Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins 2017 injuries will bleed into ‘18 decision-making

Ryan Tannehill will be in his seventh NFL season in 2018 and when the season begins we still won’t know what kind of quarterback he is.
Ryan Tannehill will be in his seventh NFL season in 2018 and when the season begins we still won’t know what kind of quarterback he is. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Miami Dolphins have to manage injury issues this season, there is no getting around that, we all know that. But one of the more frustrating parts about the injuries that have befallen the team this preseason is their lasting aftermath.

The injuries, you see, will do more than hurt the team’s chances in 2017. The injuries promise to bleed into next season and affect significant decision for 2018.

Consider:

The Dolphins lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a year that he was supposed to finally -- finally! -- cast aside all doubt about what kind of player he is and what he can do. This was going to be his year and it was about time because this was supposed to be his sixth season as an NFL starter.

The problem is now, regardless of what the Dolphins say, we have to postpone definitively finding out about Tannehill until next season -- his seventh in the NFL.

So, assuming Tannehill is on the team next year, which is a safe assumption right now, the Dolphins will have a starting quarterback in his seventh season that nobody can truly say in an unbiased way, “We know what this guy is going to give us.”

(We pause here to note the Tannehill haters will say they know he’s not a championship NFL quarterback and folks who believe in Tannehill will counter they absolutely trust Tannehill is a championship quarterback. Both are wrong. The cold, hard, dispassionate facts say he’s been solid but never elite and we don’t know if he will ever make the climb to elite and championship caliber because he’s never done it. This was supposed to be the year he did it.)

So the ACL injury and surgery this week that will cost Tannehill this entire season will not deliver the answer to that enormously important question. That answer is postponed yet another year.

Think of how crazy this is: After six years, we still don’t know Ryan Tannehill. That is ... stunning.

In today’s instant-analysis NFL, that may make Tannehill unique.

And this: Every year an NFL team goes forward with a quarterback it has questions about is a year that team’s growth is stunted.

So do the Dolphins, who are convinced Tannehill is indeed capable of winning championships, go another year trusting that, that ... hope? Do they go another offseason without drafting a quarterback high enough to challenge Tannehill, who may or may not be the guy?

Do they once again put their trust in a player they think will be elite but has never been that, is coming off not one but two ACL injuries, and has missed his last 20 games?

Anyone who can draw a definitive conclusion on this matter is a fool because there is no cold, unflinching, definitive data available to reach any absolute answer.

And Tannehill is not the only example of a player the Dolphins needed definitive data on this season that now will not be available.

Cornerback Tony Lippett was a highly intriguing player.

He was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft as a three-year project (not my words, but from people within the organization) to see if he could make a successful move to corner from college wide receiver. And Lippett made something of a leap last season.

He was thrust into a starting role despite clearly not being fully ready and after some initial struggles, he played well for much of the season. He started 15 games including the playoff loss to Pittsburgh. He led the team with four interceptions.

And, yes, he showed some warts late in the season in games against New England and the Steelers, which was something of a disaster for him.

But again, it was supposed to be about this season for Lippett. It was supposed to be about the three-year project’s third year.

Except that third year is over because of a season-ending torn Achilles.

So you may ask, why does this hurt the team over the long term?

Well, Lippett is signed for 2018 so it’s not so much about him. It was, however, about Byron Maxwell.

Maxwell, 29, is a solid starter and might continue to be that this year. But starting next season when he’s 30 his salary cap number jumps to $10 million and then climbs to $11 million in 2020.

That wasn’t a cause for concern a week ago because the way Maxwell’s contract is set up, the Dolphins could release him next spring and not suffer any salary cap dead money.

They would save that $10 million in full.

The team would obviously consider moving on from Maxwell based on how he plays this year and what they have on the roster to, you know, take his place.

The problem is their most advanced young, backup corner who was showing the most promise of taking Maxwell’s place was Lippett.

If Lippett had played this season, the team could make a logical decision on whether he is ready to succeed Maxwell or not and the team could salso make a more sound call on whether to release Maxwell and save $10 million on the cap.

Now, we’re left to making that decision based on projections of what the personnel department expects might happen.

There’s no surety now. We don’t know if Lippett is ever going to take the next step in his progression. We don’t know if he’s going to be the same player when he comes back from an Achilles tear.

And, you might argue, the team drafted Cordrea Tankersley to be the insurance for releasing Maxwell. Not so.

Tankersley is not the second-best cornerback on the team. He wasn’t that before Lippett got hurt. He’s not that now post-injury to his teammate.

The point is if the Dolphins find a need to release Maxwell for cap reasons next offseason, they’d have to be again projecting what they think Lippett can be coming back from an injury, projecting what Tankersley might be in his second season, and projecting what might be available in the draft.

So basically, knowing is being replaced by guessing.

Finally, we have the loss of starting middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. It’s a frustrating and heartbreaking loss.

McMillan, a second-round pick, was on course to the be the starter this year. But he had not yet proven he would be good or not in the 25-30 snaps he was going to get in the middle of the Miami defense. We don’t know. And neither do the Dolphins because there is no tangible proof.

So all the experience McMillan was going to get this year and all the data the team was going to gather to make a decision on adding more linebackers next offseason is now gone.

That means next offseason the team is going to have to seriously consider drafting or signing at least one if not two starting-caliber linebackers (again) because ...

It doesn’t know what McMillan really, truly is on the NFL level.

It doesn’t know whether McMillan can be the guy they drafted after reconstructive surgery.

Lawrence Timmons, 31 now and signed as something of a stop-gap, will be one year older and in the final year of his contract.

And I can hear folks in the Dolphins personnel department reading this and snickering because I don’t know anything and they think they know the answers to the issues I’ve raised.

They believe they know what Tannehill is and is not. They believe they know whether Lippett was going to make a jump to full-time starting caliber cornerback for next year. They believe they know what McMillan is and would be next year, even after surgery.

But to all this certainty of knowledge I would simply pose this question: Didn’t you also believe Tannehill would be fine without surgery after his first ACL injury?

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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