Barry Jackson

Tannehill injury creates financial questions, challenges for Dolphins

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill taking a selfie with Miami Carol City Senior High School students after the NFL football minicamp, Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the team's training facility in Davie.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill taking a selfie with Miami Carol City Senior High School students after the NFL football minicamp, Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the team's training facility in Davie.

There’s a financial angle with most major NFL stories, and that’s certainly the case with Ryan Tannehill’s newest knee injury and Jay Cutler’s signing on Sunday.

Specifically: With Tannehill’s $17.5 million salary for 2018 not guaranteed until next March, should the Dolphins retain him beyond 2017 and do it without asking him to take a pay cut?

I posed the question to longtime former NFL general manager Charley Casserly and two veteran NFL agents not associated with Tannehill.

All three said that if Tannehill has surgery to repair his ACL injury as many expect --- and if he is ready to play next season, which should be the case barring something unforeseen – then Miami should retain him, whether he is willing to take a pay cut or not.

The agents said they do not believe the Dolphins would be successful pressuring agent Pat Dye and Tannehill for Tannehill to take a pay cut in this scenario because the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the league would give Tannehill (with a clean bill of health) the leverage. After all, this isn’t like asking your aging defensive end to take a pay cut.

First, the particulars of the contract: Tannehill, who will earn $17.9 million this season, is due $17.5 million in 2018, $18.7 million in 2019 and $19.5 million in 2020. None of the 2019 and 2020 salaries are guaranteed.

Of Tannehill’s $17.5 million for next season, $5.25 million is “base guaranteed” in the event of injury, meaning he would be entitled to that – or an injury settlement – if injury prevents him from being ready for next season and if the Dolphins want to release him after this season. But his $17.5 million salary isn’t guaranteed until the fifth day of the league year next March, allowing Miami to cut bait if it chooses.

If the Dolphins surprisingly cut him, his dead money on Miami’s cap next season would be $4.6 million. If he’s on the team, his cap hit would be $19.8 million.

Provided he’s expected to be ready to start next season, the agents and Casserly said it would be unwise to cut him for several reasons: Players can come back from knee surgery without necessarily having further issues; because he’s still ascending at 29 and coming off a good season (12th in NFL in passer rating) and because of lack of appealing affordable options.

The Dolphins – at the moment – have just $3.2 million in projected cap space for 2018, with the cap projected at $177 million and Miami with $174 million in cap commitments to their top 51. And because of the Cutler contract (one year, $10 million with $5 million in base and $5 million bonuses), the Dolphins’ carry-over space will be reduced significantly, to $7 million or less.

So Miami will need to cut a significant amount of salary to augment the roster, re-sign Jarvis Landry and sign a 2018 draft class.

In the unlikely event Miami moved on from Tannehill, they assuredly would need to pay more than Tannehill’s $17.5 million next March to have a chance to land potential unrestricted free agents Kirk Cousins (if he has a good season in Washington) or Jimmy Garoppolo (who could elicit a bidding war from several QB-starved teams unless the Patriots give him the franchise tag).

What about 2018 free agent Sam Bradford? No thanks. Potential free agents Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees are expected to stay with the Lions and Saints. Teddy Bridgewater and Alex Smith could be options, but neither seems more appealing than a healthy Tannehill.

I suppose Cutler, 34, could be more than a one-year answer but that’s highly dubious. The Dolphins prefered Tannehill over Cutler when Tannehill was healthy, and he will be healthy again.

“If I was making the decision, I would have faith in the doctors [saying he could play in 2018] and hold you responsible if he doesn’t,” Casserly said. “In that scenario, I would keep him. I might go to his agent [Pat Dye] and say, ‘Let’s try to work something out with him [as far as a pay cut].’ Pat Dye is a reasonable guy.”

And what if Dye says no to a pay cut? “If he said no, I would roll the dice [and still keep him],” Casserly said. “You would have to sit there and say what are my options if we don't have him,” noting there are few good ones.

Two agents said if they were Dye, they would reject any Dolphins overtures to reduce Tannehill’s salary next season (presuming doctors expect him to be ready for the 2018 season) and instead gamble that in a quarterback-hungry league, another team would pay him at least $17.5 million on a one-year prove-it deal if the Dolphins cut him. One agent said he cannot envision Dye accepting a pay cut if Tannehill is projected to be ready to start next season.

Incidentally, as ESPN’s Field Yates noted, the Dolphins will be spending more than $30 million on quarterbacks this season, second-most in the league behind only the Bears ($35.7 million).