At the beginning of the offseason, and probably long before that, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross gave his front office one mandate: find the next franchise quarterback. So, Jeff Ireland and Co. gathered information and did their homework on all of the quarterbacks that would be available through free agency and the draft. When they had the chance to make a trade with the St. Louis Rams for the second overall pick in the draft, they had discussions, but did not submit an offer better than the Washington Redskins'. They tried to sign Peyton Manning, but he told the Dolphins brass "thanks, but no thanks." Next, they turned their attention to Matt Flynn, who decided he'd rather compete for a job with the Seattle Seahawks than be handed the job with the Dolphins. Last, and arguably least, the recruitment of Alex Smith ended up with him returning to the San Francisco 49ers.
In the end, the Dolphins ended up signing former Pro Bowler (he made it as the seventh choice for the 2010 game) David Garrard. While Garrard is a capable quarterback, he is certainly not the long-term solution the front office was expected to provide. At this point, expect the Dolphins to draft their quarterback of the future in April.
But who is left after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III? Some second and third round prospects include Brandon Weeden, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, and Brock Osweiler, but the only other quarterback expected to be taken in the first round is Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill is a converted wide receiver who has made 19 starts a quarterback. Last season, he threw for 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, while completing 61.6% of his passes.
His numbers are certainly respectable, but surely not other-worldly like Luck and Griffin. However, both Luck and Griffin had a pass catcher on their team that is expected to be taken in one of the first two rounds of this year's draft, while Tannehill is considered to be much more talented than any of his receivers. He also spent his entire collegiate career playing in the offense designed by new Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, which would make the mental transition of learning an NFL playbook much easier.
What scares most people about Tannehill is that he is an unknown quantity. He is relatively inexperienced against collegiate competition and he played in a conference with a reputation for soft defenses. There is merit to the competition-faced criticism. The toughest defense he faced in 2011 was Arkansas' 25th-ranked unit and the second toughest was Texas' 42nd-ranked unit. He didn't perform particularly well in either game. But, neither Luck nor Griffin spent their careers playing top defenses and they are the unquestioned top two players in the draft. If they are projected to overcome their collegiate experience, there is no reason to think that Tannehill cannot, either.
Although Tannehill had only 19 starts as a college quarterback, his lack of experience may be partly illusory. He played quarterback in high school and was a relatively successful wide receiver at Texas A&M before converting to quarterback. It is not as though he sat on the bench for two and a half years before seeing game action. He was running routes and learning where a receiver should be and when.
Need more convincing that 19 starts aren't too few? Here is a list of starting quarterbacks in the NFL who had around the same number of starts or fewer in college:
- Matt Hasselbeck
- Cam Newton
- Matt Cassel
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Mark Sanchez
- Blaine Gabbert
- Matt Flynn (technically competing for starting spot, but being paid more than incumbent starter, Tavaris Jackson)
Is that a Who's Who of NFL quarterbacks? No, although Cam Newton has a chance to be special. However, there are multiple Pro Bowl berths in there and all of them have the distinction of calling themselves starting NFL quarterbacks, no small accomplishment. There is a list astronomically longer than this one that includes quarterbacks from major NCAA programs that either didn't make the NFL or completely bombed out. The takeaway is that you shouldn't give Tannehill's starting experience too much weight.
What should matter is an evaluation of Tannehill's physical abilities and mental makeup. I cannot attest to his work ethic, attitude, or leadership abilities, but he comes from college without any question marks regarding his character. You want the leader of your team to lead both on and off the field, and having good character goes a long way.
His physical abilities should be scrutinized, as should the way those skills are utilized in game action. Tannehill measures in at 6'4", the ideal height for a quarterback. He will be able to see over his offensive linemen and see the field better than shorter quarterbacks. As a converted wide receiver, he is fast and has quick feet. This has come in handy when plays break down and he is forced to scramble for yards. He is also athletic enough to have designed run plays. Not only are his feet quick, but he has improved his balance in the pocket. Quick feet and improving balance has allowed Tannehill to throw more accurately and as he gains experience, he should only improve in this area.
One more note on footwork: Tannehill is terrific throwing the ball on the run. Just about every time I saw him throw on the run, he hit his receiver right in the chest. Running Sherman's offense required, and will continue to require, the quarterback to roll out of the pocket several times over the course of a game and succeeding in these plays will keep the defense spread out and open up gaps in the field for big plays. It also shortens the distance between the quarterback and receiver, giving a defensive back less of an opportunity to step in front of the receiver and intercept the pass. Tannehill excels in this area.
I asked the Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly on Twitter about Tannehill, and he had this to say about him. The deep ball is an element of the passing game that the Dolphins have lacked since Dan Marino was in uniform. If Tannehill's deep ball is comparable to the one Luck throws, Dolphins fans and coaches should, and would be, more than satisfied.
It isn't a certainty that the Dolphins will draft Tannehill. The Browns could draft him fourth overall or, even if Tannehill falls to the Dolphins, the Dolphins could elect to draft a pass rusher, an area of need. However, if the Dolphins do leave the draft with Tannehill in tow, fans should rest comfortably knowing that they received a talented prospect who may be the answer at quarterback.