Tua Tagovailoa was once one of the most sought-after NFL quarterback prospects. In his first two years at the University of Alabama, Tagovailoa came off the bench to win a national championship and then led the Crimson Tide back to the title game the following year. Despite a hip injury as a junior, the Miami Dolphins still took Tagovailoa fifth overall.
His football future looks a lot different heading into Year 3 of his NFL career than it did heading into Year 3 of his college career.
Tagovailoa’s first two seasons with the Dolphins haven’t been that promising. This offseason, Miami remade his support system by trading for wide receiver Tyreek Hill, signing offensive lineman Terron Armstead and hiring head coach Mike McDaniel, a Kyle Shanahan disciple.
So now, Tagovailoa has reached a tipping point. He’s an unquestioned NFL starter, but the body of work has prompted questions instead of reassurances.
Dolphins, teammates signal Tua Tagovailoa is entering now-or-never season
While Tagovailoa’s starter status is cemented now, his position under center looked tenuous all of last year. The Dolphins still have plenty of escape hatches if he doesn’t take a major step forward this season.
They reportedly tried to lure a couple of big-name quarterbacks to Miami, whether courting Deshaun Watson throughout the 2021 season or tampering with Tom Brady as far back as 2019, for which the NFL just punished them.
Then there’s the 2023 draft class, which is loaded at the top with quarterbacks like Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Despite losing a first-round pick in the Brady tampering investigation, the Dolphins still own the San Francisco 49ers’ first-rounder after the Trey Lance trade two years ago.
Even Hill, an unabashed Tagovailoa supporter, agreed that this is likely the final year for Tagovailoa to prove whether or not he can make it in the NFL
“You know, in the NFL they only give you like two or three years to be a successful quarterback, especially if you’re a first-round draft pick,” Hill said on his podcast this offseason. “And if you don’t succeed after those years, then it’s ‘kick rocks, man.’So, basically, they’re going to put Tua into that. So this is basically his last year, man, just to show people what he’s got.”
How the NFL views Tagovailoa
After two years in the league, it’s hard to tell if Tagovailoa is trending upward or plateauing.
He didn't enjoy a very successful rookie season, finding himself in and out of the lineup behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Then last season, he missed four games due to a rib injury and ranked 18th in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) metric. Tagovailoa completed 67.8 percent of his passes but threw for 2,6543 yards, a little over 200 per game, with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
His former college teammate, Jalen Hurts, who was drafted 48 spots later and posted a similar TD-to-INT ratio last season, is entering a prove-it campaign of his own. Hurts did make the playoffs last season with the Philadelphia Eagles though, and plays the role of a more modern dual-threat rushing quarterback, while Tagovailoa has proved to be a prototypical pocket passer.
NFL coaches appear to be more bullish on Hurts than Tagovailoa. According to Mike Sando of The Athletic, who asked 50 NFL coaches and executives to place each starting quarterback in tiers, Hurts was assigned Tier 3 status compared to Tagovailoa, who was put in Tier 4.
“(Tagovailoa) is being set up for success with a running game, defense, offensive line and then obviously the impact players at the skill positions,” an offensive coach said. “If there is ever a time for him to be successful, it is this season. What is success? Staying healthy all year and leading his team to the playoffs.”
“He’s a guy that I’m still holding on to the edge of my chair when I’m watching him play,” a quarterbacks coach added. “I am still cheering for him and I’m just hoping it doesn’t implode. Having Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead and all the talent they have, there’s no excuses any more. He’s got to get it done.”
What’s in store for Tagovailoa in 2022?
Tagovailoa's main issue is with the perception of his arm strength, especially after the Dolphins' social media team seemingly heard the noise and tweeted a video of him throwing a questionable deep ball in May. Despite the misgivings, Tagovailoa actually had the third-highest DVOA of any quarterback last season on passes 20-plus yards downfield — albeit on only 30 such attempts.
That number will likely grow with Hill, the NFL's best deep-ball threat, added to an offense that already includes record-setting second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle. It speaks to a broader question of how the Dolphins under McDaniel will utilize Tagovailoa. The new head coach has promised to bring the 49ers' zone run scheme to Miami — which flexed out its running back depth chart this offseason by adding Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel and Chase Edmonds — and has relied on things like tempo and quick passes in the past.
So it appears McDaniel will try to help mask whatever deep-ball deficiencies Tagovailoa may have with creative schematics. What comes next, though, is entirely up to Tagovailoa.
As Hill noted, a quarterback’s third season is typically their make-or-break year. Just look at two members of the 2018 class, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold. Both were viewed similarly heading into their third season in 2020, and Darnold even held a few per-game statistical advantages over Allen.
But Allen took an enormous leap in Year 3 after the Buffalo Bills traded for receiver Stefon Diggs, while Darnold floundered on the New York Jets during his second season with Adam Gase and was traded to the Carolina Panthers the following offseason.
That’s an example of the different possible trajectories for Tagovailoa. But at the very least, the narrative around him has flipped since college. Now he’s out to prove he can reach his once-promised level in 2022.