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The case for and against the Steelers’ pursuit of QB Ryan Tannehill

Should the Steelers pursue Ryan Tannehill in free agency?

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

News broke earlier this week that the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to pursue impending free agent quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The news isn’t super surprising, as Tannehill and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith produced two successful seasons together back in 2019 and 2020.

Should the Steelers sign Ryan Tannehill, though? Here’s a look at the case for and against Pittsburgh’s pursuit of the soon-to-be free-agent quarterback.

The case against signing Ryan Tannehill

Can he be a mentor?

The Pittsburgh Steelers may link up with Ryan Tannehill to challenge and at worst mentor Kenny Pickett in 2024. Funny enough, just two years ago the Tennessee Titans drafted third-round quarterback Malik Willis, whom the Steelers were connected to by some draft analysts before the 2022 NFL Draft. What's interesting about that situation was Tannehill's comments about his potential role as a mentor to Willis.

The entire quote is important for context. It was suggested to Tannehill by a reporter in a media session, "Ultimately, probably, his goal is to take your job." Tannehill acknowledged as much before saying, "I don't think it's my job to mentor him, but if he learns from me along the way, then that’s a great thing.”

At the time, Tannehill was shredded in the national sports media for the comment. Was it his job to mentor Willis? Honestly, no it wasn't. The idea of it is nice, but you can't suggest to a competitive person, in a highly competitive sport, that it is their job to train their eventual replacement. At the time of this interview, though, Tannehill was the unquestionable starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans.

However, that is exactly what the Steelers would be asking him to do with Pickett — to come in to serve as a mentor. If he lost a "competition" to Pickett, could he handle being in a backup role?

Yes, he would be coming in to challenge Pickett, but are the Steelers ultimately looking to replace Pickett? I wouldn't personally think they are looking to do that, anybody who's hoping they will is going to be disappointed. That brings me back to the quote he gave back then — that he does not think it's his job to mentor him.

However, Tannehill changed his tune in 2023 with the rookie quarterback Will Levis.

Tannehill commenting on a practice drill said "I told him to get in there, it's his opportunity to take the lead and start owning the position.”

Will he come in with the right mindset? The Steelers have been in a similar situation before. Remember when the Steelers signed OLB Melvin Ingram to a one-year deal ahead of the 2021 season? It was a little different, as T.J. Watt was an established starter, but the point is that it's not always the easiest thing for a player who still believes they have some juice left to accept a backup role. If they don't come in with the right attitude, the situation can go sideways in a hurry.

Tannehill’s age and injury history

Tannehill is 35 years old and will turn 36 before the start of the season. If he were to win the competition against Pickett, that would leave him as one of the oldest starting quarterbacks in the NFL in 2024. Also, that wouldn't be ideal for the Steelers as far as the future of the quarterback position. It would certainly mean reinvesting in the position eventually with another first-round draft pick.

Tannehill has unfortunately suffered two ACL tears during his NFL career. Last season he suffered a grade-three high ankle sprain. The two ACL tears are concerning, and he's developed a bit of an “injury-prone” label. Also, recently he's become far less mobile than he was in the prime of his career. Dan Moore Jr. is a bit of a turnstile at left tackle if the Steelers are not able to find an alternative, that would also probably mean keeping Broderick Jones at right tackle where he had trouble at the close of the season. Unless the team upgrades from center Mason Cole there will continue to be an issue at the center position. That's not good for a quarterback losing mobility.

The case for signing Ryan Tannehill

Ryan Tannehill’s potential as a starting quarterback

The recent returns from Ryan Tannehill as a starter? Not great, Bob.

However, when compared right up against Pickett just looking at the 2022 and 2023 seasons, Tannehill was decidedly better than Pickett when it comes to scoring touchdowns, having combined for 55 passing touchdowns between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. If the Steelers are going to move towards a more physical style of offense, that will limit the possession opportunities, so when the Steelers have the ball they have to punch it in the endzone. The team won't be able to always do that on the ground; the quarterback will have to make plays with his arm.

That fact that Tannehill is familiar with Arthur Smith's offense gives him a leg-up on Pickett in a quarterback competition. Whether they'll admit it publicly or not, there are possibly some players on the Steelers team who have seen enough from Pickett and may not be happy if he reclaims the starting role on the field, which could leave the door open for Tannehill to not just act as camp competition — but give him a real shot to start.

Tannehill’s experience as a veteran

Tannehill has been an NFL quarterback for 11 seasons, most of that time being the Miami Dolphins or Tennessee Titans starting quarterback. There shouldn't be much that an opposing defensive coordinator can throw at him that he hasn't seen before. That kind of experience is valuable to the Steelers, whether he is a starter or relegated to a backup role behind Kenny Pickett.

Do you think the Pittsburgh Steelers should pursue Ryan Tannehill in free agency? Let us know what you think he has to offer (or why not) in the comments!