Tagovailoa only had a nine-game audition during a very obscure debut year in Miami. He was pulled from the middle of games, named the starter, then supplanted by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
With the fate of the Dolphins firmly in Tagovailoa's hands, let's explore everything about his environment in Miami and pinpoint what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Tagovailoa has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback's game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
Basically, like everyone else, I was very high on Tagovailoa as a prospect. He was my QB2 and No. 3 overall prospect in the 2020 class. However, I wasn't "he's the next Russell Wilson" in love with him, mostly because I saw him as "incomplete" because of how good his situation was at Alabama. His raw grade was the sixth-highest in the class. My Position Addition boosted him to the No. 3 spot. Here's what I wrote about Tagovailoa before the draft:
For as advanced as I think Tagovailoa is drifting in the pocket and knowing where to go with the football, for all intents and purposes, before his injury, his 2019 campaign at Alabama was a cakewalk thanks to the phenomenally comfortable environment provided by a litany of first-round picks around him on the offensive line and at receiver.
He provided tiny glimpses of the Heisman-winning quarterback at Alabama. But it'd be pure fabrication pinpointing any clear area in which Tagovailoa improved from his time at Alabama.
The Dolphins were tanking for Tua for a while, and they've done a fine job building around him. Especially at receiver. DeVante Parker's talents were supercharged when Adam Gase was fired -- shocking, right? While he wasn't able to rekindle the magic of his 1,200-plus yard season from 2019, he's a mismatch on the perimeter. The oft-injured but elite deep threat Will Fuller was signed in free agency.
While not yet established as a high-volume slot target, the lightning-quick Jakeem Grant set career-highs across the board in 2020. Preston Williams has flashed when healthy as a rebounder on the outside. And my No. 1 wideout in the 2021 class, Jaylen Waddle, was picked at No. 6 overall. He has legitimate Tyreek Hill tendencies on the field.
Then, at tight end, sits Mike Gesicki, an emerging pass-catching star at what's become an amazingly top-heavy position in the NFL. The super-springy target caught 53 passes for 703 yards with six scores in 2020 while snatching the souls of many defensive backs in jump-ball situations along the way.
Is this receiver group elite? Depends on your definition. But there's no doubting its depth or it's collective speed and skill diversity.
Now, along the offensive line, there's more uncertainty. Tagovailoa was only pressured 29.1% of the time last season, a relatively low number. However, that was more a function of the Dolphins' passing philosophy and Tagovailoa getting it out in a hurry. Per Next Gen Stats, his Intended Air Yards average was 7.7, the 14th-lowest out of 41 qualifying quarterbacks. And he released the football in fewer than 2.5 seconds on 57.9% of his attempts, the seventh-highest rate among qualifiers.
The blocking was improved from what was an unsurprisingly porous unit during the tank. It still didn't approach being great. Ravens center Matt Skura was added in free agency. He's not a star but should provide more stability on the interior than what Miami's had recently. In Round 2, the experienced Liam Eichenberg from Notre Dame was selected. He has guard/tackle flexibility but is limited athletically and needs to get stronger.
Unless the talented but raw Austin Jackson takes a sizable step forward in Year 2, and it could happen because he's had a full year in the Dolphins' strength and conditioning program, Miami's offensive line still gives me slight pause about Tagovailoa's development.
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Last year, the Dolphins went the unconventional route by hiring Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator, after he'd been out of the league since the end of the 2016 campaign. His quick-hitting spread attack helped limit the hits Tagovailoa absorbed as a rookie, but it simply didn't pose enough of a vertical threat for the Dolphins offense to consistently be taken as a serious threat.
After relieving Gailey of his duties, Brian Flores remained outside the box, hiring co-offensive coordinators -- George Godsey and Eric Studesville, to share play-calling duties for Tagovailoa's second season in the NFL. Studesville has no NFL play-calling experience. Godsey is a Bill O'Brien disciple and called plays in 2015 with the Texans but had those responsibilities revoked in early October 2016.
Of course, neither have schematic philosophies we can study before they run Miami's offense in Year 2 of the Tagovailoa experiment.
Improving his weaknesses
In the nine contests we saw Tagovailoa, beyond a propensity to check it down quickly, he was mostly ineffective under pressure. On plays in which the pocket wasn't clean, the No. 5 overall pick completed just under 44% of his throws at a minuscule 4.7 yards per attempt without a touchdown and two interceptions. His accuracy percentage on those tossed ranked 36th of 39 qualifiers.
Frankly, Tagovailoa's struggles against pressure shouldn't have been totally surprising. Not because he was horrific against pressure at Alabama but simply because he didn't get much experience with pass-rushers bearing down on him in college and he's an average athlete for the quarterback position by today's standards in the NFL.
In 2019, before his injury with the Crimson Tide, Tagovailoa was pressured on just 22.2% of his drop backs and he wasn't necessarily efficient working against pressure.
Processing slightly quicker and showcasing the deft pocket-moving skills he put on display at Alabama will be integral to Tagovailoa taking the next step as a passer in 2021.
Much more stunningly, Tagovailoa wasn't razor-sharp when kept clean, and we know passing without pressure is more stable from year to year. His yards-per-attempt average of 6.7 ranked 34th, his average depth of target of 7.2 yards ranked 27th, and his adjusted completion percentage of 79.2% ranked 22nd. He, however, did toss 11 touchdown to just three picks, a solid ratio.
When Miami's offensive line protects well, Tagovailoa has to be surgically accurate and make good decisions on a regular basis.
More downfield aggression from the second-year quarterback will likely have a positive ripple effect on the Dolphins offense and provide Tagovailoa more uncongested passing lanes underneath and at the intermediate level. And while the long ball of course is more likely to create splash plays for the offense, the instances when the downfield pass are utilized are few and far between. Tagovailoa was revered as a prospect because of his smarts and ball placement from 0 to 19 yards down the field.
Strengthening his strengths
While scheme factored in, Tagovailoa was good at avoiding sacks in 2020, when many young quarterbacks tend to hang on to the football too long, which leads to pressures, which leads to sacks. His sack rate of 6.5% was lower than every first-round quarterback picked from 2018 to 2020 who played as a rookie besides Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield.
Sacks significantly decrease the chances an offense scores a touchdown. Per FiveThirtyEight.com, before the 2020 season, NFL teams averaged scoring a touchdown on 24.5% of their drives that did not include a sack. When a sack occurred, that figured plummeted to 7.2%.
Therefore Tagovailoa's quick trigger is a subtle weapon. And of course it helps to mitigate some cracks along the offensive line. While the Dolphins shouldn't aim to be obsessive about the short-passing game or expect it'll yield much different results in 2021, allowing Tagovailoa to meticulously move the football down the field with quick throws can't be a philosophy that's expelled from the offense altogether.
Even in 2019 at Alabama, Tagovailoa's average depth of target of 8.8 yards ranked 73rd among qualifying quarterbacks in college football. He's not a stranger to the quick-strike passing offense.
And the addition of Waddle makes the Dolphins more YAC capable. So there's more upside in a high-percentage throw made within the first second or two after Tagovailoa catches the snap than there was in his debut season.
Of course, a larger sample size from rookie-year Tagovailoa would have provided a better indication of how he'll perform in the future.
We all know a strong supporting cast is vital for a young quarterback. And adding receiving talent with aggression, once considered absurd, is now common. Ask the Buccaneers. The Dolphins have constructed a pass-catching contingent that will remove one "what if" layer from their end-of-the-season assessment of Tagovailoa.
The offensive line has been invested in, I'm just not in love with whom they have up front. Skura wasn't great in Baltimore. Jackson had a shaky rookie season. We've barely seen anything in 2020 from penciled-in left guard Michael Deiter, and he was a turnstile as a rookie. Robert Hunt turned in a solid rookie campaign at tackle, and now he bumps inside to guard.
In short, it's a group with a lot of young bodies who have yet to prove themselves and haven't had sparkling starts to their careers in limited action.
As is the case with most quarterbacks moving from Year 1 to Year 2 in the NFL, things will slow down for Tagovailoa as the entrenched Dolphins starter in 2021. And the talent infusion at receiver will help him see more open receivers more frequently.
But I don't have confidence predicting a breakout for Tagovailoa with so many unanswered questions along the offensive line. And the blocking matters more for Tagovailoa than other young quarterbacks, because as we saw in 2020, he has average arm talent and is only an average athlete for the position, so his improvisational upside is minimal. Because of his accuracy and smarts, Tagovailoa will make strides in some areas, but although the Dolphins are certainly a strong playoff contender, I expect the organization to have a very difficult decision regarding his future at the end of the season.