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The Ryan Tannehill Trade Is the Beginning of a Long Rebuild in Miami

The Dolphins shipped their starting QB to Tennessee for scant compensation on Friday, but for the first time in a long while, they’re being realistic about their timeline

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told reporters at his season-end press conference on New Year’s Eve that he fired head coach Adam Gase because Gase “wants to win now” and the Dolphins were taking a different approach in order to win on a sustainable basis.

“If it takes a year or so, two years, three years, we’re going to be there,” Ross said.

The Miami Dolphins started that plan in earnest on Friday. The team traded quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-rounder to the Tennessee Titans for a 2019 seventh-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The Titans signed Tannehill to a one-year deal for $7 million guaranteed to be their backup quarterback, with playing-time incentives that could bump his compensation to $12 million or more if he is pressed into duty for significant time, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The trade compensation is light, but Tannehill was set to earn $18.7 million in salary, he has played just 11 of the Dolphins’ past 32 games, and he is going to be 31 at the beginning of next season. Given his injury history, price tag, and lack of development, the Dolphins reportedly had been trying to move on from Tannehill all offseason and were even willing to release him if they couldn’t find a trade partner. The Dolphins will free up $33 million of cap space over the next two seasons, and they agreed to pay $5 million of Tannehill’s new $7 million guaranteed deal with Tennessee to do so.

The Titans are receiving an overqualified backup to play behind Marcus Mariota, who suffered a nerve injury last season that, as he told a Tennessee radio station in December, “basically sent [his] whole right side numb and tingly.” The Titans drafted Mariota no. 2 overall in 2015, and while he looked like a budding star in his first two years, he has suffered injuries that have affected him even when healthy and his decision-making still looked questionable at times in 2018, his fourth year. Mariota will play 2019 on the $20.9 million fifth-year option of his rookie contract, and the Titans will have to decide whether they want to keep him as their franchise quarterback beyond this season. Tannehill’s presence is not a threat to Mariota—for now. If Mariota plays poorly in 2019, and the Titans coaching staff likes what it sees out of Tannehill, that could change.

The deal is far more interesting from Miami’s perspective. It could be the beginning of a long rebuild, as Ross alluded to in his New Year’s Eve press conference. General manager Chris Grier tried to walk back Ross’s words at the NFL combine, which he said had been taken out of context.

“We’re not trying to lose games,” Grier told reporters. “We’re going to do what’s best. We’re going to build like we’ve talked about building right, going through the process to do what’s best for the Dolphins. But, no, we’re not trying to tank or lose every game. But we’re going to build it right and see how it plays out.”

We’ll see just how patient the team will be in the first round of the NFL draft. The two quarterbacks currently on their roster, Jake Rudock and Luke Falk, were drafted in the sixth round in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Miami is picking 13th overall in 2019, behind either one or four other teams that could also draft a quarterback, depending on how you count. Miami, which has perhaps the least talented 1-through-53-man roster in football, could mortgage its draft future to trade up for the no. 1 overall pick and take Kyler Murray or whomever the team may fall in love with. The Dolphins also could be content to stay at no. 13 and hope Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock, or Duke’s Daniel Jones falls to them. But the most fascinating decision would be to do neither of those things.

The team lost out on signing Teddy Bridgewater, who re-upped with the Saints this week, and its next-best options in free agency are likely Ryan Fitzpatrick, Robert Griffin III, Mike Glennon, Mark Sanchez, and Blake freakin’ Bortles. The Dolphins could trade up to draft a new passer, or they could ride with a washed-up veteran, be abjectly awful, and get one of the top draft picks in 2020, when Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who is sizing up to be the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012, should be available.

The Dolphins tanking would be a fascinating strategy, especially because the team has rarely had any strategy to speak of. It wouldn’t explicitly be an effort to lose games, especially with new head coach Brian Flores in town. But Miami is seemingly being reasonable about its timeline rather than shelling out in free agency only to quickly cut players as the team has done so often in the past. As Ross said, if it takes two or three years, so be it.