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Ryan Tannehill Is the Future for the Titans

Tennessee struck gold when they traded for the Dolphins castoff in 2019. Now he’s signed a deal that could keep him in Nashville through 2023, and the team turns its attention to Derrick Henry.

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Exactly one year to the day after the Tennessee Titans traded for Ryan Tannehill to be their backup quarterback, the team has come to terms on a contract extension to keep him as their starter. On Sunday, Tannehill agreed to a four-year, $118 million deal, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The deal keeps him in Tennessee through at least 2021, guarantees the third season if he is on the team a year from now, and includes an option for 2023, according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington.

Last March, Tennessee traded a 2020 fourth- and 2019 sixth-round pick for Tannehill and negotiated a one-year deal that paid him less than $6 million (he also received $5 million from the Dolphins). Now, just hours after the NFLPA narrowly ratified its next collective bargaining agreement, he has agreed to a new contract that includes a $20 million signing bonus. Tannehill, who turns 32 in July, was considered a high-end backup, but he ended up being a key piece of the Titans’ resurgence in the second half of the 2019 season. From when Tannehill replaced a struggling Marcus Mariota as the team’s starter in Week 7 to the end of the regular season, he was among the most efficient quarterbacks in football. In that time frame, Tannehill led all quarterbacks in passing yards per attempt (9.6) and ranked second in completion percentage (69.6) and third in touchdown passes (22). He was also the highest-graded quarterback by Pro Football Focus in that time. In that span, Tennessee led the league in yards per play (6.9) from Week 7 to Week 17, surpassing even the Ravens, 49ers, and Saints.

The Titans maximized their passing game by leaning heavily on play-action, where Tannehill excelled. He tied for the league lead in yards per attempt on play-action (13.8) from Week 7 to Week 17, but he was tied for fifth in non-play-action passes (7.7). That 6.0 yards per attempt difference was the biggest of any QB, according to Pro Football Focus.

With Tannehill locked up, the Titans can now turn their attention to free-agent running back Derrick Henry. There is an ongoing debate of how much the running game has to do with play-action effectiveness, but there is no debate how the Titans’ offensive identity at the end of last season formed around Derrick Henry. In 2019 Henry led the NFL in rushing attempts (303) and rushing yards (1,540) and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns (16). Henry continued that stretch into the playoffs. From Week 17 through the divisional round, he became the first player in NFL history with 180 or more rushing yards in three consecutive games. In Tennessee’s first two playoff games this year, Henry’s rushing yards (377) were more than double Tannehill’s combined passing totals (160). While part of that came because the Titans were protecting leads, the team has forged its identity around its thundering running game.

Henry may be looking for a large long-term deal, but the Titans have the option of tendering him with the franchise tag for about $12 million in 2020 before Monday’s deadline. Signing Henry to a long-term deal beyond that is risky for the Titans. Just about every big-money veteran running back contract that has been signed, from Devonta Freeman to Todd Gurley to David Johnson has been either a big misallocation of resources or a big mistake (and we still don’t know about Ezekiel Elliott’s and Le’Veon Bell’s contracts). Banking on Henry to be the focal point of the team for several years would require Henry bucking the recent history of running backs performances from age 26 to 30.

The Titans have already made some hard decisions this offseason, including letting right tackle Jack Conklin reach free agency and releasing pass rusher Cameron Wake and running back Dion Lewis. But deciding what to do with Henry may be their most difficult. Tendering him with the franchise tag could lead to Henry holding out, and the last three running back holdouts have gone about as differently as possible. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell held out and missed the entire 2018 season before signing with the Jets last year (the holdout went better than most give him credit for). Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott held out before last season and got the most money for a running back in NFL history. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon also held out in 2019, but was usurped by backup Austin Ekeler, who just inked a new contract with the team. General manager Jon Robinson has not used the franchise tag since becoming the Titans GM in 2016, but with Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin both free agents, the Titans are likely going to use it on one of them by Monday’s noon deadline.

The Tannehill signing takes the Titans out of the market to sign Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl champion is a free agent for the first time in his two-decade career, and the Titans were one of the most logical landing spots for him if he were to leave New England, though there was little evidence either he or the team was seriously considering him playing there. Brady would have been a high-profile acquisition, but the Titans solved their quarterback need with a much lower profile move. A year ago Mariota was still dealing with the effects of a nerve injury to his throwing elbow when the team decided to take a flier on Tannehill. A year later, the Titans have their quarterback questions answered. For now. A lot can change in a year.