Two hundred and ninety-two days. That’s the amount of time that has elapsed from the time Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL in practice to when he ran onto the practice field, brace-free, for the Miami Dolphins’ first OTA in 2018. The number 8 overall pick in 2012 sat on the bench while his team stumbled to a 6-10 record in 2017. Then he watched as his front office traded away his favorite target in March. The release of the center he has played with for the majority of his career followed a week later. At the least the Dolphins declined to draft a quarterback in a draft loaded at the position.
All of this is to say, Ryan Tannehill has been through a lot in the past year not to mention suffering two injuries to the same ligament in his left knee. Still, Tannehill has a chance to return better than ever and lead Miami back to the playoffs.
Tannehill has built a reputation as an average quarterback. Not an elite passer, but not one worth benching in favor of a backup, either. Tannehill earned this label early in his career. Over his first two seasons, he was ranked 27th and 24th in passer rating. Since then though Tannehill has shown continued improvement before bursting into a full-fledged elite passer at the end of 2016. He finished that season with a 93.5 passer rating, good for 12th in the league. That number skyrockets to 101.1 (6th) over his final eight games, during which the team went 7-1, and climbs to 107.8 (3rd) if you remove his stats from a disastrous game against Baltimore. That last value is cherry picking, yes, but semi-valid because it was entirely unlike his other performances.
Though Tannehill has been accused of shrinking in the face of adversity he was rated second by Pro Football Focus in big-time throw percentage in 2016. For those that claim he is not a good leader, he has received nothing but rave reviews from his teammates so far this year. Tannehill has been unfairly labeled as a second-rate passer, but has shown time and again that he has the skills to lead a football team.
His early stats are, in part, due to a poor receiving corps. Only one pass catcher from his rookie season is still in the league today (Charles Clay, TE for the Bills). The rest have either fizzled out or been arrested. Tannehill’s second year performance was undermined by a recurrent target, Brian Hartline, who tied for fourth in the league with 9 drops on just 76 receptions.
Tannehill has also suffered from an extremely poor offensive line since he entered the league. He was sacked an astounding 58 times during 2013 and suffered 93 total takedowns over his first two years. According to airyards.com, when Tannehill had a clean pocket, his completion percentage was approximately average. It’s when he is hit that his completion percentage drops to woefully subpar. At both 3- and 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Tannehill’s completion percentage was 30% below the league standard.
Tannehill has improved his accuracy when hit, actually completing passes 15 to 20 yards and 30+ yards downfield at a significantly higher rate than the league average since 2014. With a clean pocket, Tannehill’s accuracy has been above average everywhere on the field except for passes of 40+ yards over the past three seasons. In 2016, Tannehill gained the most yards per attempt when facing a blitz (9.6) of any quarterback in the league and had the fifth highest passer rating against the blitz (105.6), according to PFF.
He’s clearly improved in pressure scenarios and can take the next leap this year. In 2018, Tannehill will be playing with what may be the best offensive line of his career, bolstered by free agent acquisitions Josh Sitton and Daniel Kilgore and bookended by former first-round picks Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James.
Better Than You Remember
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has been somewhat of a quarterback whisperer throughout his career. Gase coaxed a 21 touchdown, 11 interceptions, 92.3 rating season out of Jay Cutler in 2015 and spearheading the record-setting, Peyton Manning-led Broncos offenses of 2013 and 2014. After a rough start to the 2016 season Gase unlocked Tannehill’s potential, and has finally been able to implement his desired offensive scheme in Miami for this upcoming season.
Gase designs up-tempo, no-huddle offenses to tire out opposing defenses and put up as many points as possible. Tannehill had the 4th highest completion percentage on play-action plays during the 2016 season, per PFF, which shows that not only is he comfortable in Gase’s preferred offense, he can run it more than effectively.
In 2016, Tannehill’s Passer Air Conversion Ratio (PACR), according to airyards.com, was considerably above average for passes 8 to 27 yards downfield on no-huddle plays. Airyards claims PACR is the most predictive measure of QB efficiency and playerprofiler.com backs up this assertion, ranking Tannehill as the 9th most efficient quarterback when it comes to production premium.
2016 was Tannehill’s best year by far, as he scored over 100 in every category of Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Passing statistics, except for interception percentage index and sack percentage index. It is obvious that once he got used to Gase’s offense, he started performing better. He had three games with a passer rating of 124.0 or better post-week five, compared to none beforehand. His completion percentage dipped below 65% just twice over his final eight games, whereas it only surpassed that number twice in the five games beforehand. He was also sacked only 12 times in that span, but 17 in the first five games of the season, and as I have already mentioned, Tannehill plays better when he has a clean pocket.
Gase has built up a supporting cast around Tannehill in line with the coach’s offensive vision, similar to the team he assembled in Denver. In 2013 and 2014, much of the Broncos offense ran through Julius Thomas (who was released in March after an unproductive one-year stint in Miami). Five years ago, Thomas was a dynamic athletic freak, creating mismatches with his 6’7” frame and 4.68 second 40 time. He was first in Receiver Air Conversion Ration among tight ends with at least 50 receptions in 2013.
In the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Gase drafted tight end Mike Gesicki to fill the void at that position Miami has had since Clay left for Buffalo in 2015. Gesicki is everything Thomas was in his heyday and more. The rookie stands 6’6” with a 100th percentile catch radius and has a 136.9 SPARQ-x score, which measures overall athleticism, which is the 97th percentile. Frequently compared to Jimmy Graham, Gesicki serves to open up a new dimension in the Miami offense the team has lacked for years.
The receivers around Tannehill are also some of the best he has had in his career. Although sticky-fingered Jarvis Landry was sent packing to Cleveland, the Dolphins retained the underrated Kenny Stills, who sneakily posted the second best production premium rating in the league in 2016. Alongside Stills are perennial breakout candidate DeVante Parker, diminutive speedster Jakeem Grant (I did a piece about him earlier, check that out here), and new additions Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola.
Running backs Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore, and rookie Kalen Ballage can help ease the load on Tannehill, both in the form of pass catching (Kenyan Drake ranked 7th in the league in running back receptions after he took over last season for Jay Ajayi and Kalen Ballage amassed 82 college receptions) and, of course, by running the ball.
Return from Injury
All of his momentum and the talent around him, however, cannot help Tannehill if his left knee fails him again. So far in OTAs, Tannehill has maintained that his leg feels completely healed, and he has been cleared to practice in full by an independent doctor. It’s one thing for Tom Brady to come back from an ACL tear in the 2008 season; Brady is practically a lamppost in the pocket.
Tannehill, on the other hand, is a mobile weapon who burns defenses with his legs and his arm. Mobile QB Donovan McNabb tore his ACL in 2006 and made the Pro Bowl just three years later. Robert Griffin III has yet to return to the glory of his rookie year after shredding his knee in 2013. It seems to be a mixed bag for running quarterbacks recovering from the same injury Tannehill suffered, but the Dolphins’ passer has been resilient throughout his career, playing 77 consecutive games until Calais Campbell ran into his knee.
Although Tannehill has only played five seasons in the NFL, he will turn 30 in July, an age that quarterbacks are thought to begin to experience a slow, steady decline in play. That notion does not appear to hold true in the modern era, as the top 9 quarterbacks in passing yards this past year were all at least 29 years of age, led by 40-year-old Tom Brady. Carson Wentz and Jared Goff were the lone two quarterbacks in the top 12 of total touchdown passes. The 11 highest completion percentages were held by players all 29 or older. In today’s NFL, the 30-barrier is a myth that is constantly being disproved. As long as Tannehill stays healthy, he likely still has at least 5 to 7 more years of productive play.
Ryan Tannehill hasn’t played in a real football game in 528 days. In that time span, the Miami Dolphins have won just 8 regular season games. Tannehill appears to be on track to take Miami back to the playoffs, where he led them in 2016. The pieces are in place. A solid offensive line, a deadly offensive scheme, a dynamic tight end, and a crew of receivers ready to assist him. I’m convinced Tannehill will surprise critics and become not just a fantasy relevant quarterback, but one on the cusp of stardom.
So what do you think? Is Tannehill a sneaky buy for 2018 and beyond? Let me know in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter @DFF_Graphics.
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