Tagovailoa has a strong and steady relationship with a head coach who believes in him, an offense that suits him, running backs who can threaten the defense and open up the passing game, wide receivers who can make plays after the catch and, perhaps most importantly, an offensive line that can protect him.
The Alabama product lacked some of that last season before former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel was hired as head coach and the Dolphins signed running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Connor Williams and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and traded for All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill. And that’s why, from the quarterback’s own circle to people around the league, Tagovailoa is viewed as one of this NFL season’s biggest breakout candidates.
Sometimes, offseason changes can be hard to quantify. Not in this case.
• Armstead ranks third among left tackles with a 90.0 grade over the past four seasons and has averaged .22 PFF WAR per season in that timespan. Liam Eichenberg, who started most of last season at left tackle for the Dolphins and is expected to move to left guard in 2022, generated -.14 WAR in 2021.
• Williams ranks 12th among guards with a 74.6 grade over the past two seasons but is expected to play center this season. He generated .26 PFF WAR in 2021. The Dolphins’ centers were responsible for -.15 WAR last season.
• Hill ranks seventh among wide receivers with a 91.5 grade over his past four seasons. His PFF WAR was .48 last season. He’s replacing DeVante Parker, who posted a .17 WAR mark in 2021.
Now, Tagovailoa is coming off an excellent preseason in which he earned an 88.8 grade while going 12-of-15 for 179 yards with a touchdown and no turnover-worthy plays.
“The system fits him and will play to his strengths,” an NFC personnel executive told PFF. “They upgraded their offensive line and the playmakers around him.”
“What they're doing with Tua is a lot of things that he did in college, which was interesting,” Spielman told PFF. “He's basically trying to make quick decisions, get the ball out of his hands, get the ball into the playmakers' hands and let them go do their deal. That's why they get paid to make plays. So I think Tua is going to have a potential breakout year.”
Spielman went on to say he saw the Dolphins had eliminated Tagovailoa “just dropping back in a pocket and trying to go through progression read 1, 2 and 3.”
“It was almost like he was a point guard on the basketball team,” Spielman said. “He was doing the RPOs and then he's dishing the ball out. … He has the playmakers at running back, receiver and tight end to get the ball out, and it looks like they're really honed in on him not having to sit there and go through a bunch of reads and progressions. This is a play, let's run this, get the ball out, get it into playmakers' hands. Let's go.”
Tagovailoa was asked Wednesday what excites him most about playing in an offense that caters to his strengths. The quarterback pivoted to talk about the pieces Miami put around him this offseason, which makes sense. The system would be ineffective without players who can create explosive plays after the catch.
“I think I’m most excited with the playmakers we have,” Tagovailoa told reporters. “You check the ball down, you never know what you’re going to get. And then now you can take the top off with guys like Tyreek.
“(Hill and Waddle) are going to give other guys opportunities to get open for us and make big plays for us.”
When talking about the Dolphins starting quarterback, it always comes back to how Tagovailoa was regarded as far back as the 2019 NFL season, when the “Tank for Tua” campaign began. He was viewed as the top prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft before his final college season at Alabama ended early due to a serious hip injury that continued to affect his play as a rookie. He wound up being selected fifth overall by the Dolphins — four picks after the Cincinnati Bengals took Joe Burrow first overall and one pick before the Los Angeles Chargers selected Justin Herbert No. 6 overall. Tagovailoa, up to this point, has not been in the same stratosphere as the other top signal-callers in his draft class.
“Personally, I think Tua is a little better than most people think or he gets credit for,” the NFC personnel executive said. “Or maybe the proper wording is I don’t think he’s as bad as the narrative on him seems to be. I think he gets knocked for being so hyped up coming out — which I thought he was very much overhyped studying him — and also he’s well behind both Burrow and Herbert from the same draft class, but none of that’s his fault. Honestly, I see him as very similar to (Jimmy) Garoppolo and think he can be that type of QB for Miami.”
That might seem like faint praise, but Garoppolo led the 49ers to a Super Bowl and NFC Championship Game in the system McDaniel will run in Miami. Garoppolo has earned an 80.0 PFF grade since joining the 49ers. Tagovailoa has a 68.2 PFF grade since being drafted in 2020.
“I definitely think Tua's expectations should be higher with a better supporting cast and a scheme that prioritizes more short/quick game passing and RPOs,” an NFC analytics executive told PFF. “Having Tyreek Hill as a constant deep threat really changes how defenses scheme up coverage, and that should open things up underneath for Tua to dink and dunk. He just has to prove that he can throw those deep balls well enough to make the defense feel threatened.”
Tagovailoa was more effective throwing longer passes this preseason, going 6-of-8 for 124 yards with a touchdown on intermediate and deep throws (10-yards plus), but people around the NFL want to see that translate to the regular season. That was not a strength of his game in 2021, when he went 64-of-127 for 1,291 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 69.6 passing grade on 10-plus yard throws. But he also didn’t have one of the NFL’s best field-stretchers in Hill.
The Dolphins’ offense also should be much more effective on the ground this season in McDaniel’s system following offensive line upgrades and the addition of more speed at running back. The 49ers ranked 12th last season in EPA per running play. The Dolphins were dead last.
“The key for them will be to get the run game going,” an AFC pro scout told PFF. “Everything in that offense is tied to the run action. They will be really hard to contain if they run it well. If Tua has to drop back and win them games from the pocket … might be a long season.”
That AFC pro scout believed handling pressure was one of Tagovailoa’s biggest weaknesses in 2021, but as PFF’s Sam Monson noted earlier this week, Miami’s offensive line was also historically bad last season, allowing 235 total pressures despite quarterbacks getting the ball out, on average, in 2.53 seconds, which was the third-fastest in league. Tagovailoa recorded a 35.1 grade (34th out of 40 qualified quarterbacks) while under pressure last season, completing 50.9% of his passes for 720 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“(Pressure) diminishes both his accuracy and decision making,” the AFC pro scout said. “He also really struggles when he can't step into throws. Essentially, if things aren't perfect he can't do anything to rescue the play. It's why you'll see them move the pocket a lot this year, buying him both time and space to operate.”
A better offensive line and improved quick passing game should also help in that regard.
It’s hard to talk about Tagovailoa’s 2022 season without already thinking ahead to the upcoming offseason. Quarterback contracts are exploding, and Burrow and Herbert are in line to sign deals that meet or exceed $50 million APY next year.
“Should be interesting to see what bar Miami compares him to after the season and how good their offense has to be for them to commit to Tua as the long-term guy,” the NFC analytics executive told PFF.
Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson all signed deals with an APY that exceeds the 10-year, $450 million contract Patrick Mahomes signed two years ago. Derek Carr received over $40 million per year, and Kirk Cousins signed a one-year extension worth $35 million.
“Their bar needs to be high,” the analytics exec said.
Complicating matters, the Dolphins once had two first-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, but their own selection was forfeited after the NFL found the organization tampered with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and then-New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, hampering their ability to trade up. The Dolphins are still left with the San Francisco 49ers’ first-round pick in next year’s draft, which is expected to be a much stronger quarterback class than this year’s.
Spielman noted that the Dolphins and Eagles both are in similar positions, having to make decisions after the season whether or not to sign Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, respectively, to long-term deals.
“(The 2023 QB class) is going to put them in decision-making mode,” Spielman said. “'Are we going to commit franchise-type money to this quarterback or are we just going to go out and get one of these young ones that are coming out in the draft?' Neither of them would make a commitment. ‘We evaluate everything every year.’ Typical GM answer that I used to give.”
And that’s the way Tagovailoa and his camp plan to head into the season, as well: get through the year and see where things stand after the season concludes. And if he breaks out, as people around the NFL believe he will, then it might not matter that Miami lost a first-round pick and their ability to maneuver around the 2023 NFL Draft.