When Ryan Tannehill returned from his shoulder injury two weeks ago, the Dolphins essentially had six games to determine whether to move forward with him into 2019.
Though one-third of those six games, the Dolphins are still essentially in the same position they’ve been through the first 84 appearances of his career: without enough evidence to definitively say he is their best realistically available longterm option but without enough evidence to say he definitely isn’t.
As Miami Herald colleague Armando Salguero has reported, the Dolphins are preparing themselves to be in position to replace Tannehill if they decide they need to.
The top executives are closely studying all the top draft quarterback prospects and have a good feel for the top veterans who will be available, including Teddy Bridgewater. But if Tannehill finishes very strong, or the Dolphins don’t have a conviction on a replacement, he certainly could return.
Tannehill is 12-8 with a 96 passer rating in 20 starts under Gase, a solid 60 percent winning percentage. This season, his career-high 98.4 rating ranks 13th among current starters, ahead of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and every current veteran starter expected to be available this offseason.
If Tannehill is on the team next season under terms of his current contract, he would be paid an $18.7 million base salary in 2019 (none guaranteed), with a $26.6 million cap hit, with substantial cap savings if he’s released or traded. There’s no reason to believe he would accept a pay cut.
An early look at who’s available and who could be:
DEFINITE FREE AGENTS
▪ Bridgewater: The Dolphins like him — they wanted to sign him as a backup in March before his cost grew prohibitive — but keep in mind that his 85.2 and 88.7 passer ratings in his two years as Minnesota’s starter were pretty pedestrian and well below Tannehill’s this season.
Now serving as Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans, he doesn’t have that many more career touchdowns (28) than interceptions (22) and has thrown three passes (no completions) in the past three seasons, after returning midway through last season from his serious knee injury.
By comparison, Tannehill has 119 career touchdowns and 72 career picks. So a strong case could be made that Bridgewater isn’t an upgrade over Tannehill, though there’s still room for growth there.
None of the other definitive free agents — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sam Bradford, Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown — are longterm answers. So forget any of those unless we’re talking about Fitzpatrick as a stopgap if Miami uses a high pick on a quarterback.
POSSIBLE FREE AGENTS OR TRADES
▪ CBS’ Jason La Canfora suggested a hypothetical trade involving Oakland’s Derek Carr to Miami, a move that would give both he and Tannehill fresh starts.
Problem is, Carr is owed between $19 million and $20 million each of the next four seasons and has been average past two seasons (88.4 rating in 2017, 95.2 rating this season). He has 15 fumbles, with seven lost, in his past 27 games and 40 career fumbles. This would have been a definitive upgrade over Tannehill two years ago, but not a clear one now.
▪ Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is positioned to be traded or released amid Lamar Jackson’s emergence for the Ravens, who can save $18.5 million by designating Flacco a post June 1 cut.
But he is on the downside at age 33, with a passer rating of 84.2 this season (12 touchdowns, six picks). He’s had a passer rating between 80 and 84 each of the past four seasons, well below Tannehill’s this season.
▪ Denver must make a decision on Case Keenum, who’s due $18 million in 2019, with $7 million guaranteed. But though he has orchestrated some comebacks, he overall has been no better than Tannehill this season (14 TDs, 10 picks, 85.1 rating) and the Broncos – suddenly winning - might keep him.
▪ It’s difficult to envision Miami pursuing Blake Bortles or Eli Manning if the Jaguars or Giants move on from them. But Manning (93.7, 15 TDs, 8 INTs) could be a stopgap if Miami uses a second-day draft pick on a quarterback.
▪ The Buccaneers would have a $20.9 million cap savings if they move on from Jameis Winston, who was benched earlier this season after a flood of turnovers but has played better recently.
Winston (12 touchdowns, 11 picks, 90.1 rating) has a higher ceiling than Tannehill but not better statistics.
His 2017 numbers (92.2 rating in 2017, with 19 touchdowns and 11 picks) are slightly worse than Tannehill’s under Gase.
▪ Nick Foles also likely will be available; the Eagles will save $18.6 million against the cap by cutting him.
Foles has either been very good or really mediocre historically: He had a 79.5 rating as a fill-in for Carson Wentz during the regular season last year before a brilliant Super Bowl-winning playoff run (115 rating, six touchdowns, one pick) and then was again mediocre with a 78.9 rating in two starts this season.
He’s five years removed from his 27-TD, two-interception season for Philadelphia and seemingly isn’t a longterm answer. He would be a better stopgap than Brock Osweiler – but also more expensive – if Miami needs a one-year veteran starter while grooming a high-round 2019 draft pick.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper has three in his top 25 draft eligible players: Oregon’s Justin Herbert (sixth overall), Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (11th) and Duke’s Daniel Jones (25).
Many expect Herbert to return for his senior season and if he doesn’t, Miami wouldn’t be drafting high enough to get him without a trade.
“Herbert has arm talent and athleticism, but I’d like to see more consistency overall,” Kiper said.
Of Haskins, Kiper writes on ESPN.com: “Haskins is eligible for this draft because he’s a third-year sophomore, and there’s some buzz that he could leave school after just one season as the starter. There’s a lot to like about him as a prospect: he has a big arm, shows great anticipation on his throws, takes care of the ball and has solid athleticism (though he’s not a great runner). The high ceiling is there, and that’s what NFL teams draft for. With 46 touchdown passes and just eight picks -- plus an utter domination of one of college football’s best defenses last week -- Haskins has first-round potential.”
If Herbert returns to school, Kiper sees Jones as having “ a real chance to be the No. 1 quarterback off the board. The most impressive trait I’ve seen from Jones this season is his ability to buy time in the pocket and use his feet to get square and make a throw. He has thrown 27 interceptions in his three seasons as the starter, and he forces passes at times, but he has mostly cut down on the poor throws this season.”
Some rate Missouri’s Drew Lock as a likely first-rounder, but Kiper doesn’t. He has him as the No. 4 draft eligible quarterback, followed by West Virginia’s Will Grier (Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum watched Grier two weeks ago)
Kiper’s sixth through 10th QB prospects: NC State’s Ryan Finley, Iowa’s Nathan Stanley, Stanford’s KJ Costello, Washington State’s Gardner Minshew and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham.
The Dolphins claimed former UM cornerback Dee Delaney off waivers from the Jaguars and placed tight end A.J. Derby on injured reserve, ending his season.
Derby was limited to four games this season because of injuries, including a foot problem tracing back to training camp. Derby, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, had three catches for 48 yards this season.
Undrafted out of UM in April, Delaney was on the Jaguars’ practice squad and 53-man roster at different times this season and appeared in two games. He had one interception in eight games in his only season at UM after transferring from The Citadel.
Here’s my six-pack of Tuesday Dolphins nuggets on Xavien Howard hiring a new agent and what he says about his Dolphins future, Raekwon McMillan, grades for the Buffalo game and more.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz