Miami Extends Ryan Tannehill Early: What Does It Mean for the Dolphins?

Miami locked up Tannehill long-term, but has he shown enough to justify the price tag?

Those who had Ryan Tannehill in the pool as the first quarterback of the 2012 draft class to receive a contract extension, collect your prize. You get Ryan Tannehill as your starting quarterback through the 2020 season. The Miami Dolphins announced the agreement of the extension late Monday afternoon, along with the terms: six years for $96 million with $45 million guaranteed.

If instant reactions on Twitter are any indication -- and in what situation are they not -- the jury is still out on Tannehill’s prospects as a starting quarterback in the National Football League. The jury isn’t out in a typical fashion, though, by a large group mostly being undecided or indifferent. Opinions on Tannehill are split amongst many analysts around the game. Some believe he is a young, improving quarterback who is already above average. Others see an average at best player who can't completely carry an offense by himself if needed.

The Dolphins coaching staff and front office appear to be in the former camp, and good for Tannehill. We all wish our employers thought highly of our performance at work regardless of the job we might actually be doing. Most of us aren’t NFL quarterbacks and most of us don’t get a swing of millions of dollars depending on how our employers view that performance.

Tannehill, though, is a quarterback, and millions of dollars were on the line for his performance evaluation. The question now is whether that evaluation was correct. We can take a look at the production so far through our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data.

The Numbers

2014 was Tannehill’s best season of his three-year career. That shows improvement, which is what you would want from a developing quarterback, but the improvement brought him just to an average level of performance. Last season, Tannehill had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.07, which ranked 21st out of 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs on the season. In that same group, the average Passing NEP per drop back was 0.07. He finished the season behind Ryan Fitzpatrick (0.08), Mark Sanchez (0.15), and Alex Smith (0.10).

The 0.07 mark was a significant improvement from his 2013 season when he posted a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.00. That placed him among such quarterbacking luminaries such as Sam Bradford (0.00) and Thaddeus Lewis (0.00).

When looking at the NEP age curve for quarterbacks, the first early career jump appears from Year 2 to Year 3. After that, production levels off through Year 5. There’s another jump at Year 6, which typically starts the prime years around age-28, though the bias in that number also shows the elimination of quarterbacks not skilled enough to reach Year 6.

Tannehill made that jump in his third year, which is admittedly better than him not making the jump at all. It now remains to be seen whether his current increase in production will be enough to lead a successful offense. To this point, that has not been the case. Miami’s success and failure last season was on the defense while the offense played just well enough.

During the instant reactions on Twitter after the extension was announced, Chase Stuart noted the Dolphins are 4-20 since 2012 when the defense allows 21 points or more. Meanwhile, they’re 20-5 when allowing 21 or less. Those are decisions led by the play of the offense.

The Market

This becomes another deal worked into the middle tier of current NFL quarterbacks. Tannehill has now joined the group along with Alex Smith, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, who were offered lucrative deals without the performance that had typically warranted those types of contracts in the past.

Such is the state of the quarterback market now, a market that saw teams talking themselves into a bidding war for Josh McCown. He posted a -0.09 Passing NEP per drop back in 2014, 39th among qualified quarterbacks.

Tannehill’s new deal is even structured in the new age “pay-as-you-go” layout with most of the $45 million guaranteed in the early years of the contract. With the addition of a few million dollars, the Dolphins basically fully guaranteed the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the latter of which would have been the fifth-year option that was already picked up at $16.2 million. As the deal gets further along, the cap hit increases but the guaranteed money decreases, which brings the “this is team friendly because they can cut bait with him if he doesn’t perform” argument into play.

We’ve seen these arguments now with Smith, Dalton, and Jay Cutler. None of whom have noticeably improved their play after signing their extension. Each will continue to be the quarterback of the team that signed him. There have been rumblings the Bears are not thrilled with Cutler, but he still remains on the roster after finishing 35th among the 43 qualified quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back (0.00) in 2014. Teams love what they know, and after committing to these types of contracts, it's going to take something extraordinary in the wrong direction for teams to actually get out of these deals.

The other pro-deal argument is that after contract extensions for Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson are given out -- likely over the next year -- this Tannehill contract will actually fall in the middle tier monetarily. As the contract stands right now, Tannehill has the sixth highest average salary in the league for quarterbacks. That won’t be the ranking for long as the growing salary cap will help correct that market with new deals.

Is It Worth It?

None of this means Tannehill can’t become an above-average starter. It just means the current state -- the one Miami signed on Monday -- isn’t there yet. If there’s a flaw in this extension, it’s Miami’s urgency in getting a deal done now. Tannehill still had this season left on his rookie contract, as well as the fifth-year option that was picked up for the 2016 season. With two more full seasons under team control, the Dolphins should have had all the leverage in these negotiations. They get the public perception on their side with the “pay-as-you-go” plan, but realistically Miami could have waited at least another year to see if Tannehill had the breakout that has been expected.

Aside from spending the GDP of a small country to acquire Ndamukong Suh in free agency, the Dolphins spent much of the offseason bringing in a new supporting cast for Tannehill on offense. Out was Mike Wallace, who never truly clicked with the quarterback. In was Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings, DeVante Parker, and Jordan Cameron.

With so much turnover, it would be nice to see how Tannehill adjusts in 2015 and if the offense can finish better than its 12th-place ranking in schedule-adjusted NEP per play last season. If he doesn’t improve, the Dolphins still could have played out the option year to get a full five-year sample of who Tannehill is. The other side is if Tannehill stakes another step forward and increases his market value. With the Dolphins already investing this much into their quarterback, it’s hard to imagine they would push back on a few extra million if Tannehill’s play on the field actually earned it.

The Dolphins now have to hope Tannehill develops into this deal. Hope is a great thing to have in the world, but it’s a dangerous thing to base NFL contracts on.