Classic draft reach? Not so much

Drafting a player of Ryan Tannehill's caliber seems a lot less risky when you have all of the inside info on him. The Dolphins did, and acted accordingly.

It took Miami Dolphins brass a whopping 29 years to follow up the selection of Dan Marino in 1983 with a genuine first-round quarterback, but it took Dolphins fans (well, 33 percent of them according to this site) mere seconds to hate the team's decision to nab Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the No. 8 overall selection last spring. Go figure. Dolphins fans at this point really can't be choosy about who their team drafts to play quarterback--the position has been a virtual black hole since Marino's retirement in spring 2000--but that hasn't stopped the non-Tannehill fans (or 33 percenters, if you will) from stating the case that Miami's new quarterback isn't a franchise-caliber signal caller, but rather a simple product of the NFL's tendency to inflate and overvalue the stock of quarterback prospects during the draft process.

As of right now, Tannehill has the "classic draft reach" tag stamped squarely on his forehead, and it ain't coming off until he throws for lots and lots of touchdowns and gets the Dolphins not just to the playoffs, but deep into the playoffs ... preferably the Super Bowl.

Hey, it's all about small expectations when it comes to the Dolphins and their fans.

The problem with the draft-reach theory for quarterbacks is that it is essentially dog crap--a go-to debate tactic for those who simply refuse to accept that a specific quarterback may indeed be worthy of the spot at which he was selected in the draft (regardless of whether or not he possesses elite arm strength, height and/or mobility).

If quarterback is the most important position on the field, and a prospect represents a major upgrade at that position for a team, who really gives a sweet rat's ass if said quarterback prospect is selected five or six spots higher than where he's "projected" to land? Is that quarterback's play going to suffer as a result of him coming off the board earlier? Probably not. And if every team tried to move down in order to meet "maximum value" while drafting a quarterback, most of them would go on the clock with their guy nowhere to be found. Seriously, how often do you see teams move down to get their guy? The majority of first-round quarterbacks in the NFL (with the exception of Joe Flacco) were obtained by teams that either held pat at their draft spot or moved up to get the quarterback they coveted. Very rarely will you see a team's "guy" land squarely in its lap. Rather, if they want him, they'll probably have to be aggressive and go get him.

Blah, blah, blah, you say. Dolphins brass may have showed some smarts by refusing to bite on the Tannehill-to-Cleveland talk, but that doesn't mean he isn't a raw quarterback who was selected almost purely because of the upside he flashed during his year-and-a-half under center at College Station. He benefited from being the No. 3 quarterback in a draft where Nos. 1 and 2 (Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III) were off the board within the first five minutes.

Well, I can't dispute much of the above statement. Tannehill is raw. Tannehill does have limited experience at the position. Tannehill did benefit from Luck and Griffin III going first and second in the draft. But Tannehill also has also brings some quality skills to the quarterback position: smarts, accuracy, excellent arm strength (via a push-forward release ala Philip Rivers) and very good speed. And that rare ability Tannehill flashed while playing within the West Coast offense at A&M was enough to qualify him as worthy of the No. 8 overall pick. If Christian Ponder can go No. 12 overall to Minnesota, the Dolphins shouldn't have to defend their decision to pick up Tannehill with the eighth pick. Yet, they've had to do just that.

(And don't give me that "QBs selected in the top 10 should start right away" excuse. Carson Palmer went No. 1 overall and was glued to the Bengals' bench his first season. Does that mean he shoudn't have been selected that high? Hell no. Aaron Rodgers rode the bench for three years, and Jay Cutler only cracked the Broncos' starting lineup in 2006 after the team realized that they were developing a quarterback behind Jake Plummer, who needed to be developed himself. There's no need to rush a rookie quarterback into the starting spot unless you absolutely have to do so. The Dolphins have capable--not great, but capable--candidates at the position right now, so why force Tannehill out there?)

A team that didn't have to explain their decision for drafting a quarterback whom many felt wasn't worthy of a top 10 pick was the Atlanta Falcons, who selected Matt Ryan No. 3 overall four years ago.

It's hard to believe that Ryan was, at one point, thought to be an imposter of a quarterback prospect. After beginning his senior season at Boston College (2007) with a bang (even garnering consideration for the Heisman Trophy in the process), Ryan's play faded into an inconsistent turnover fest that left several analysts questioning his arm strength and ability to lead an NFL offense without throwing a boatload of interceptions. Ryan's stat line that season went something like this: 14 games; 654 attempts/388 completions (59.3 completion percentage); 4,507 yards passing; 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Not bad, but not great, either, and hardly the kind of numbers you want to see from the guy you just drafted No. 3 overall. Now compare Ryan's numbers with Tannehil's 2011 season: 13 games; 530 attempts/327 completions (61.7 completion percentage); 3,744 yards passing; 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Pretty good for a raw, inexperienced guy playing with a wideout corps that was infected with a major case of the dropsies. Of course, Tannehill's numbers aren't that of Aaron Rodgers' 2004 season at Cal, or the 2003 seasons for Philip Rivers at N.C. State and Ben Roethlisberger at Miami of Ohio, but they're perfectly fine.

So ... if Ryan's numbers were good enough to warrant the No. 3 selection in a poor quarterback draft (which is how it was perceived at the time), why aren't Tannehill's stats good enough to warrant the No. 8 selection in a very strong quarterback draft? Anyone? Hello?

And ... I think I just heard someone say the words "rawness" and "inexperience."

Shifting focus back onto Tannehill, lost in translation during this whole "this guy is overdrafted garbage" discussion is the fact that Tannehill's college coach, Mike Sherman, is now his offensive coordinator in Miami. For the Dolphins, this is the NFL equivalent of insider trading, making them privy to Tannehill-related details and knowledge that other teams never had a chance to learn during their interviews with the Aggie quarterback. For Miami, this is almost an unfair advantage, especially considering how difficult it can be to accurately gauge whether or not a college quarterback has the ability to develop into a franchise guy in the NFL., and it makes the Dolphins' selection of Tannehill seem a whole lot less risky. Let's take the Sherman/Tannehill connection a step further, however, and consider the influence (or lack thereof) that Sherman had on Jeff Ireland during his scouting of Tannehill. Now, Ireland claims that Tannehill was "the guy" on his radar as far back as late 2010 (ballsy move, considering Tannehill had single-digit starts at that point in time), and while that's certainly the best-case scenario for Dolphins fans hoping that Tannehill is indeed "the one," it brings to mind two other possible scenarios that could've taken place last offseason. For the sake of clarity, I'll list all three:

  • Scenario No. 1 - Ireland was indeed a Tannehill fan as far back as 2010, and had his convictions validated by Sherman after the former A&M coach was brought on as offensive coordinator last January. Ireland relays Sherman's words to Stephen Ross and proceeds to play dumb for the rest of the pre-draft season, calling bluffs from both Cleveland and Seattle while calmly waiting for the No. 8 pick to roll around so he can land the quarterback whom he believes will be the real deal in Miami.
  • Scenario No. 2 - Ireland wasn't much of a Tannehill fan, and instead developed a real liking for the quarterback who dominated the 2011 season at Ireland's alma mater: Baylor University. However, Sherman, upon arriving in Miami, talked Ireland into going after Tannehill. Sherman has all of the inside info on the guy, having watched Tannehill develop from day one at Texas A&M. Ireland is impressed and relays Sherman's words to Stephen Ross, who signs off on the pick.
  • Scenario No. 3 - Ireland was indeed a Tannehill fan as far back as 2010, but his convictions are opposed by Sherman after the former A&M coach was brought on as offensive coordinator last January. Sherman didn't think Tannehill has what it takes to be a starting quarterback. Ireland tells Sherman to f*** off, relays his intentions to Stephen Ross and proceeds to select Tannehill with the eighth overall pick.

It's unlikely (though not totally improbable) that the third scenario actually took place last offseason, but we really have no way of knowing if Ireland really developed a man-crush on Tannehill right out of the gate. Nevertheless, Ireland ignored his draft-safe tendencies in order to select a quarterback in the first round last spring, and it's a move that could end up being the difference between the Dolphins watching Super Bowls and actually playing in one.

As for whether or not Tannehill should be viewed as a "classic draft reach," consider this: whenever a team has the kind of inside info on a player that the Dolphins had with Tannehill, the words "draft reach" should immediately be thrown out the window.

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