With the outside world halted, the NFL churned Sunday afternoon. A significant domino fell in an offseason that will be loaded with quarterback movement: Ryan Tannehill agreed to a contract extension with the Tennessee Titans, reportedly for four years and $118 million.
It marks the culmination of a remarkable and sudden renaissance for Tannehill. Almost exactly a year ago, the Miami Dolphins traded Tannehill to the Titans with a 2019 sixth-round pick for a 2019 seventh-rounder and a 2020 fourth-round choice. To make the deal work, the Titans reworked Tannehill’s contract, originally for $17 million in 2019, to $7 million and a raft of incentives.
Tannehill signed to be Mariota’s backup, but he and his agent at the time, Pat Dye Jr., had engineered the move because they knew Mariota’s injury history and shaky performance. They expected Tannehill would have a chance to win a starting job after losing one when Miami overhauled its leadership.
When the Titans benched Mariota, Tannehill became a quarterback worthy of staking a franchise’s future on. In offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s system — which leaned on play-action, the bulldozing running of Derrick Henry and Tannehill’s athleticism — Tannehill finished the season 7-3 as the starter and led the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating. Henry did most of the heavy lifting in the postseason, but Tannehill quarterbacked road upsets of the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, disrupting a dynasty and spoiling an upstart juggernaut.
Everything in this offseason revolves around Tom Brady’s free agency, and Tannehill landing back with the Titans has a direct impact on it. The re-signing increases the odds Brady returns to New England, if only because it removes one possible suitor. Brady’s friend and former teammate Mike Vrabel coaches the Titans, which spurred speculation he could consider Tennessee. Brady’s non-New England options still might be plentiful, but they are whittled by one.
Tannehill’s signing provides a reminder of where the NFL is headed in terms of quarterback salaries. Almost $30 million per season for a quarterback with ample injury history and no playoff starts before this past season seems crazy. It isn’t. The salary cap next season will be $198.2 million, and so Tannehill will take up about 14.9 percent of Tennessee’s cap. That leaves plenty of room to build a contender around him. It’s an insane amount of money but perfectly reasonable by the standards of an NFL quarterback.
If it looks like an overpay, just wait. With the new CBA in place and a colossal television deal on tap, quarterback salaries are going to skyrocket. If Tannehill can parlay 13 excellent games into $29.5 million per season, imagine what Patrick Mahomes is going to pull. Once Mahomes signs his extension with the Kansas City Chiefs, it will raise the level of every new deal. Other quarterbacks may not pass Mahomes, but his contract will be used as a benchmark. If Tannehill comes close to his 2019 performance, there’s a better chance his contract looks like a bargain in 2023 than a rip-off, and either way it shouldn’t be an albatross.
(The obvious caveat that needs to be noted is that the fallout from the novel coronavirus is impossible to predict, and if the 2020 season is threatened, that changes the calculus of league revenue, future salary cap totals and maybe even television rights negotiations. But if we get to that point, there will be much bigger issues to sort out than Tannehill’s contract, anyway.)
The Titans have a quarterback for the foreseeable future because they gambled on the right kind of player. Tannehill was a risk, of course, but he wouldn’t have been available if he weren’t one. Tennessee bet on pedigree and flashes of quality. Tannehill was the eighth pick of the 2012 draft — when he entered the league, Tannehill becoming a franchise quarterback was not a long shot; it was expected.
He had moments with Miami when he seemed on the cusp, but injuries and organizational dysfunction derailed him. He won seven of his last eight starts in 2016 with Adam Gase as his coach, but a knee injury ended his season, and then he reinjured the knee the following summer and missed all of 2017. Tannehill was rarely bad and often above average, but something always tended to obscure his success. And when he became available on the cheap, the Titans wisely pounced. Even if Tannehill had stunk last season, it just would have meant they had a meh backup quarterback.
If other teams take a lesson from Tennessee’s find, they may coincidentally take a flier on the man Tannehill replaced. Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and has the athleticism to thrive in today’s NFL. Injuries smothered his career in Tennessee, and by the end, even though he exuded professionalism, he seemed to lose his joy. He was lost this past season, and Tannehill was probably never as bad as Mariota at his worst. But a team with a shaky starter could do a lot worse than sign Mariota at essentially no cost.
With Tannehill back, the Titans probably will be the favorites — for now — in the AFC South, regardless of what happens with Henry in free agency. The Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson is still the best quarterback in the division, but the talent around Tannehill, especially on defense, gives Tennessee an edge. The Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars have major questions at quarterback. Those will be answered in the coming week, but in the NFL’s offseason of wild quarterback movement, one team and one player have a satisfying conclusion.