Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Case Against Ryan Tannehill

The quarterback position has become so valuable in the NFL that every year, teams get desperate and players get pushed up the draft boards way higher than their talent dictates.  This year that player is Ryan Tannehill. 

Looking at the statistics of current NFL QBs, the majority of starters were drafted in the first round.  Last year, there were 34 QBs with enough attempts to qualify for the statistical leader board (a minimum of 14 per game according to ESPN.com).  Of those 34, 20 were selected in the first round, 3 in the second round, 2 in the third round, 1 in the fourth round, 1 in the fifth round, 3 in the sixth round, 2 in the seventh round, and 2 went undrafted (Tony Romo and Matt Moore).  Further breaking that down into groups of ten, it's clear why teams feel like they have to select a QB in the first round - once you get past the first, the likelihood of drafting a starter drops significantly:

Top 10
1st  - 6
2nd – 1
3rd – 1
6th - 1
Undrafted - Tony Romo

10-20
1st – 7
2nd - 1
6th - 1
Undrafted – Matt Moore

20-30
1st – 5
2nd – 1
3rd – 1
4th - 1
7th – 2

30-34
1st – 2
5th – 1
6th – 1

This apparent need will cause some unfortunate GM to justify taking a huge gamble and draft Tannehill way higher than he should.  The one statistic that best correlates to NFL success is completion percentage.  While Andrew Luck completed 71.3% of his passes, and RGIII completed 72.4%, Tannehill completed just 61.6% of his passes, placing him 53rd in the NCAA.  That puts him about on par with Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson (60.9%), who I think is a pretty close comparison in terms of talent.  QBs are unlikely to improve in accuracy at the next level, so since Tannehill was inaccurate in college, don't expect him to be accurate in the NFL.

My next point of comparison will be experience.  For 2.5 of his 4 years, Tannehill wasn't good enough to earn a starting spot over Jerrod Johnson, who recently signed with the Steelers but thus far in his career has not been good enough to make an NFL regular season roster.  Because he only has 13 starts as a senior and 7 as a junior he is still very raw, and since he took a back seat to a player not good enough for the NFL, it begs the question, what makes teams think he's worth a first round selection?

What's also of concern is that Tannehill failed to perform in the clutch.  Against top defenses, he turned in his worst performances of the season.  The level of competition he will face in the NFL is much greater than anything he faced in college, and his past performance suggests that he'll falter when faced with NFL defenses.  The old adage in investing is that past performance doesn't guarantee future results, so the notion of him improving is not improbable, but based on what I've seen of him in college, I have little reason to believe he'll show significant improvement.  

I understand why scouts are interested in him - he has prototypical size, a strong arm, and is very athletic.  A lot of scouts and GMs look at that and see it as potential.  What I see, however, is the same thing that was said about the previously mentioned Tarvaris Jackson.  That's who I see as his most reasonable comparison, and Jackson was selected with the last pick of the second round, and at the time many thought that was too high.  Need and desperation are pushing a lot of QBs into the first round that shouldn't be there, and while Tannehill is probably a 3rd or 4th round talent, but will likely be selected in the top 10.  

Despite the fact that the odds of finding a legitimate starter decrease significantly after the first round, I contend that current economics make drafting a QB in the first round a bad idea.  It's a gamble in any round, but a first round gamble will cost upwards of $75 million, but for significantly less you can make several lower round gambles and achieve similar odds of success.  My personal philosophy is that you spend first round picks on guys who can play right away.  The best case scenario for Tannehill is that he sits for a year, starts for 3 and then is a free agent.  Jake Locker was drafted 8th overall last year, and that is where many people predict Tannehill to go.  I can't find the details of the rookie wage scale, but using Locker's deal as a template, I would estimate that Tannehill would receive a 4 year deal for $12.5 million.  Is it really a valuable investment to spend that much money training a player only to let him go as a free agent?  Not in my opinion.

That's my opinion, but for a second opinion, check out the Prediction Machine. According to their web site:
We run a very complex set of algorithms that factor college stats, previous utilization and strength of competition, combine measurables, role and expected utilization of the player's NFL team (in this case an average NFL team) and previous performance of similar rookies at that position in general. This allows us to predict both the player's projected ratio stats such as yards-per-carry, percentage of tackles made while on the field and passing completion percentage, as well as his forecasted usage for the upcoming NFL season. Then we can compare all rookies based on who we think will make the biggest positive impact in his first year. It's a system that we have applied to the previous three drafts and with great success.
Although they are secretive about their algorithms, their calculations place Tannehill as the 9th best QB in the draft.  It seems crazy to me that the 9th QB is likely to become the 8th overall pick.  Rumor has it that the Seahawks like what they see in him, and my sincere hope is that the Dolphins or some other team take him off the board before the Seahawks have the opportunity to make a huge mistake.
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