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ESPN Breakout Players: Ryan Tannehill takes second spot; Lamar Miller makes list

ESPN published a list of the Top 50 NFL Breakout Players today, with Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill coming just short of the top spot.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Entering his third year in the NFL, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has the eyes, and expectations, of a fan base focused squarely on his shoulders this year. The third year is always a pivotal one for any NFL player, and for a potential franchise quarterback, it really can be a make-or-break type of year.

In his third year, former Dolphins second round pick Chad Henne was 6-8 in 14 starts, throwing for 3,301 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions.  He spent one more year, with only four starts, with the Dolphins before leaving via free agency.  Since then, he has spent two up-and-down seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and is currently holding their starting position only for as long as it takes rookie Blake Bortles to adjust to the NFL.

The third year is crucial for a quarterback.

Dolphins fans, and the franchise, are hoping that their search for a replacement for Dan Marino, who retired in 1999, is finally over, and Tannehill proves he is ready to take that next step. If Mike Sando from ESPN is correct, Tannehill should do exactly that this year.

This morning, Sando published his Top 50 NFL breakout players list, and Tannehill finds himself in the number two position, only behind Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen for the player with the most potential to have a breakout season in 2014. 

Sando explains his criteria for creating his list with four basic rules:

  • No rookies, because we don't have much to go on (check out Aaron Schatz's take on 10 potential impact rookies, as identified by Football Outsiders' projections)
  • No players ranked in the #NFLRank Top 100, because those players have presumably broken out to some degree already
  • Older players generally aren't featured, on the theory they are what they are
  • Finally, if a player has already signed a lucrative second contract, he probably isn't a good candidate

Of selecting Tannehill, Sando writes:

Tannehill is not the safest choice for this list, but he's one of my favorites. Catastrophic offensive line problems and broader organizational issues have hurt him recently, but those issues have been resolved favorably for the time being. Bill Lazor's arrival as offensive coordinator from Philadelphia brings restored hope following Nick Foles' breakout season for the Eagles. Tannehill is in much better position to succeed in 2014. He has the talent to capitalize.

From the early preseason analysis of Tannehill, Sando could be exactly correct.  The new offensive system for the Dolphins seems to be playing directly into the quarterback's strengths: quick passes, fast decisions, and sure throws.  The team will take their shots down the field, and Tannehill still needs to figure out his connection issues with wide receiver Mike Wallace, but the money in this system will be the intermediate range throws, and getting the ball quickly into the hands of the playmakers.  That should allow Tannehill to breakout.

There are dangers that keep Tannehill's development from being a sure thing, of course.  The team still has to solve the offensive line problem.  This is the first time since high school Tannehill has not been in an offense designed by Mike Sherman, meaning Tannehill has to master an entirely new system - and forget six years of coaching.

Tannehill can become a national name this year, if he continues to play like he has in the first two preseason games.  He is not the only Dolphins player to make Sando's list, either. Running back Lamar Miller cracks the top 50, coming in at number 36.  Sando explains:

Miller topped 700 yards rushing last season, setting the bar relatively high for him to truly achieve breakout status. He remains a player to watch while playing behind an improved line and within a system that facilitated league-leading rushing totals in Philadelphia last season.

This should be a great year for Miller, building off of last year, plus a new offensive line.  The preseason, however, has not started well, gaining just 14 yards on seven carries through two games.  A big part of struggling to a two yards per carry average is the current play of the offensive line, but Miller also has to be decisive and run downhill, hard. 

If both Tannehill and Miller are able to meet Sando's expectations, and with the depth the team has at wide receiver and tight end, the Dolphins could be set for success this season - perhaps even being able to break out of their five straight non-winning seasons.