- Transforming the Shanahan offense: Tua Tagovailoa sets himself apart from Jimmy Garoppolo with his willingness to throw downfield.
- Tua’s ascent: Tagovailoa currently leads NFL QBs in PFF passing grade and EPA per play.
- Cashing in: Tua can sign a contract extension after the season. He could be paid as a top QB in the NFL after his breakout season.
Estimated reading list: 7 minutes
Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t supposed to be this good.
The Miami Dolphins quarterback was a popular breakout candidate heading into the 2022 NFL season after Mike McDaniels was hired away from the San Francisco 49ers to bring in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and Tyreek Hill was acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs to provide another speedy playmaker alongside Jaylen Waddle.
The undersized but accurate former Alabama standout was expected to be better, sure. An NFC personnel executive even told PFF before the season that Tagovailoa could be a Jimmy Garoppolo-esque QB for the Dolphins.
Becoming Miami’s version of Jimmy G would have actually been a massive step forward for the 2020 fifth overall pick, who earned a 68.2 PFF grade from 2020 to 2021 while Garoppolo earned an 80.0 PFF grade, a Super Bowl appearance and two NFC Championship berths since joining Shanahan and the 49ers in 2017.
The football world — outside of Tua’s and the Dolphins’ most ardent supporters — clearly still wasn’t high enough on Tagovaioloa.
The Dolphins quarterback has taken a significantly larger step past the Garoppolos of the world, and his stats have put him into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
Tagovailoa currently ranks first among signal-callers in the following categories:
- PFF overall grade
- PFF passing grade
- Clean-pocket passing grade
- Passing grade without play action
- Passing grade on intermediate throws (10-19 yards downfield)
- Passing grade on quick passes (passes thrown in less than 2.5 seconds)
- Expected points added (EPA) per play
Garoppolo is a good quarterback. He’s fourth in EPA per play, and his 70.5 PFF grade ranks 14th among QBs. But in eight games apiece this season, Tagovailoa has completed 71% of his passes for 2,265 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions, while Garoppolo has a 66.7 completion percentage with 1,930 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
In fact, Tagovailoa ranks better in nearly every meaningful metric.
|Category||Tagovailoa||Tagovailoa rank||Garoppolo||Garoppolo rank|
|Big-time throw rate||5.0%||5th||4.8%||7th|
|Turnover-worthy play rate||3.6%||20th||2.9||9th|
|Adjusted completion %||80.1||2nd||75.0||19th|
|Time to throw||2.51||7th||2.50||6th|
|Uncatchable inaccurate rate||14.7%||4th||16.9%||9th|
|Passing grade under pressure||61.0||8th||42.1||22nd|
|Clean-pocket passing grade||93.5||1st||80.5||12th|
|Play-action passing grade||85.0||4th||67.7||23rd|
|Passing grade without play action||91.0||1st||69.3||14th|
|Deep passing grade||96.2||2nd||89.6||10th|
|Intermediate passing grade||95.1||1st||79.5||12th|
|QB-fault pressure rate||8.3%||8th||23.2%||30th|
|Passing grade less than 2.5 seconds||91.5||1st||73.4||11th|
|Passing grade over 2.5 seconds||83.8||2nd||61.6||19th|
|EPA per play||0.425||1st||0.231||4th|
Tagovailoa was compared to Garoppolo entering the 2022 season because he was going to play in a Shanahan coaching tree offense and both quarterbacks were viewed as having somewhat limited skillsets compared to some of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, such as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Nonetheless, Tagovailoa has transformed that same system Garoppolo is running, and while it certainly helps to have Hill and Waddle, the 49ers’ playmaking corps isn’t exactly limited with wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, tight end George Kittle and running backs Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell. The Dolphins have a distinct advantage with their top two wide receivers, but San Francisco has a much better tight end and was so loaded at running back that it traded Jeff Wilson to Miami.
So, what sets Tagovailoa apart?
“Willingness to throw the ball downfield, I think,” an AFC pro scout said. “And yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the guys he’s throwing to are dynamic. But Jimmy’s hesitancy to throw downfield is part of why the Niners went and got (Trey) Lance.”
Garoppolo, of course, is only starting because Lance fractured his right ankle in Week 2 of the 2022 season. And Garoppolo was only on the 49ers at the time because San Francisco couldn’t find a trade partner for him after the 2021 season due, in part, to a shoulder injury that Garoppolo was still recovering from. Lance’s career has gotten off to a rough start. However, it is true that the 49ers believe that if Lance can live up to their expectations, he could be better than Garoppolo or Tagovailoa. Nevertheless, we’re a long way from that point.
“I think it’s just playmakers,” an AFC analytics executive contended. “Samuel and Aiyuk are one of the top WR duos in the league and Hill and Waddle are still far better. This year, Tua is more willing to push the ball downfield but I think that just goes back to using the playmakers available.”
It’s definitely true that Tagovailoa has been more willing to throw deep this season than Garoppolo has historically. Tagovailoa’s deep-passing rate sits at 14.80% while Garoppolo’s has been at 8.68% since he was traded to the 49ers from the New England Patriots.
Tagovailoa has been remarkable when throwing deep this season. He’s completing 65.6% of his deep passes, and his adjusted completion rate (taking out drops) is 71.9%. Remove Tagovailoa’s numbers, and the NFL league average completion rate on deep passes is 36.1%, and the adjusted completion rate on deep passes is 39.4%.
Tagovailoa has six passing touchdowns and two interceptions on 32 deep throws this season. Garoppolo only has five completions on deep throws this season and zero interceptions — that alone can make up for the disparity in production between the two QBs.
“I think Tua is much better and more comfortable in the RPO game, which has been huge for Miami,” an NFC personnel executive said. “I think Tua is better at reading defenses and/or manipulating defenders with his eyes. Tua also looks more comfortable throwing to all parts of the field.”
Tagovailoa has the NFL’s third-highest passing grade using run-pass options (RPOs) this season. He’s 22-of-29 for 256 yards with two touchdowns. Garoppolo, meanwhile, ranks 20th and is just 7-of-9 for 41 yards when using RPOs.
Tagovailoa is also PFF’s second-highest-rated passer he forced beyond his first read. He’s tied with Mahomes for the highest passing grade on third-or fourth-and-long with a 93.5 mark. No quarterback in the NFL has a higher grade than a 72.3 passing grade in those situations. Garoppolo is fifth with a 70.0 mark.
As far as pure skill sets go, PFF’s Seth Galina gave Tagovailoa the advantage in eye manipulation, throwing into windows with anticipation, willingness to take chances downfield and accuracy. Garoppolo has a quicker release and better velocity.
PFF’s Tej Seth created an accuracy rate over expected metric that takes accuracy rate and adjusts for the difficulty of the throw.
Tagovailoa’s expected accuracy rate is 67.7% while his actual accuracy rate is 70.3%. So, his accuracy rate over expected is +2.6%, which is ninth in the NFL. Garoppolo’s expected accuracy rate is 60.1% while his actual accuracy rate is 61.5%. So, his accuracy rate over expected is +1.4%, which is 14th in the NFL.
Tagovailoa’s expected accuracy rate is higher because his receivers have generated more open targets than Garoppolo’s, but he’s still been more accurate.
Prior to the 2022 NFL season, I was talking to a league source about how many quarterback contracts could soon exceed Mahomes’ deal worth $45 million. Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson had signed contracts worth more prior to the conversation, and Russell Wilson’s deal worth $49 million per year came soon afterward. That league source mentioned that Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and possibly Tagovailoa could be next.
It seemed more than a little improbable at the time. Now, however, Tagovailoa is outplaying Rodgers, Wilson and Murray. Four years ago, Garoppolo signed a deal worth $27.5 million per year, then the largest average per year (APY) in the NFL. Before reducing his deal to stay in San Francisco this offseason, Garoppolo played out the length of that deal. Tagovailoa might not set a new APY record when he signs an extension — he’s eligible after this season — but it no longer seems unlikely that he could ink a deal among the highest-paid in the NFL.