Among the most pervasive questions swirling around the Miami Dolphins camp this offseason is perhaps the one that will define the franchise for the next decade.
Is Ryan Tannehill a franchise quarterback?
Unfortunately, as you've probably heard plenty of times by now, that question can't be answered yet. That may be considered lamentable, especially when you consider the successes of fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
But there's hope. It must be remembered that Tannehill had only played 19 games as a quarterback prior to his rookie campaign in 2012. That's roughly half the amount of games that his rookie peers started in college.
Tannehill showed promise as a rookie. He proved he can make all the throws, has poise, isn't easily rattled under pressure and can win games when it's all on him.
But for all his promise, Tannehill had his share of stumbles. He suffered too many batted passes. He showed a bad habit of staring down his primary read. His accuracy was off for a few games in a row near the end of the season.
Tannehill's positives mostly outweighed his negatives, insofar as his upside was the primary focus of analysis. But for the youngster to evolve into a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback, he and the Dolphins organization will have to take a few steps.
Coach up his mechanics
As mentioned earlier, Tannehill has an impressive arm. He can rocket passes into tight windows between defenders and launch the ball downfield. He's also pretty accurate and is able to often put the ball where only his receiver has a chance at it.
However, his other mechanics have proved somewhat problematic.
Arguably Tannehill's biggest fault as a rookie was the unusually high amount of tipped passes he suffered. It started in Week 1 against Houston, when J.J. Watt used his massive arms to swat away two of Tannehill's passes, both of which were intercepted.
The problem was at its greatest that week, but it continued throughout the season. There are two reasons for this. One, as highlighted by Pro Football Weekly's analysis of Tannehill's draft stock, is the former Aggie's low release. He occasionally grips the ball for too long in his throwing motion, creating a low pass that's easily tipped by long-armed defensive linemen.
The second reason for the deflections is Tannehill's tendency to stare down his primary read. Not only does this make it easy for a lineman to time his swat, it makes it easy for a defender to lock in on the pass and grab an interception.This is more of a result of inexperience than anything, but it's a habit Tannehill must break.
Aside from tipped passes, Tannehill's accuracy suffered a bit as the season wore on. Over the final five weeks of the season, the rookie posted completion percentages of 44.8, 51.5, 52.0 and 57.1 (his bright spot came in Week 15 against Jacksonville when he completed 78.6 percent of his passes).
His ability to hit open receivers took a noticeable drop in the second half of the season, leading many to believe he had hit the dreaded rookie wall.
It will be on quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor to iron out these kinks in Tannehill's mechanics this offseason and carve him into a polished, efficient product for 2013.
Utilize his athleticism more
Tannehill is arguably one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Before he was under center at Texas A&M, he was lining up at receiver for the Aggies. In his redshirt freshman season he broke a handful of school records for freshman receivers, including receptions and total yards.
Once he finally won the starting quarterback job at Texas A&M, Tannehill continued to burn defenses with his legs. He ran 58 times for 306 yards and four touchdowns as a senior in 2011.
For much of his rookie season, the Dolphins didn't give Tannehill much to do in the running game. Perhaps offensive coordinator (and Tannehill's former head coach at Texas A&M) Mike Sherman wanted to focus on developing Tannehill's dropback passing game more. That route had its advantages, but the Dolphins will find much more success if they allow their quarterback to utilize his entire suite of abilities.
For proof, check out Miami's Week 15 and 16 games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, respectively. He ran the ball 14 times for 96 yards. A few weeks prior to those games, he scampered for 19 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots. He picked up 33 yards on four carries when Miami played Seattle in Week 12.
Miami won three of those four games.
Was Tannehill's rushing attack the sole reason for those three victories? No. But Miami's offense came to life when its quarterback sprinted across the line of scrimmage. With guys like Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick carving up defenses with their legs, we already know how dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks can be in the NFL.
More than just straight quarterback runs, Miami would be wise to draw up more bootlegs and roll-outs for Tannehill. His strong ability to throw on the run coupled with his innate ability to move quickly in the backfield could create many a headache for secondaries.
The Dolphins are already taking the right steps in this direction. Last month it was revealed that Miami will implement a read-option scheme into its offense next season. This should open things up on offense and add a truly electrifying dimension to the Dolphins' attack.
Surround him with weapons
The biggest stat that stands out between Tannehill and his rookie peers is touchdowns. Luck threw 23, Wilson threw 26 and Griffin threw 20. Tannehill only managed 12 touchdowns.
Before Tannehill is blamed entirely for this, let's consider the weapons Miami was outfitted with.
Miami's leading receiver in 2012 was Brian Hartline. While he had a career high 1,083 yards, he only had one touchdown. Davone Bess, Marlon Moore and Jorvorskie Lane had one touchdown apiece as well. Tight end Anthony Fasano led the team with five, while Reggie Bush and Charles Clay accounted for two apiece.
Simply put, this is unacceptable. Luck had Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, Wilson enjoyed Sidney Rice and Golden Tate and Griffin found help in Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon.
Hartline is a very talented receiver who may have taken the next step in his pro career last season. That combined with his rapport with Tannehill ensures the Dolphins made the right move in re-signing him to a long-term deal.
But that's far from enough. Miami is expected to be very active this offseason, especially in free agency. Their top target is the hottest receiver available, Mike Wallace. His addition would provide the kind of deep threat Miami hasn't had in years.
And while Fasano may have led the team in touchdowns last year, he's not the dynamic seam threat the Dolphins would like at tight end. Players like Jared Cook or Martellus Bennett could be available as free agents. Either one would boost Miami's downfield passing game yet again.
With Bush's impending departure, it will likely be the Lamar Miller show in Miami next season. Miller (and Daniel Thomas) will need to step up and create a dependable running game that the Dolphins can lean on if necessary.
Finally, Miami must solidify its roster in the draft. Drafting another young receiver to flesh out its corps of pass-catchers should be a priority. And if Miami misses on free-agent tight ends, it could possibly take Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert or Stanford's Zach Ertz with its first-round pick.
Regardless of which path the Dolphins take, they must surround Tannehill with talent.
With polished mechanics, an offense suited to his strengths and a bevy of weapons to toss the ball to, Tannehill could take a huge step in 2013.
That step could be the first on the way to a Pro Bowl-studded career.
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