The Miami Dolphins are already faced with a tough decision in deciding whether or not to commit to Tua Tagovailoa as the long-term franchise quarterback.
Thanks to a surprising 10-6 season, a top-three draft pick, loads of cap space and a rebuild that’s way ahead of schedule, it seems like the championship window in Miami is open right now. Is Tagovailoa the right man to lead the Dolphins through this exciting new era, or should they seek out an upgrade at the most important position on the field to maximize their immediate Super Bowl chances?
Let’s examine the case for, and against, Miami going all in on Tua Time.
Why Miami Dolphins should stick with to Tua Tagovailoa
This was the team’s plan from the beginning
Due to the medical red flags and Tagovailoa going to a much more adverse situation in terms of relative skill position talent and pass protection compared to his paradise at Alabama, it was always Miami’s hope to essentially redshirt the rookie in 2020.
Ryan Fitzpatrick had worked with new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey before, so that familiarity factor gave the veteran signal-caller an even greater advantage to rise to No. 1 on the depth chart. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores knew he had a special defense on his hands, which played even more into Fitzpatrick’s favor.
Ideally, Tagovailoa would get his feet wet in Year 1 and be ready to take the reins as an NFL sophomore. Although Fitzpatrick played respectably and won two straight off a 1-3 start, Miami gave Tagovailoa his first start in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams’ No. 1 defense. Not the easiest spot to be thrown in the fire, yet the Dolphins kept things very simple and vanilla on offense en route to a 28-17 win.
Flores was incredibly deft at handling the quarterback situation. Fitzpatrick understood his time as starter was coming to an end, while Tagovailoa knew he wasn’t quite ready for the pro game just yet.
The Dolphins probably didn’t envision Tagovailoa getting benched multiple times in favor of Fitzpatrick, who led a magical comeback in Week 16 to keep Miami’s playoff hopes alive. Nevertheless, the team finished 10-6, and Tagovailoa got plenty of experience under his belt to be the man in 2021. Sounds like things are ahead of schedule in Miami based on the framework established prior to the season.
Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are outliers, not the norm
Timing and where you land in the draft are two vital factors in evaluating quarterbacks. Not all grades are equal, and Burrow, going No. 1 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals, had probably the toughest task of all the top prospects. Burrow went to a notoriously stingy organization with an unproven coach, a roster mostly barren of talent with disgruntled veterans and had a horrendous offensive line.
In spite of all that, before suffering a brutal knee injury later in the season, Burrow balled out as a rookie, averaging 269 yards through the air per game despite being in obvious passing situations most of the time. He looks every bit the part of a superstar as long as he stays healthy.
Meanwhile, Herbert was widely viewed as a reach by the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 7 overall, two slots after Tagovailoa. It turns out, the Oregon offense held Herbert back, as he unleashed a magnificent maiden pro campaign in throwing for 4,336 yards with a record 31 touchdown passes and a 98.3 passer rating. Herbert did have the benefit of multiple playmakers flanking him, including Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry and even Jalen Guyton showed out well.
Who did Tagovailoa have to turn to when he aired it out? Young tight end Mike Gesicki has serious talent and athletic ability, yet he’s not a household name. The same is true for No. 1 receiver DeVante Parker. By the end of the year, three rookies were starting on the offensive line, too: Austin Jackson, Solomon Kindley and Robert Hunt.
Let’s also bear in mind that Tagovailoa was operating an offense called by a coordinator who’d been three years retired before returning to maintain his system clearly built to maximize Fitzpatrick’s strengths. Now that Gailey has resigned, shouldn’t the Dolphins find someone who’s high on Tua, will build around him and take pressure off the youthful offensive line?
Tua is the best long-term QB hope since Dan Marino
The Fins have only taken a swing at a quarterback in the first round once before Tagovailoa since Marino retired. They failed to develop Ryan Tannehill, who’s enjoying a career renaissance in Tennessee, and Miami is still without a franchise passer.
Tagovailoa is the highest pick at the position in the post-Marino era. The deck was completely stacked against him coming into 2020, considering he was coming off a hip injury that was career-threatening and generally had lots of injury issues while at Alabama.
But what did Tagovailoa do? He executed the scheme that was asked of him, made several dynamic plays with his legs, and posted a 6-3 record as a starter.
The numbers weren’t spectacular, but even with three interceptions in Week 17’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa still finished with 11 touchdowns to just five picks on the season, with an 87.1 passer rating and 64.1% completion rate. Hardly grounds for immediate termination, and it’d go against the stable culture Flores is trying to bring over from New England to call it quits on Tagovailoa after just nine starts.
With pinpoint accuracy, enough arm talent to make all the requisite NFL throws and the resilience to play at a relatively high level as a first-year pro despite the constant threat of being benched, it’s evident Tagovailoa has the competitive and tangible traits to be an NFL starting quarterback. While his ceiling is yet to be determined, it’s far too early to bail on the 22-year-old, especially with ample cap space, premium draft assets and young o-linemen still developing to all help the cause.
Why Miami Dolphins need to bail Tua Tagovailoa
When will they draft this high again?
Because of a trade with the Texans for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and a horrendous year for Houston, the Dolphins are picking No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. With that comes the inevitable temptation to say, “Well, Tua didn’t pop right away, so let’s see if we can find someone better.”
It’d make some sense, and it’s not unprecedented. Tagovailoa looked a lot better than Josh Rosen did with the Arizona Cardinals, but the latter was still a top-10 pick. Instead of sticking with Rosen following a lost season, Arizona made the bold move to select Kyler Murray No. 1 overall, and traded Rosen to, of all teams, the Dolphins.
Instead of giving Rosen a chance to compete with Fitzpatrick for a second year, Miami went with Tagovailoa and eventually parted ways with Rosen this past September.
Even in assessing the quarterbacks coming out to the pros, it appears BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields have more dual-threat upside and perhaps a higher ceiling than Tagovailoa. If the Dolphins are wrong about their current QB of the future, they won’t be this high up in the draft for a long time without sacrificing some serious assets. Are they willing to take the risk that Tua is the guy?
It’s a real dilemma, and honestly, even North Dakota State’s Trey Lance seems like a more physically gifted prospect with more potential than Tagovailoa after witnessing the 2020 season.
Tua couldn’t convincingly beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick
We’ve talked about all the factors stacked against Tagovailoa as a rookie, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with no real offseason, an abbreviated training camp and no preseason to get acclimated to the NFL.
Now to play devil’s advocate to that: Burrow and Herbert did it. If Tagovailoa was really a special quarterback, wouldn’t he have been able to overcome that adversity to play at a high level?
Yes, Tagovailoa had to weather some storms in Miami with the aforementioned trips to the bench and stretches of poor play and hard on-field lessons. All of those were more or less self-inflicted. The narrative around Burrow was how much he did with such little means. Herbert maximized all the talent around him, and it took a fluke injury to Tyrod Taylor before he got a spot start against the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.
Tagovailoa didn’t run away with his opportunity like Herbert did when he got the surprise nod over Fitzpatrick for Week 8 and beyond. That fact alone has to be at least somewhat of a concern for the Dolphins leadership, and it certainly was for multiple anonymous players who spoke to the Miami Herald‘s Armando Salguero about Tagovailoa’s outlook — and inspired this column in the first place!
“We always think next man up no matter what, but I saw Tua as the next man up because Fitz was better.” said one player, per Salguero. Another remarked, alluding to Tagovailoa’s inferiority to players like Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen in the conference, “Those are the boys we got to beat, right? It looks right now like that’s going to be a big challenge.”
Thankfully, nothing really ugly surfaced during the season or divided the locker room, yet the players’ evaluations and clear, collective belief Fitzpatrick was easily the superior quarterback, and that Tagovailoa didn’t show anything special during training camp, are factors that paint a picture to suggest Tua’s best may not be good enough in the NFL.
Miami has cap room for Deshaun Watson or another established QB
The way the Dolphins are going on defense, they really are a quarterback away from being built for real contention in the AFC. If they don’t replace Tagovailoa with the third overall pick, they have the cap space to go after a veteran upgrade through either a trade or in free agency if a starter is cut loose.
Miami will never have more leverage than it has now. There’s also the rumor that Texans superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson would welcome a trade to the Dolphins in particular. The two teams obviously have done deals before, and the Fins shouldn’t hesitate for a second if the chance to land Watson for the No. 3 overall pick, Tagovailoa and any other assets presents itself.
Also worthy of consideration are other veterans who may well become available. As the Dolphins continue to build out their offense through free agency and the draft, they could envision someone more consistent than Fitzpatrick starting under center as giving them an immediate shot at a Super Bowl, whereas Tagovailoa would need to take a huge leap in Year 2 for that to happen.
Who else is on the market? Well, the Detroit Lions are searching for a new coach and general manager, meaning Matthew Stafford could easily be on the way out of town. Whether he’s released or traded, Miami has the means to go get him.
Final verdict: Miami Dolphins stick with Tua Tagovailoa
It’s not the decision of yours truly, or what Miami probably should do, but cooler heads are likely to prevail and the Dolphins won’t admit defeat on Tagovailoa this early.
The possibility exists that a new play-caller doesn’t keep the training wheels on Tagovailoa, the front office surrounds him with better weapons, the running game improves and Miami’s offense erupts in 2021 and beyond. Another year of experience is also bound to help the young big men in the trenches protecting Tagovailoa.
Remember at Alabama that Tagovailoa came off the bench in the national championship game as a true freshman and was throwing downfield dimes all over the field against Georgia, and completing the winning touchdown pass in overtime. Tua had to deal with riding the pine off and on throughout 2020, yet still emerged with enough promise to suggest he can be an above-average starting quarterback in the NFL.
Maybe Tagovailoa won’t be a top-10 QB in the next couple years, if ever, but the way the Dolphins are building their team, they just need a calm, competent, confident game manager who makes good decisions and makes enough plays to win. Tagovailoa has, for the most part, accomplished that in his nine starts to date, and only figures to improve from here.