Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is working from behind the eight-ball when it comes to perception in his NFL career. The No. 5 overall pick of the 2019 draft has been vastly outplayed so far by superstar quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, who went No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the same draft class. Burrow and Herbert are already unquestionably two of the best quarterbacks in the game, while Tua has been a marginal starter at best.
Tua’s play hasn’t been great, but the situation around him may have been prohibitive. That should change this season for the first time. This offseason has been about building around Tua and giving the 24-year-old for the first time a fair chance to prove he can be a high-level player in the NFL.
PFF preaches all the time that you don’t need elite offensive line play to win in the NFL. It certainly helps, but the biggest gain comes from moving from awful to average, not from average to elite. Pressure matters, even if that pressure doesn’t always result in sacks. Simply moving a quarterback off his spot in the pocket causes around a 30-point drop in passer rating. The quicker the pressure comes, the bigger the effect.
Miami’s offensive line finished last season ranked dead last, but it wasn’t just bad for 2021 — this line was historically bad. They gave up 235 total pressures as a group, which has only been surpassed a few times over the last 15 years. And they did this despite running RPOs on 18.7% of their snaps and Tua having the third-fastest average time to throw (2.53 seconds). The Dolphins did an excellent job schematically of protecting the line, but it still hemorrhaged pressure at a greater rate than any other line in the league and gave up a league-leading volume of pressure.
This was a problem that could have been foreseen. Miami’s line was disastrous in 2019 before looking slightly better on paper in 2020, leading many Dolphins fans to believe it was on the right track. Deeper examination of the data and the PFF grades would have said the line was still a major problem, but they elected to place trust in the development of young players who had yet to show any kind of quality play.
Armstead is one of the best left tackles in the game, with two seasons of 90.0-plus PFF grades on his resume as well as three more above 80.0. The only concern he brings is an injury history, as he has never played 1,000 or more snaps in a single season. There are tackles who go through a decade-long career without ever playing fewer than 1,000 snaps in a season, so Miami may need to budget some missed time into their plans.
Connor Williams is a great example of how perception can be unfair to a player. A former first-round pick, Williams wasn’t able to follow in the footsteps of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin or Travis Frederick and turn that pedigree into perennial All-Pro level play for the Cowboys. But he settled into a groove as an above-average starting guard. Last season, he ranked 10th among all guards after finishing 30th in 2020.
Above-average guard play is a huge upgrade for Miami given their recent history. Robert Hunt was the one quality starter already on the line, so in two free agent moves Miami has gone from a disaster on the line to 60% of the unit being in capable hands. They'll have a competition to try and upgrade the other two spots.
This line won’t be among the league’s best this season, but it should be a lot closer to viability than it has been in recent years.
Hill is a transformative player who affects how a defense lines up and plays every snap. He may have the most potent combination of straight-line speed and short-area quickness in NFL history, which makes him a threat to score a touchdown on any given play if the defense doesn’t fully account for him.
Kansas City’s offense faced a massive increase in two-high coverage shells this past season and struggled to find a solid counter to those looks. But those coverages were meant to deal with the threat of Hill first and foremost. He has averaged over 2.0 yards per route run every season of his career despite such extra attention and focus from defenses. Last year’s first-round draft pick, Jaylen Waddle, also possesses elite speed and quickness — though not quite up to Hill’s level in either category — and Miami now gets to figure out how to deploy them both, along with the likes of Mike Gesicki, Preston Williams and Cedrick Wilson.
Tua hasn’t had anything like this caliber of receiving corps to work with before, and it presents a set of receivers that will be painting a far more Alabama-like picture when he is reading his progression in terms of separation.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense is a cheat code. It may be similar to other systems in the NFL, but nobody has been running it as uniquely as Shanahan. Now his former offensive coordinator is the head coach in Miami, in charge of replicating that magic for the Dolphins.
Under Shanahan, quarterbacks like Nick Mullens were able to post a career average yards per attempt figure of 7.7. That’s the same as Aaron Rodgers managed last season for the Packers on his way to an MVP award. Jimmy Garoppolo might be a walking injury report, but he has a career YPA of 8.4! Last season, only Joe Burrow averaged more than Garoppolo. Shanahan’s system is quarterback-friendly. It also has a history of coaxing career years out of offensive lineman, which won’t hurt Miami’s rebuild project there.
We have also seen players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle explode on the scene as some of the most dominant playmakers in the league within this offense. We don’t know how successful Mike McDaniel will be in implementing this system or evolving his own version of it for the Dolphins, but we do know that the system itself has everything required to create a dominant offense if the players within it are capable.
The Bottom Line
Tua Tagovailoa’s play thus far in the NFL has been lackluster at best. He has overall PFF grades of 65.4 and 68.3, averaging 6.6 yards per attempt in his career. Only Jared Goff has a lower big-time throw rate over that time than Tua’s 2.5%. By any measure, he has not shown he can be a franchise quarterback, but there is a strong argument that his situation was prohibitively bad and there was no chance for him to do so.
For the first time in his career, that shouldn’t be a valid argument. So the stage is set for Tua to show what he can do. Of course, that also puts the pressure firmly on his shoulders entering what is very much a make or break season.