After a disappointing end to the season, there are arguably more questions than answers about Tua Tagovailoa. The rookie signal-caller out of Alabama has had a roller coaster year, from wins in his first three starts and six of his nine total starts—including 16 Total Points Earned out-dueling Kyler Murray in Week 9 vs Arizona—to two late-game benchings and finishing the season with -13 Total Points Earned over the final two weeks of the season. Dan Pizzuta wrote in great detail about what Tagovailoa showed throughout the 2020 season.
Tua’s turbulent year resulted in 26 Total Points Earned over his nine starts, and when that is compared to strong rookie seasons by Justin Herbert (116 Points Earned in 15 starts) or Joe Burrow (50 in 10), it’s easy to see why some observers have questioned whether or not he is the long-term answer for Miami.
Combine that with the fact that Miami took advantage of Bill O’Brien’s interesting stint as GM of the Texans by trading for a package that includes what is now the third overall pick in the 2021 Draft (side note: there is a strong argument that the Laremy Tunsil trade was actually worse than the DeAndre Hopkins trade, but I digress…), and some have proposed that the Dolphins should draft a QB in that slot. Let’s examine some of the strongest contextual arguments for and against doing that before turning our attention back to Tagovailoa.
The Case For Drafting a QB
The thinking is not so much that Tagovailoa needs to be discarded, but that given the importance of the quarterback position and the cost-controlled nature of rookie contracts, the Dolphins would be better served to bring in competition to increase the odds that at least one of the two players grows into the team’s long-term starter. This way, Miami would give itself a better chance to avoid repeating the mistakes that the Jaguars and Bears made with Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky, respectively.
The positives of doing this sort of move are multiple. For one, the quarterback is much more important than any other position on the field, no matter how you look at it. We like to look at things in terms of Total Points, which approximates how many points on the scoreboard each player was worth to their team. By this system, Xavien Howard was the most valuable non-quarterback in the league with 67 Points Earned in 2020, but there were 17 QBs who surpassed that threshold. Sports Info Solutions’ WAR metric, which is reserved for NFL team client use, tells a similar story about QB value.
Moreover, by drafting a quarterback at No. 3 overall the Dolphins would have two top-five pick quarterbacks under team control at below market value for at least the next four years, with the ability to use franchise tags beyond that. If one becomes their inexpensive starter and the other their inexpensive backup, Miami can afford to spend extra to beef up other positions on the roster (side note: they have already done this at cornerback).
Alternatively, the Dolphins could look to trade one of the two quarterbacks once they are set on their guy, and they should be aware of the type of value that they can expect to receive because they just experienced this. When Arizona dumped Josh Rosen for Kyler Murray, the Dolphins gave up the 62nd overall pick (end of the second round) to kick the tires on Rosen. At that time, Rosen still had asset value because of his perceived upside and controlled cost. Going forward, it’s reasonable to expect that if Miami looks to trade a Top 10 pick at QB a year from now that they could recoup at least a second-day pick in return.
The Case Against Drafting a QB
As strong as the case is for drafting a quarterback at No. 3 is, the arguments against it are straightforward and strong. For one, there is an old adage that “if you have two quarterbacks you have none,” but that is usually in reference to playing a two-QB system, not investing draft capital. Still, while I’m not moved by arguments in favor of coddling quarterbacks, the limitations on practice time in the modern NFL make trying to develop two quarterbacks at once extremely difficult.
You and I may point to Jimmy Johnson using a supplemental first-round pick to draft Steve Walsh months after taking Troy Aikman at No. 1 overall in 1989 as proof that having two young quarterbacks doesn’t mean that both of their developments will be stunted, but (1) in-season and off-season practice time is a fraction of what it was back in the day before free agency existed, and (2) if Brian Flores feels conviction that this doesn’t fit into his plan for how he can develop quarterbacks, you have fun trying to persuade him of that one because this is the sort of decision that I don’t believe should be forced upon a head coach from upstairs.
Aside from logistical concerns about development, the most obvious case against drafting a quarterback is an economic one. The opportunity cost of drafting a QB at No. 3 would mean that the Dolphins wouldn’t have the opportunity to either draft another player in that slot or trade down for more assets. Some candidates that Tagovailoa probably wouldn’t mind having around include his former Alabama teammate and Heisman-winning WR, DeVonta Smith, and LSU’s best receiver from their 2019 National Title season, Ja’Marr Chase (yes, he was better than Justin Jefferson that year). The Dolphins are in dire need of a true number one receiver to try to help transform the position group the way that Stefon Diggs did for the Bills, as Pizzuta concluded in his Tuanalysis™. Regardless of what position(s) they would address, drafting a QB would preclude this.
Tale of the (Most Recent) Tape
Ultimately, unless there is an absolutist view from within the organization, the Dolphins’ decision about what to do with the No. 3 pick will somewhat depend on their internal evaluations of Tagovailoa and whichever quarterbacks are available. Assuming Trevor Lawrence is headed to Jacksonville, that leaves Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance as the likeliest next QBs off the board. Traditional scouting wisdom would say that you need to feel like whoever you are going to draft is going to upgrade your roster. Sports Info Solutions will publish evaluations on these players in the third annual SIS Football Rookie Handbook (paperback and Kindle versions available in February), but as for Tagovailoa, I wanted to dive into both the tape and the data to pick up where Pizzuta left off to see how a quarterback who put up an above average of 5.4 Total Points Earned per game over his first seven starts suffered such a drop-off in Weeks 16 and 17.
Week 16 vs Las Vegas Raiders
In the first half of the game against the Raiders, a few things jump off the film right away. First of all, this is still the quarterback that we remember from Alabama and he didn’t lose the traits that most evaluators liked about him in the first place. He is an athletic player, he shows good arm talent in terms of strength and especially accuracy, and he has a pocket awareness combined with a niftiness that allows him to keep his eyes downfield. By the same token, Tagovailoa was clearly a tick slow to process, lacking the anticipation that never seemed to be a question within the scope of his college career.
It’s possible that this was a misevaluated portion of Tua’s game coming out of Alabama. Maybe the same way that we all fell in love with Reggie Bush without fully considering the impact of having run blocking that looked more like punt return spacing than anything that he would see in the NFL, we fell for it again, but this time it was the Jeudy-Ruggs-Smith-Waddle juggernaut that benefited our protagonist.
From the looks of this film, though, it might just be that the Dolphins receivers are the polar opposite of that Crimson crew. The receivers are unable to create separation, and another phenomenon that I have seen which might be at play is that when people are consistently not open, eventually the quarterback stops expecting people to be open, and then a spiral can occur that he misses his opportunities when they do become available. With this group, Tagovailoa’s rhythm is light years away from what it was in college, and the Dolphins continuing to feed him conservative play calls only exacerbates things more.
On that playcalling, perhaps it’s unsurprising that offensive coordinator Chan Gailey resigned after the season given that instead of Tua and the scheme jelling together as the year progressed, Tagovailoa played his worst football at the end of the season. As Pizzuta also noted, it’s not as if there are no vertical opportunities built into Gailey’s offense because we saw Ryan Fitzpatrick hit on those very same concepts when he entered the game. That said, for whatever reason Tagovailoa seemed to grow less confident as the year wore on, and without attacking vertically the field became constricted.
Besides the receivers and playcalling, the Dolphins’ offensive line had major issues against Oakland. Miami had some success giving three rookie OLs significant playing time in 2020, but Week 16 made the case that prioritizing a lineman like Oregon’s Penei Sewell at the top of the draft would be wise.
While we’re on the subject of Tagovailoa taking a beating, Tua needs to take advantage of a full off-season and beef up like Lamar Jackson did between Year 1 and Year 2.
Week 17 vs Buffalo Bills
Against the Bills, Tagovailoa had his worst game of the year, but what was interesting about this one was how out of character this game was for him. We have all seen enough Ryan Fitzpatrick over the years to know that Fitz-magic comes and goes, but it was bizarre to see Tua throw caution to the wind and play a very Fitzian game, gunslinging and taking risks. The problem was that Tua played like the bad version of Fitzpatrick, including three interceptions, and his teammates did him no favors.
In the first half, the mistakes were everywhere for the Dolphins’ offense, including missed assignments up front and a slew of dropped passes.
After falling way behind, Tagovailoa clearly got the halftime message to push the ball to DeVante Parker with the season on the brink, and the Dolphins had some success here. Tua came out and looked like an approximation of Fitzpatrick against the Raiders, and the Dolphins scored on a drive where the rookie QB took risks and trusted Parker in a few different contested situations. Of course, the Fitzpatrick impression went the other direction on the next drive when Parker inexplicably fell down on his break and Tua had thrown in his direction blindly, leading to an interception.
Playing from behind, the high-volume attack continued, but as time wore on it became more clear that trying to imitate Fitzpatrick is not the best way for Tagovailoa to be his best self. He threw two more interceptions, both out of character. One was on a throw over the middle – a good read with poor placement. That was out of character for Tua whose over-the-middle accuracy is usually excellent (he completed 72% of his passes that were between the numbers heading into Week 17). The other was a miscommunication, a product of Tua forcing things.
It’s clear that in order to succeed, Tagovailoa needs to play in a more open system where he can push the ball down the field, especially on early downs, to get chunk plays and force the defense to defend the entire field. He has shown the ability to do this. What he hasn’t been able to do is make blind throws to covered receivers, and the amount of forcing the ball that he had to do resulted in his least accurate performance of the season.
Despite a rough end to the season and potential for the distracted boyfriend meme in the direction of Justin Herbert, a closer examination of Tagovailoa shows that he still has the traits that led Miami to draft him in the first place. He is an athletic quarterback who moves well in and out of the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield, and shows plus accuracy on both short and deep passes. While he couldn’t transcend receivers that had a hard time creating separation as a rookie, there is little evidence on film to show that he can’t perform when receivers are open (and can catch).
While a case can be made strategically for or against drafting another quarterback at third overall, it will come down to the evaluation of the available players against the internal evaluation of Tagovailoa, which Brian Flores has rightfully pointed out is by definition more informed than yours or mine.
What is less disputable is the way that wide zone play-action offenses have proliferated around the NFL in large part because the scheme has shown the ability to make mediocre quarterbacks functional (see Goff, Jared) and great quarterbacks transcendent (see Rodgers, Aaron). The system fits with the way Flores wants to control the game defensively, and the bootleg-heavy system is a great way to create multiple launch angles for the diminutive Tagovailoa.
Team-building at its core comes down to three elements: the players, the coaches, and the scheme. Defensively, the Dolphins have appeared to figure out all three. The key to their offseason is figuring out the right offensive scheme to marry to their defense and their existing offensive personnel, and then drafting and signing players that can help that scheme to be successful. The offensive coordinator that they hire will surely be hired with a vision in mind, and if their scheme and coaching is the right fit for the Dolphins, they will be in great shape going forward regardless of what positions they address in the draft.