2021 NFL Preview: A successful Dolphins rebuild depends on QB Tua Tagovailoa's improvement

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Quarterbacks used to get four or five years before teams made a decision on whether they were a long-term answer.

Tua Tagovailoa, coming off a serious hip injury his final college season, got nine starts in many observers’ eyes.

The narrative around the Miami Dolphins quarterback has been mostly negative. It's assumed that at best he’ll never be as good as Justin Herbert, the 2020 NFL offensive rookie of the year taken one pick behind Tagovailoa, and at worst he’ll be a bust. Tagovailoa wasn’t terrible as a rookie. He threw for 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and had a reasonable 87.1 passer rating. But this is the NFL now. Some have called the evaluation of young quarterbacks a microwave, but most microwaves don’t cook this fast.

In another era, Tagovailoa’s up-and-down rookie season would be no reason for panic (in another era Tagovailoa probably would have sat all season). When the ever-popular Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in relief of Tagovailoa in games the rookie struggled, it looked bad for Tagovailoa. With the season on the line in Week 17, Tagovailoa didn’t play well in a loss to the Bills. With social media takes needing to be watered 365 days a year, Tagovailoa wasn’t going to escape the harsh criticism for what wasn’t a disastrous rookie season. He just wasn’t as good as Herbert or Joe Burrow.

Some of the criticism is warranted, and Tagovailoa's development is paramount. The Dolphins enter 2021 with a roster that has been built with a ton of extra draft picks and free agency due to a mound of salary-cap space. The Dolphins took a big step in their rebuild last season, going 10-6, and they want to keep moving forward. However, a lot depends on their quarterback taking a second-year jump.

Tagovailoa was way too safe most of the season. He was unwilling or unable — remember, he wasn’t too far removed from a massive hip injury at Alabama and said it feels "10 times better" this year — to push the ball downfield. He didn’t throw many interceptions, but he didn’t make a ton of plays either. Given the Dolphins’ talent around him, that needs to change.

The team has good receivers in DeVante Parker, Will Fuller V and rookie Jaylen Waddle, the sixth pick of the draft. The offensive line is improving and the defense, with coach Brian Flores’ fingerprints all over it, is a strength. In a perfect world, the Dolphins would use last season’s near miss as motivation and grab a playoff spot this time around.

Much of it depends on Tagovailoa. Many have already made up their minds. If Tagovailoa struggles again, the criticism is going to be even worse next offseason.

Tua Tagovailoa had an up-and-down rookie season for the Dolphins. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa had an up-and-down rookie season for the Dolphins. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The biggest contract the Dolphins signed this offseason was former Texans receiver Will Fuller V on a one-year, $10.6M deal. Then the Dolphins used the sixth overall draft pick on Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle. If nothing else, Miami has invested in weapons for Tua Tagovailoa. Most of Miami's free agency was spent adding role players like defensive tackle Adam Butler and cornerback Justin Coleman. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and linebacker Kyle Van Noy both signed with New England, and while that's not ideal Miami should be able to make up for those losses. Miami had four draft picks in the top 42 — Waddle, linebacker Jaelan Phillips, safety Jevon Holland and offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg — and all of them could contribute right away. Trading a 2022 first-round pick in March to move up from No. 12 to No. 6 seemed unwise (the Dolphins had to be assuming they'd land tight end Kyle Pitts or receiver Ja'Marr Chase, right?) but Miami has added a lot of young talent through its extra draft picks. 

Grade: B-

Tagovailoa hasn't hid from criticism of his rookie season. He might have added some fodder with one quote in May. 

"Actually, what I’m saying is that I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good; and that’s on no one else’s fault but my fault," Tagovailoa said, according to the Dolphins' transcripts. "Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks whereas now, feeling more comfortable, I can kind of maneuver my way through these things now."

Remember that Tagovailoa had a lost offseason due to COVID-19. The whole rookie season was hard. But when other rookie quarterbacks thrived, it looked worse for him. He admits everything was a struggle, from cadence to pre- and post-snap reads. 

"I felt I wasn’t comfortable during my rookie year," Tagovailoa said.

That's not unusual for a rookie QB. It's hard to play quarterback in the NFL, especially coming off a very serious injury. Offseason words mean little, but Tagovailoa has talked about how he's improving physically and mentally. That's a good place to start. It's too early to make a judgment on him one way or another.  

The Dolphins' win total at BetMGM is 9.5. It was a young team that went 10-6 last season and presumably should be better this season. The reason there's not more confidence in the Dolphins is presumably tied to Tagovailoa. That's not necessarily unfair. I'll assume Tagovailoa is a little bit better with more experience and a year to get healthier. The rest of the roster is good and I think Brian Flores is a good coach. The over seems like the right play. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "No one views Myles Gaskin as a sure thing, but he’s Miami’s best back and there’s ability here, especially in the passing game. Gaskin averaged 8.3 yards per target last year, tops among qualified backs, and secured 41-of-47 targets. This all came in 10 games; if his 200-pound frame can handle something close to a full season, we’re looking at a profit pick.

"Be mindful that Miami’s backfield depth behind Gaskin is especially thin. Add it all up and Gaskin is worth consideration in the fourth or fifth round of PPR-based leagues."

Jaylen Waddle, in his six games for Alabama last season, averaged 21.1 yards per catch. Will Fuller V averaged 16.6 yards per catch with the Texans last season, ranking sixth in the NFL. In 2019 DeVante Parker averaged 16.7 yards per catch in his breakout season. Even Mike Gesicki's 13.3 yards per catch was fifth among tight ends. Basically, the Dolphins have a ton of big-play receivers and a quarterback whose biggest problem as a rookie was taking chances downfield. Either this is very poor roster construction or the many vertical threats will help Tagovailoa become more confident and effective in his deep passing. 

What will happen with All-Pro CB Xavien Howard? 

One year into a five-year, $75.25 million extension, Howard wants more. He held out of a mandatory minicamp over a contract dispute. Having teammate Byron Jones sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal last offseason probably plays into Howard's unhappiness. A trade is possible, but that won't make the Dolphins better this season. Brian Flores comes from the Patriots, and their organizational philosophy doesn't align with renegotiating a deal that has four years left on it. Howard has developed into an exceptional cornerback, and one of the strengths of the Dolphins is how good they are at such an important position. Getting Howard's situation figured out is big for the team's 20201 outlook. 

If Tagovailoa had Herbert’s rookie season (or, cynically, had the Dolphins drafted Herbert), we’d be touting this team as a Super Bowl contender. Is it that crazy to think Tagovailoa can’t take a major jump another year removed from that hip injury? Just because Tagovailoa wasn't an instant star doesn't make him a bad quarterback. He didn’t look great as a rookie, but he wasn’t a disaster either. If Tagovailoa gets better — 23-year-old players are allowed to do that, after all — the Dolphins are set up very well around him. Buffalo is an exceptional team, and in a best-case scenario, the Dolphins are even better this year and win the division.

The decision to take Tagovailoa, who was coming off a rough injury, over Herbert with the fifth overall pick might be discussed forever. In hindsight, it seems crazy the Dolphins didn’t play it safer and take Herbert. If the two quarterbacks remain as far apart as they were last season, we’ll wonder if Miami made a franchise-changing mistake. With Miami’s talent and a good coach in Flores, it’s hard to see the Dolphins being that bad this season. A decent season with another near-miss of the playoffs, and Tagovailoa looking like a limited quarterback again, would put Miami at a difficult crossroads going into 2022.

Nobody would take Tagovailoa over Herbert if we redid the 2020 NFL draft. That doesn’t mean Tagovailoa can’t be a very good NFL quarterback. It's not entirely crazy to believe a year from now we might believe Tagovailoa has the brighter future. He is being short-changed based on the lack of patience QBs are given. Tagovailoa should be better, and there’s a lot around him. I like the Dolphins, but have them just out of the playoffs. Hopefully for them, there won't be more buyer’s remorse over the 2020 draft.

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots

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