This should calm a lot of people down....
The Miami Dolphins, as a practical matter, bought low on quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a four-year contract extension and have protected the upside on the prospect while retaining substantial flexibility should he not develop. In short, they own him low the next three seasons with the option to buy high the following three seasons should they see fit.
That's the only true way to evaluate this extension.
The macro view: Tannehill signed a deal worth a max of $96M over six seasons, and he could get as much as $77M in new money over the four additional years added to his contract. But he'll have to earn it, and keep earning it, with his performance. If he's a middling quarterback, the Dolphins could walk away, after two years, or then after three years, or again after any other season beyond. If he turns out to be who they drafted him to be, when he was selected eighth overall in 2012, then he'll be rewarded handsomely, making $19M a year on the back end of this deal. But as things stand today, for a promising quarterback but one who is still working through limitations, that's a significant if.
Tannehill already was set to make $18.27M the next two years -- the final season of his rookie contract (2015) and a fifth-year option for 2016 that the Dolphins previously executed (that $16.2M option was guaranteed for injury only at this time). His new contract calls for $21.5M fully guaranteed at the time of signing (payable over those same two years), according to sources, so that is basically taking a two-year total that was currently only guaranteed for injury only and now making ifully guaranteed and sweetening the pot a little on the front end. The deal calls for $45M in total injury guarantees, but that is not a protection should he be released because of production or cap purposes before then.
By March of 2016 -- early in the 2016 league year -- Tannehill would have another $3.5M in guaranteed money triggered for the following season. As of today Miami already had his rights through 2016 if they want him (via the 2015 base and the 2016 fifth-year option) so they aren't actually chipping away at additional years until the third year of this deal, and even then they are buying him in 2017 dollars at well below what the 2015 exclusive rights franchise tag was, much less what the 2017 QB franchise tag will be.
The Dolphins would pay him $14.475M for the 2017 season -- which will be well, well below what the exclusive franchise tag figure would be by that time (possibly above of $25M by then pending other big extensions to top passers), and that season (2017, is the first year of Tannnehill's free-agency the team has now secured the right to. At his point he will have earned $39.5M over three years -- an average of $13.15M a season. Good money, to be sure, but we're talking Sam Bradford money. The Dolphins aren't breaking the bank here. They are mitigating risk.
The big money could come in the form of the final three years -- backloaded -- where Tannehill could earn $57M total between 2018-2020, or an average of $19M per. But he still will have to earn it. This is essentially a deal that purchased one additional year of Tannehill's service time than what Miami already had the rights to, and then is a separate contract on the back end where, following 2017, the Dolphins could go year to year with him depending on his progress. In that regard, it's much, much, much more like an Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick deal, than anything Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger signed the past few years.
So you can understand why both sides did it. But the actual cash commitment to Tannehill, in today's dollars, is insignificant compared to what it would have been like the next two years. And in return they can control his rights for up to an additional four years, at the team's discretion. It's another way to continue to create an upper-middle class of NFL quarterbacks, if you will. But in terms of the next wave of quarterbacks awaiting mega-deals, be it veterans like Eli Manning and Philip Rivers or youngsters like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, this contract won't move the needle at all or have any real ramifications on the kinds of deals those men are seeking.
Miami protects precious cap space -- at a premium given the big spending ways of new football boss Mike Tannenbaum -- and greatly protects its interests moving forward in reasonable 2015 dollars without running the risk of having to pay our exorbitant 2017 dollars for Tannehill should he have played out his 2016 option in outstanding form and had a massive franchise tag fee to aid his negotiating cause. In what has been a strong offseason for the Dolphins, the best of any in recent memory, this could end up being the best move of all, and it's decidedly low risk.
Zero risk, steal of a deal.
If he works out like we hope, and makes 19 mil a year, in 2018, when Luck is makin like 30 million, life will be good.
If he doesn't continue improving, we cut ties and move on. Really simple.