There may be no more heavily debated and disputed player in the NFL than Tua Tagovailoa. Dating back to his first starts in college, he’s been analyzed to a degree few NFL prospects have ever seen. Many were sold on his “it factor” after his infamous game winning touchdown against Georgia in the National Championship. However, just as many were skeptical, and doubted his ability to lead an NFL offense.
This lead to heavy debate on his potential draft position, which reached it’s pinnacle when he suffered a career threatening injury against Mississippi State. Many still saw him as a top five pick, while others had him out of the first round entirely.
The former, however, was the only opinion that mattered when Tua was selected number five overall in 2020 by the Miami Dolphins. The team searching for their first elite quarterback since Marino took one of their biggest risks to date.
However, the divisiveness of Tagovailoa has only continued to grow. He has shown flashes of the quarterback many believe him to be, but has had just as many head-scratching moments. These have drawn out extreme takes and biases on both sides. Nonetheless, somewhere in the middle lies a quarterback with definitive strengths and weaknesses. It is with these that we can form the foundation of what can be built upon and what needs to be fixed in the most important year of the young quarterback’s career.
By many accounts, the most important quarterback traits are as follows: arm talent (strength and accuracy), anticipation, processing, pocket presence, and footwork. My goal is to evaluate where Tua Tagovailoa lies on each of these categories, and discover an attainable goal where I, and hopefully the rest of Dolphins media and fandom, can consider this season a success.
Coming into the NFL, Tua’s strengths and weaknesses as far as arm strength and accuracy were well documented. Coming from the RPO-heavy Steve Sarkisian system, it was clear that he possessed elite short area accuracy and ball placement.
It was also clear that he wasn’t a premier deep ball thrower. While he could hit the open shot once in a while, he wasn’t going to hit the cover-2 hole shots at a rate similar to 2020 draft counterpart Justin Herbert. It wasn’t necessarily an issue, but a clear niche in which his game found itself.
However, the intermediate area is where the debate began. Despite Tagovailoa’s historically high efficiency numbers, there were serious questions about how inflated they were from a primarily one-read scheme. If Tua would have to read more of the field, would his accuracy take a major dip?
When combined with below average true accuracy between the 10 and 19 yard line, the results we would see in the NFL became telling.
Tua Tagovailoa has struggled immensely in the intermediate passing game since arriving in the NFL. Per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Tua’s passer rating on passes between 10 and 20 yards to the middle and right thirds of the field is significantly below average. However, when targeting the left third, his 118.5 rating dominates the league average of 89.2.
This shows a clear area in which he needs to improve. Luckily, there is a visible path to doing so in the Mike McDaniel offense. McDaniel, along with his run-game prowess, has shown the abilty to draw up deadly play action looks. Specifically, boot concepts in which San Francisco’s playmakers would attack the intermediate zones.
The result: Jimmy Garoppolo was above league average in each of the intermediate thirds. It’s clear that Tua can do the same. He has the talent to do so, and it is crucial that he takes advantage of those opportunities when they arise.
The goal: attain an above average passer rating in ALL THREE intermediate thirds of the field.
Anticipation and Processing
RPO-based systems are among the hardest to evaluate, due to the fact that so much comes off of one read. Typically, this would stray away talent evaluators, who haven’t seen the quarterback operate in a more complex scheme, but the clip that Tua was able to connect on was generational, and gave many hope that he could do it on a larger scale.
This would be crucial. Given Tagovailoa’s size and physical tools, he would have to be able to compensate with an elite football mind. However, since arriving in the league, he’s yet to demonstrate it.
Far too often, Tua stares down his first read, telegraphing where the ball is going, and allowing DB’s to make a play. Furthermore, when he gets to his second and third reads, he’s either too late or doesn’t trust what he sees. This oftentimes leads to sacks or turnovers.
It’s difficult to determine how Tua can get rid of these bad habits, and thus the “slow blinker” asterisk. Although, we can also understand that Tagovailoa has significantly better offensive coaching than he has seen to this point. McDaniel, offensive coordinator Frank Smith and new quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell all have a reputaition around the league as bright offensive minds. It’s likely that they can draw up plays to help cover this up.
However, Tagovailoa can’t be complacent, and must see things quicker. Whether it’s mental reps, more studying of the playbook, or simply just more live action, he must improve, and with the recent training camp clip that has surfaced, it appears that he has.
This clip shows Tua hitting Tyreek Hill in stride for a one handed catch and a touchdown. However, the catch isn’t the surprising part. When Tagovailoa releases the ball, Hill is still covered, and hasn’t found the soft spot in the coverage. Despite this, Tua showed more faith in his eyes, and put it in the perfect spot for his receiver to catch it. This is exactly what we are going to need to see more of, and it’s promising that it’s showing in camp.
The more film study, time with receivers, or mental reps Tua runs himself through, the more benefits he will reap. His mentality towards the game must improve. Thus, his play on the field will be a strong indicator of if it has.
The goal: know the situation like the back of your hand.
If there is one trait that has been an overwhelming positive in Tua Tagovailoa’s game since being drafted, it’s his ability to sense and evade edge pressure. Miami’s offensive line has been frustrating, to say the least, but Tua has largely been able to subdue those struggles with great pocket movement.
Much of what makes Tua potentially great is how he is able to maneuver edge pressure. It is when that pressure comes up the middle, however, that we begin to see the common problem that becomes his biggest flaw.
Robotic: a term often thought of in a negative connotation, but is one of the most common positive descriptors of Tua’s game. In clean pockets, his mechanics are as consistent as they come. His feet follow his eyes, and often lead to smart, quick decisions. However, it is when defenses send pressure through the A and B gaps that his footwork sees a significant drop off.
This is a common issue among young quarterbacks. It’s hard for any human being to maintain strong footwork with 300 pound men being pushed into their knees. However, many of those quarterbacks don’t take the brunt of the blow to their arm strength in the way Tua does.
Due to the arm strength concerns mentioned earlier, Tua needs his feet to be in line with his throws. He doesn’t have the arm of a Mahomes or Josh Allen, who can make off platform plays with ease. However, he creates several by fading on throws with A-gap pressure, which often lead to poor results.
This will be the hardest habit to break, and has been something few are able to achieve. However, it may be the most crucial to Tua’s success. While Miami worked on their offensive line this off-season, it still isn’t perfect. There will be plays where teams are able to get into his lap, but he can’t crumble. He has to be able to sit in and make a strong throw, or get out of the pocket, as he has successfully done in the past.
Tua has shown development in this area, but if he is to become a successful quarterback, it must become a strength, rather than his biggest weakness.
The goal: sustain success at the sight of interior pressure.
The Bottom Line on Tua Tagovailoa in 2022
The most divisive quarterback in the league is going into the deciding year of his career. Stories like this are what the NFL is made of, and while many believe Tua’s fate is set in stone, it’s far from the truth.
There are attainable goals, some more difficult than others, that in my eyes, can correlate to a successful 2022 season. If Miami’s quarterback is able to improve in the key areas I outlined the questions will begin to fade. The noise of bringing in his replacement will become a calming silence, and most importantly, the Miami Dolphins will reach heights unseen in decades.
This is it. This year we will see what the heralded franchise savior is made of. The mountain is steep, but the journey of climbing it will be all so satisfying if Tua Tagovailoa reaches it’s summit.