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Broncos and Dolphins are stuck in NFL limbo until they fix their quarterback situations

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Unsteady QB play has sunk their seasons. What’s next for both of these teams?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback showdown between the Dolphins and Broncos in Week 13 has taken on several different permutations. What once looked like a showdown between Trevor Siemian and Ryan Tannehill, or Paxton Lynch and Matt Moore, now looks like a matchup between Siemian — with a possible assist from Brock Osweiler — and Jay Cutler.

By the end of the season, as many as five of those passers could be looking for new homes.

The Dolphins and Broncos have been stuck in limbo thanks to unsteady quarterback situations that have sunk their 2017 seasons. Each has had to turn to emergency additions to shore up a position that’s been derailed by injury, incompetence, or both. For Miami, it meant luring Jay Cutler out of retirement to be the league’s 25th-most efficient passer. In Denver, it meant bringing Osweiler into the fold to complete the league’s tallest passing corps.

These stopgap measures haven’t worked. Through 11 games, the two teams sit in the NFL’s bottom third, their playoff hopes all but crushed. The winner will keep its fractured playoff hopes alive with duct tape and curse words. The loser will continue its trajectory to a top-10 pick.

This struggle can’t continue. Things fall apart; the (man behind the) center will not hold. Each franchise needs to fix its quarterback issues to even consider a return to postseason contention.

The Dolphins can’t rely on Ryan Tannehill — and could move on from their injured quarterback

Tannehill, when healthy, is an above-average quarterback. He’s the man who guided Miami to its first playoff appearance in seven years thanks to 2016’s 10-6 campaign. He’s also played only 13 games over the last two seasons due to knee injuries and will be 30 during the 2018 season. In a division where beating the Patriots is paramount to postseason success, he’s gone just 2-5 against New England in non-Week 17 affairs. He’s never played in a playoff game.

Those latter points could give the Dolphins reason to pause when addressing their quarterback depth chart next spring. Tannehill is on the team’s coffers for $60.3 million over the next three seasons, but releasing him before 2018 would clear all but $4.6 million from the salary cap. That’s a savings the team will have to consider, especially with players like Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning emerging as possible free agents this offseason — albeit similarly expensive ones.

Tannehill was the league’s fifth-highest paid quarterback in 2017. The rising tide of passer contracts drops him to 15th place in 2018. That’s pretty much in line with his performance from 2014-16, before a knee injury kept him from the field.

He’ll also have the added benefit of being the only quarterback on the 2017 roster with a deal for 2018. Moore and Cutler will both be free agents in January, and while Moore could return, Cutler seems destined to depart back to the announcer’s booth until another sweetheart deal comes along.

We’ve seen that kind of security backfire before, however. The 49ers entered this last offseason with zero quarterbacks on their roster after releasing a QB with similar raw numbers, Colin Kaepernick, and allowing Blaine Gabbert and Thad Lewis to leave as free agents.

San Francisco’s strategy has yet to pay off on the field, though its rebuild was always going to be an arduous one. And while the Niners had already hit rock bottom, the Dolphins occupy a spot in NFL limbo between contention and devastation. Releasing Tannehill will get them to the latter while saving money, but there’s no guarantee there’s anything a) cheaper or b) better on the horizon.

The Broncos’ quarterback situation remains a mess

Denver knew it was betting on a project when it selected Paxton Lynch late in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. The Memphis quarterback had great potential coming out of college and the mechanics to keep scouts engaged throughout the predraft process. While questions remained about the level of competition he faced at Memphis, great quarterbacks have come from less — as Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz is proving.

However, the second-year passer’s inability to stay healthy or take the reins in one of the league’s saddest quarterback races (non-Browns division) is not a good sign.

He’ll miss Sunday’s game thanks to an ankle sprain, but his latest turn at the top of the Denver depth chart wasn’t especially encouraging. In 18 dropbacks against the Raiders, he gained just 38 net yards (41 passing, 20 rushing, -23 on sacks) and tossed an interception for a 38.4 passer rating. 14 straight incompletions would have netted him a 39.4.

That makes him the worst quarterback of the three who have taken snaps for Denver, but he’s got the highest ceiling. His competition is Siemian, a former seventh-round pick whose play has dropped off from an unimpressive, but competent, 2016 and Osweiler, a man Cleveland paid $16 million to stay the hell out of its QB race.

Of the aforementioned trio, the developmental prospect Lynch is the only lock to remain with his 2017 team. Siemian’s inexpensive contract makes him a valuable backup, but his lack of dead cap money also makes him an expendable cut should the team decide to go for a larger reboot at quarterback. Osweiler is a free agent after the season and remains bad at football.

Lynch’s bum ankle will cost him valuable reps and live-game action in the end of a lost season. If he misses the next three games, he’ll forgo contests against the Dolphins, Jets, and Colts — three teams with little to look forward to except next year’s draft. Those would have been great opportunities to build confidence for a young passer.

Instead, if he makes it back to the field after four weeks, he’ll face a tough Washington team and a Chiefs club fighting for its playoff life. As a result, the Broncos could head into 2018 the same way they headed into 2016 and 2017 — with zero confidence in their quarterbacks.

So where could potential QB saviors come from for the Dolphins and Broncos?

Miami probably isn’t moving on from Tannehill, but the franchise is no doubt taking extra care surveying his bad knee after 2016’s problems played a role in erasing his 2017. Denver could turn the reins over to Lynch in a sink-or-swim 2018. These are both options, but it’s safe to say each side will be paying close attention to the available passers who crop up next spring.

There are two ways for either team to add value to its offense.

A) Through the draft

2018 was supposed to be a strong year for QB prospects to jump to the pros, but lackluster seasons from Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen have tampered expectations. Of course, 2017 was supposed to be a weak QB draft and three — Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes II, and Deshaun Watson — all went off the board before the 13th pick. Drafting an inexpensive franchise passer is the easiest way to build a contender and has thus raised the stakes for getting even flawed college prospects at the draft.

That’s bad news for these two teams, which currently project to the No. 4 (Denver) and No. 9 (Miami) picks. The Broncos won’t have a shot at the top quarterback in the draft with needy teams like the Browns and Giants ahead of them (so far). The Dolphins will be in even more trouble.

The cost of trading up, according to 2017’s returns, will be steep. The Bears, somewhat confusingly, gave up two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move from No. 3 to No. 2 in the pecking order to draft Trubisky. The Chiefs gave up two first-rounders and a third to move from No. 27 to No. 10 to grab Mahomes. The Texans paid what may end up being a bigger price to draft Watson, as the 2018 first-rounder they shipped north to Cleveland currently projects to be the No. 7 pick.

Even if one of these teams can land a top-three passer, there’s no guarantee he’ll produce anything better than what these teams have endured in 2017. For a team with a win-now defense like the Broncos — a unit that’s already beginning to crumble after giving up 92 combined points in losses to the Eagles and Patriots — that’s cold comfort. The Dolphins, more primed for a rebuild, are the more likely team to take this path but in worse position to execute it.

B) Through free agency

This year’s crop of available quarterbacks should be better than most, especially with Manning and the Giants headed toward a messy divorce. He’s not the only proven veteran who could be available. Kirk Cousins has no ties to Washington after Week 17. Minnesota will have to make a decision between free agents Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and Teddy Bridgewater.

Tyrod Taylor, a two-time Pro Bowler who has been a solidly average passer in Buffalo, appears to be headed toward his release. If Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t re-sign (or get franchise tagged) with the 49ers, he’ll be available. So will a rejuvenated Blaine Gabbert, whether you believe in him or not. And as tough as it may be to imagine him anywhere else, Drew Brees’ contract with the Saints ends this winter.

That’s a fair amount of talent on the market, and almost all of those names would be an upgrade for the Broncos’ and Dolphins’ current lineups. Denver may not have the plug-and-play offense that Peyton Manning piloted to new heights in a similar situation, but an experienced quarterback would be the difference between battling for an AFC West title and slumping to a top-five pick.

Miami can offer warm weather, no income tax, and the opportunity to throw to a receiving corps led by DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, and, assuming he’s re-signed, Jarvis Landry.

Those are two situations that would appeal to most free agents. In the Broncos’ case, the club can skew a little older in hopes of bringing in a game-winning mentor who could help develop and eventually turn the reins over to Lynch. For the Dolphins, the job could either be a total tear down or a high-priced backup situation for Tannehill.

There are plenty of branches on this decision tree, but only one thing is certain: 2017’s quarterback situations in Denver and Miami are untenable. For the Dolphins, the answer may be as simple as getting their starter healthy once more and surrounding him with insurance policies. For the Broncos, the solution is much more complicated.