
Those are minuscule numbers in starting quarterback terms, as are his base salaries of roughly $17.5 million, $18.7 million and $19.5 million through the 2020 season. But it also shows that the Dolphins easily could cut bait if they feel Tannehill isn’t the future. He turns 30 at the start of next year’s training camp, so he’s also relatively young — but are the Dolphins, who last won a playoff game in the year 2000, willing to be so patient?
As we see it, their options going forward at quarterback are:
• Stick with Tannehill. It’s not crazy to think they could go this route. Gase has been one of Tannehill’s biggest defenders since taking over the job, so it would be hard to imagine he’s just done with him so quickly. But what if Gase is starting to wonder about his long-term health and durability? We’ve seen quarterbacks suffer multiple ACL tears, such as Carson Palmer and Sam Bradford, come back, start and play at a high, if not acceptable, level. But not all — take Robert Griffin III, for instance — were able to regain their pre-injury form.
• Dip into intriguing pool of free agents. The 2018 offseason could be unlike one we’ve ever seen at the position. High-profile, established starters such as Matthew Stafford likely will never hit the market. But Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Teddy Bridgewater (speaking of knee injuries) and Bradford all could be hitting the market. Take Brees, for instance. What a wild, full-circle story it would be if he finally landed in South Beach after the Dolphins opted to sign Daunte Culpepper over him back in 2006. The Dolphins are projected to have less than $3 million in cap space for next season, factoring in Tannehill, right now. So any move for one of these vets likely would only happen if the team moved on from him. The one exception could be Bridgewater, who has south Florida roots (and is buddies with Dolphins WR DeVante Parker, for what that’s worth); right now, Bridgewater’s value is low until he shows his health is good enough to play in a game.
• Another strong draft class? Perhaps. Right now, there’s a good amount of buzz surrounding next year’s class — as there often is this time of year — with top prospects such as USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. Others such as Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield carry intrigue. Much will change over the coming eight months. But there appears to be some real depth here. It’s possible the Dolphins, who haven’t drafted a QB higher than a seventh-rounder since Tannehill arrived in 2012, could dip into the college ranks with a high pick — even if Tannehill stays on the roster next season.
• Keep Cutler. Hub Arkush wrote about this possibility Sunday, and it’s not as wild as you think. Cutler is only 34, and other quarterbacks older than he — Palmer and Brett Favre come to mind — have left and come back successfully. What if Cutler plays well? His one-year, $10 million deal pays him very well for this season, and clearly there would have to be an adjustment for 2018. Bringing him back alongside Tannehill would be tricky, unless Cutler is amenable to that situation at far less money. But you certainly can’t rule out the possibility until we see how he fares in this suddenly fascinating arrangement.
What looms over this situation now is what Tannehill plans to do now with his knee. He could opt for surgery, which ends his season definitively, or choose to rest his knee and hope it heals — perhaps even in time for a late-season return, however remote that possibility might be. Tannehill clearly knows this is a flashpoint in his career, and he certainly wants to prove his worth to the franchise. He is said to like the team and wants to stay, so you could understand why the competitor in him might want to show his employer how much he can and wants to contribute.
If Tannehill was to somehow come back at the end of the year and get hurt again after that point, the team would be on the hook for the $5.5 million injury guarantee and might be more compelled to keep him, financially speaking, as long as the injury doesn’t further obscure his future playing ability.
But then you’re talking about a player with potentially three serious injuries in the past year or so making a lot of money (with a cap figure nearing $20 million) who in essence would be having to reclaim his starting position. Yes, there’s a tough call on whether Tannehill should have the surgery, but the team also might have a tough choice to make at some point, too.