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Miami Dolphins Must Build Around Tua Tagovailoa in 2021 Free Agency, NFL Draft

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 4, 2021

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws the ball against the New England Patriots as Miami Dolphins guard Ted Karras (67) blocks during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Doug Murray)
Doug Murray/Associated Press

The Miami Dolphins have taken the wrong approach to Tua Tagovailoa's development since Brian Flores named last year's fifth overall pick the team's starter for Week 8 and beyond. The franchise now sits on the precipice of making a significant mistake by moving away from him before he even has a chance to establish himself.

Miami's path toward long-term success is simple: build around Tua.

The organization's interest in him, particularly from owner Stephen Ross, dates back two years when the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson reported, "Ross really, really likes Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and that getting a high 2020 draft pick is the priority."

As the "Tank for Tua" craze grew and visions of the squad going winless during the 2019 season gained traction, the Dolphins outperformed expectations with a somewhat impressive 5-11 campaign despite severe roster deficiencies.

In a twist of fate, Tagovailoa's hip injury during his final season on campus created an opportunity for Miami to land him. Despite the injury concerns, everyone still understood his capabilities as a passer.

"He's got a natural feel for the game," an AFC personnel man told The Athletic's Bob McGinn before the 2020 draft. "He throws the deep ball exceptionally well. He's got good anticipation and very good accuracy. There's a lot to like about him."

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An anonymous scout provided McGinn with a little more in-depth analysis: "Just off the pure talent to play the game, he's better than Joe Burrow. He doesn't have an overpowering arm, but he makes all the throws. He's got a quick release. He's got touch, velocity. He's got the feet to avoid. He's got really good eyes. Cool under pressure. Slides through the pocket. Really good play-action guy. He doesn't throw interceptions."

Questions did exist then about Tagovailoa's effectiveness outside of Alabama's pristine pocket and first-rate offensive scheme, much like with Mac Jones this offseason.

However, Tagovailoa's 153 passer rating from a clean pocket during the '19 campaign was the best ever recorded by Pro Football Focus. To achieve that, he demonstrated excellent presnap awareness, a quick release and excellent ball placement. And in Tagovailoa's case, these skills translated, as PFF noted he was the only quarterback this season going into Week 17 without an interception while working from a clean pocket.

Despite that, the Dolphins pursued a backward approach to his development before he even started his first game.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Houston Texans' implosion played a factor in Miami's decision to start him. According to Schefter, the Dolphins needed "to know what they have in Tagovailoa as they enter the 2021 draft with two picks in each of the first two rounds."

That conversation should never have taken place before the supposed face of the franchise actually had an opportunity to take the field and lead the offense as its designated starter.

If Miami found itself in a situation where it could discuss other quarterback options, that's a different story, but the idea of that being part of the decision-making process already set Tua up for failure. From the moment a team chooses a first-round quarterback, the goal remains the same: Do everything possible to set him up for success.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The Dolphins failed from the onset of Tagovailoa's career and made matters worse during the season by benching him for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick during a Week 16 contest against the Las Vegas Raiders.

"Tua has played well. He's made a lot of improvement over the course of the season. He's developing," Flores said after pulling Tua yet naming him the starter coming out of the game, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe. "I don't make judgments and decisions based on one instance. There's a lot that goes into the decisions we makeconversations and not just one game or one quarter. Tua has done a lot of good things for this team. He knows that. The team knows that."

Does he, though?

Even now, he has no clue where he stands and didn't sound convincing when asked whether Miami was "all in" with him.

"In my mind and in my heart, I would hope so," Tagovailoa said during an interview with Sirius Mad Dog Radio (h/t Wolfe). "With the way things went last year, you always have to prove yourself to do better, and I want to do better."

Every player should be driven to improve, but Tagovailoa is being held to an unfair standard after completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards with 11 TDs and five picks.

The learning curve for young quarterbacks has been flattened in recent years. The Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield broke the rookie record with 27 touchdown passes in 2018. Two years later, Justin Herbert shattered that mark. The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes became the league MVP in his second season and a Super Bowl MVP the following year. At 22, Lamar Jackson became the youngest quarterback to win league MVP.

Those instances don't take into account how Mayfield regressed in year two only to find himself again in his third season or Josh Allen's incremental improvement through three seasons. The evolution of a quarterback doesn't begin and end with his first season.

Tagovailoa knows there are certain areas where he needs to be better.

"Pushing the ball downfield," Tagovailoa said in December, per Wolfe. "I would say that's what I need to do a better job with, especially this past game and games prior."

His admission doesn't mean he's incapable of becoming a good downfield passer. In fact, he threw an accurate pass on 52.2 percent of his attempts 10 or more yards downfield his last two seasons at Alabama, per PFF's Anthony Treash, which placed him among the class' best. He also ranked first among those same top quarterback prospects with the lowest percentage of off-target throws with an open receiver 5-18 yards downfield.

To capitalize on these capabilities, a better surrounding cast is necessary.

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

Based on current projections, the Dolphins have the ninth-most salary-cap space at $25.8 million, per SpotracAs free agency nears, Miami has the financial flexibility to address both wide receiver and running back.

Fortunately, a quartet of young and talented targets should come into focus. Last season, Preston Williams finished third among the team's wide receivers with 288 receiving yards. While the undrafted free agent showed promise, he hasn't been a reliable option through his first two seasons.

Allen Robinson II, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin and Will Fuller V will be counted among the top-10 available free agents since all of them are 27 or younger with proven production. JuJu Smith-Schuster can be thrown into that mix as well.

The running back class isn't nearly as sexy, with Aaron Jones the only legit top ball-carrier about to enter the open market. Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed flashed with 903 combined rushing yards in 16 total games played, but the Dolphins are looking for more from their running back group.

Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline reported Miami has "shown a lot of interest" in the top projected back in the '21 class, Alabama's Najee Harris. With the 18th overall pick, he will come into play. Or, the Dolphins could wait until the top of Round 2 and chose a running back courtesy of the Houston Texans. Clemson's Travis Etienne and the North Carolina duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams could be available at the start of Day 2.

The extra picks obtained by Houston in the Laremy Tunsil trade—extra first- and second-round picks this yearprovide Miami with myriad possibilities.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

While a top-tier free-agent wide receiver should be prioritized, the Dolphins can't stop there. In yet another loaded class, Miami could take the first pass-catcher with the third overall pick. The team can also leverage the selection, add more picks to build the roster and take a receiver a little later. Currently, Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are two of the top three wide receiver prospects alongside LSU's Ja'Marr Chase.

Take a second and imagine an offense featuring Smith, Robinson and DeVante Parker at wide receiver, Mike Gesicki at tight end and Harris in the backfield to build the best possible cockpit for Tagovailoa.

Miami can make it possible.

In doing so, the organization doesn't have to trade multiple first-round picks and young contributors for Deshaun Watson. While the franchise must evaluate the incoming quarterbacks, Miami won't have to settle for the second- or third-best prospect. General manager Chris Grier can work from a position of strength thanks to all of the assets the front office obtained during the previous two seasons.

With Tagovailoa and an improved surrounding cast, the Dolphins can compete for AFC East titles and possibly more. The franchise just needs to avoid the temptation of making yet another switch at the game's most important position when it has a talented and capable option already on the roster.

          

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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