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How Tua Tagovailoa can become an MVP candidate

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa faced high expectations entering his rookie season. After falling short, the narrative surrounding the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft quickly shifted and many started writing him off.

In reality, Tagovailoa played well under the circumstances. He was recovering from hip surgery, didn’t have the benefit of playing in preseason games and was put in a bad situation. Despite it all, he still showed flashes as a rookie.

A Miami Herald analysis found Tagovailoa ranked 10th in passer rating among 26 rookie quarterbacks since 2000 to start at least six games for their team. 

There are still miles of untapped potential for Tagovailoa going into his second year. Coming off a strong summer in training camp and preseason, there are even more reasons for optimism. Let’s examine the specific areas he could improve to become an MVP-caliber quarterback.

Better accuracy leads to big plays

One of Tagovailoa’s greatest strengths entering the NFL Draft was his accuracy and touch on throws. Across his final two seasons at Alabama, he demonstrated surgeon-like precision on his throws.

  • Tua Tagovailoa college stats (2019-’20): 6,806 passing yards, 76-9 TD-INT ratio, 70.% completion rate

But in his first NFL season, we didn’t see that same accuracy.

While Tagovailoa officially completed 54.1% of his pass attempts last season, just 54.5% were classified as “accurate” by Pro Football Focus. For comparison, that’s 3.7% lower than the average mark for an NFL quarterback.

The data further shows exactly where his throws missed.

  • Tua Tagovailoa stats (2021): 10.1% of passes were off-target, 4.9% uncatchable pass rate

Miami recognized that putting better weapons around their franchise quarterback will help. But if Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller are going to make an impact, Tagovailoa needs to give them a chance to make plays.

Playmakers make a difference in quarterback play. According to Sports Info Solutions, Aaron Rodgers‘ receivers led the NFL in yards after the catch (2,305). So, if Tagovailoa makes accurate throws, Waddle and Fuller will reward him.

Efficiency and attacking deep

Tua Tagovailoa
NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills

Tagovailoa may not need to throw 50-yard bombs five times a game, but he needs to be far more efficient than we saw in 2020.

On throws 20-plus yards downfield, Tagovailoa ranked 27th in Sports Info Solutions’ IQR (69) after completing just 10-of-26 attempts. 

Much of the discussion surrounding Tagovailoa’s arm centered on the lack of downfield throws. In reality, efficiency is a far more important area to fix than volume. To put his struggles in perspective, according to PFF, Tagovailoa posted a 44.8% adjusted completion rate on deep throws. But he ran into far more trouble in another area.

Tagovailoa struggled on intermedia throws (10-19 yards downfield), posting the third-lost adjust completion rate (54%) in that range. For comparison, Nick Foles and Dwayne Haskins were the only quarterbacks worse.

Just as alarming, he was the only qualified quarterback without being credited for a big-time throw on intermediate attempts. Improving in this area is pivotal for him to take a step forward.

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Get the most out of rushes and scrambles

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Chicago Bears
Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

As the NFL evolves, quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs are becoming increasingly valuable. While that doesn’t mean Tagovailoa needs to be Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, using athleticism to avoid pressure and to extend plays is essential.

Just look at Patrick Mahomes during his MVP season. For all of the incredible plays he made with his arm, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback also picked up 18 rushing first downs. Meanwhile, Rodgers had 14 this past season.

Tagovailoa has already proven he can be efficient with his legs when he used them last season. He converted 36% of his rushing attempts into first downs, which was better than Mahomes’s 30% conversion rate in 2018. 

While we focused on efficiency above, this is an area where volume should be the focus for Tagovailoa.

Just 16 of his 36 rushing attempts last season were undesigned scrambles. When the Dolphins did rush with him on purpose, Tagovailoa proved to be efficient, especially in short-yardage situations. 

The Dolphins’ most successful play call on fourth-and-short last season was a Tagovailoa keeper, where he converted all three of his attempts into first downs, per Sharp Football Stats.

It shows he can convert in those situations. If the team puts him in more positions to turn those carries into touchdowns by allowing him to run the ball in the red zone more often, he’ll be able to tack on some running touchdowns and strengthen his MVP case.

Tua Tagovailos must improve under pressure

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A quarterback’s ability to thrive under pressure plays an important role in whether or not they are successful. Looking at recent MVPs, this is one area where they stand out from their peers.

Rodgers, for example, was the fifth-highest graded passer under pressure last season, per PFF. He threw eight touchdowns and only one interception. During Mahomes’s MVP season in 2018, he was the highest-graded quarterback under pressure. 

This is an area where Tagovailoa struggled mightily. 

He posted the sixth-lowest passing grade under pressure last season. That’s not the direct result of a poor supporting cast, as demonstrated by Ryan Fitzpatrick boasting the third-highest mark under pressure. 

Both quarterbacks made roughly the same number of attempts under pressure last season. However, Fitzpatrick hit four big time throws while being pressured, and Tagovailoa made just one. 

I’d say Tagovailoa has already made positive strides in the right direction thus far. Through two preseason games, he’s navigated pressure, deftly stepping up into clean spaces to deliver a pass downfield or taking the ckechdown when its his best option. While it’s only preseason, thiss a promising sign he may be more comfortable heading into his second year.