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The pros and cons of the Steelers’ signing Ryan Tannehill in free agency

Reports surfaced this past weekend that the Steelers might have interest in adding quarterback Ryan Tannehill when the free agency period opens next month. Reports at this juncture are purely speculative and often lead to nothing, but in the case of Tannehill there may be more to it. The Steelers have expressed interest in signing a veteran to compete with Kenny Pickett next year, and Tannehill had the best years of his career in 2019-2020 when new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was calling plays in Tennessee.

Adding Tannehill is far from a no-brainer, however, and comes with potential complications. Any move on Pittsburgh’s part will require careful consideration. This article examines the pros and cons of pursuing the veteran signal-caller.

Pros

At his year-end press conference following Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to Buffalo last month, Mike Tomlin said Pickett, who sat behind Mason Rudolph despite being healthy for the Steelers final few games, would regain his starting spot next year but that “obviously there will be competition.” The term “competition” deserves a qualifier, as it seems unlikely Pittsburgh would stage a true QB battle throughout training camp. If Pickett is going to regain his starting spot, as Tomlin suggested, it stands to reason he’ll be treated as the starter. The competition Tomlin alluded to will likely come from the acquisition of a veteran to push Pickett and to serve as an insurance policy should he fail to progress.

In that sense, Tannehill is a near-perfect option.

At 35 years of age (36 when next season commences), Tannehill is not likely to seek an opportunity where he can become the long-term starter. It’s possible a team that drafts a quarterback could pursue Tannehill as a bridge starter until the draft pick is ready, but those situations are few and far between. Perhaps the Patriots would bite. Or the Broncos. No matter where he goes, Tannehill is unlikely to stake a claim as that team’s long-term answer at the position.

His relationship with Smith, then, makes Pittsburgh particularly appealing. In 2019, when Smith and Tannehill first teamed up in Tennessee, Tannehill led the NFL in yards per attempt, yards per completion and quarterback rating while earning the only Pro Bowl bid of his career. He competed 70% of his passes, threw 22 touchdowns against six interceptions and led Tennessee to the AFC championship game. Tannehill’s 2020 season was also impressive, as he piloted Tennessee to an 11-5 record while throwing 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His touchdown to interception ratio in those two seasons under Smith was 55:13, which stands in stark contrast to the 37:27 mark he amassed the past three years once Smith left for Atlanta. Reuniting with the coordinator who helped him play the best football of his career would probably be attractive.

Tannehill also seems like a solid mentor to Pickett. Reports from Tennessee suggest that Tannehill was supportive of rookie quarterback Will Levis, who became the starter when Tannehill went down mid-season with an ankle injury and played well enough for the Titans to keep him as the starter once Tannehill was healthy enough to return. That situation mirrors what happened in Pittsburgh between Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Head coach Mike Vrabel said Tannehill handled the de facto demotion as well as possible and that he was supportive and professional in helping Levis with his preparation. He’s a player who has been through his share of adversity — Tannehill was originally labeled a bust after an uninspiring start to his career in Miami before finding success under Smith in Tennessee — and could probably help Pickett deal with similar labels to which he’s been attached. Tannehill could also help Pickett adjust to Smith’s playbook. Having a veteran who isn’t there to take Pickett’s job, who went through similar struggles early in his career and who understands Smith’s system all make Tannehill attractive as a mentor.

If Pickett continues to struggle, Tannehill probably has enough gas left in the tank to keep the Steelers alive on offense. He isn’t likely to reclaim his Pro Bowl form of 2019, or even to summon a Joe Flacco-style renaissance, but his comfort level in Smith’s system and veteran savvy would provide a significant improvement over Mitchell Trubisky’s play as Pickett’s primary backup last season. Tannehill is no star but he’s competent. If Pickett falls on his face, competency will matter.

Cons

Tannehill won’t come free of cost, of course. The Steelers don’t have a ton of cap space to work with this off-season, and there are pressing needs on the offensive and defensive lines as well as at cornerback. The number Tannehill commands, or at which the market deems him worthy, is as likely to determine whether Pittsburgh pursues Tannehill as the factors mentioned above. The Steelers won’t break the bank for a 36-year-old backup, even at the sport’s most important position.

Signing Tannehill also means moving on from Rudolph. Rudolph’s solid play down the stretch likely earned him opportunities elsewhere, so it’s possible he’ll eliminate Pittsburgh’s dilemma by signing with another team. But if Rudolph is open to returning, Pittsburgh has to decide whether he’s the right veteran to compete with Pickett for the job.

This is tricky considering it’s hard to know if Rudolph’s stretch of success in December and January was the real thing. He certainly looked like a different quarterback than the one who foundered through a handful of starts in 2019 and 2020. Is that because Rudolph matured, learned from his mistakes and genuinely improved in the interim? Or, with little film on him for opponents to digest, and with the urgency that came with what may have been his final opportunity to play meaningful professional football, did the circumstances simply allow Rudolph to catch lightning in a bottle? The not knowing makes Pittsburgh’s decision on Rudolph complex. If Rudolph goes somewhere else and continues to play well, while Pickett and Tannehill falter, it will be a huge setback for the Steelers.

What’s the right move?

If the money is right, I’m all for Pittsburgh signing Tannehill. I like his connection to Smith, how he could use that familiarity to help Pickett and how it could pay off if the Steelers need Tannehill to play for an extended stretch of time. Moving on from Rudolph is a gamble, but if the Steelers are going to give Pickett another shot, which seems their intention, they have to provide him with the appropriate tools to succeed. A veteran backup who can both push and help groom him is a step in that direction, while retaining Rudolph, whose success earned him the support of a substantial portion of the fan base, sets the stage for drama and division. If Pickett flames out, the Steelers are in a tough spot with or without Rudolph. Better to invest in one quarterback than straddle the fence between two.

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