If football weren’t such a cold, ruthless meritocracy, there’d be a little more sympathy and certainly a lot more patience for Tua Tagovailoa…and perhaps not as much chatter about the Dolphins being interested in Deshaun Watson. The Miami Dolphins’ second-year quarterback is the first to admit he wasn’t great as a rookie. But he certainly wasn’t terrible either.
Tua Tagovailoa’s rookie season with the Miami Dolphins
Justin Herbert’s topline stats were unquestionably better. He had the best statistical season by a rookie ever. But pocket passers typically take longer to adjust than mobile quarterbacks. Plus, the advanced stats tell a more complete story.
Tua actually was more aggressive than Herbert, throwing to the sticks more and completing longer passes through the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Plus, Tua had an inferior offensive line. He was given, on average, thirteen-hundredths of a second less time to throw than his Chargers counterpart in 2020.
And he did all of this at far less than 100 percent. Tua made his first NFL start 11 months after reconstructive hip surgery and only recently has felt like his old self.
Observers late in the season noticed a reluctance to push the ball downfield, but there’s an easy explanation for that — his throws were all arm. Tua didn’t have the leg and core strength and pliability needed to really whip it.
“I think my hip feels 10 times better than it did last year and the confidence level for myself, I feel really confident coming into this second year after that injury two years ago,” Tagovailoa said recently.
It’s shown up on the field. While his five-interception minicamp practice made national headlines, it wasn’t reflective of his body of work during spring ball. The Dolphins were encouraged by the significant progress he made from the start of OTAs, a source tells PFN.
And yet, there’s a chance none of this matters.
Are the Dolphins still in the market for Deshaun Watson?
We’re told the Dolphins have enough lingering questions about Tua’s ability and future that they would still consider trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson if his legal situation is somehow resolved in time for the 2021 season.
That, of course, is an enormous if.
Watson stands accused of sexual misconduct by nearly two dozen massage therapists who are suing him.
Watson is also under investigation by both the NFL and Houston police due to the allegations. There are so many moving parts here that even a settlement — which alone would be a Herculean task, considering the sheer number of plaintiffs — might not be enough for the league to green-light a trade.
But that has not stopped the Dolphins from keeping an open mind, according to multiple sources briefed on the organization’s thinking.
(Some important context: Miami would have competition for Watson should the Texans shop him. The Eagles are said to be just as interested in Watson and have far more future draft capital to offer the Texans.)
Miami might eventually need to make a decision on Tua with incomplete information
The Dolphins have never seen Tua play in the NFL totally healthy. They’ve never seen what he can do with weapons like Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, who were both added this offseason.
And they’ve never seen him play in a system specifically designed for him, with full mastery of the playbook. Tua acknowledged in May that he didn’t know his assignments as well as he should have as a rookie.
That admission prompted fierce (and frankly over-the-top) criticism nationally. But those who know him well were not surprised by his honesty and vulnerability. Tua is said to be incredibly open to coaching and has made it a point to push himself beyond his comfort zone this offseason. Those close to him marvel at his transformation physically and mentally in the past six months.
“I would say there’s no extra motivation for me,” Tagovailoa said, when asked specifically about the Watson chatter. “It’s really just playing to the standard and the level of expectations of this organization; but then also the standard that I have for myself, and expectations I have for myself.”
Ultimately, it’s the Dolphins’ expectations that matter the most
While the Dolphins are just $5.5 million under the 2021 salary cap with three unsigned draft picks, there are accounting mechanisms in place that would allow them to absorb Deshaun Watson’s contract and the cap hit that would come with trading Tua without significantly impacting their roster.
It’s Year 3 of the Brian Flores era. For all the good work he’s done since taking over for Adam Gase, he hasn’t yet made the playoffs. This is the year the rebuild needs to come together.
But with the regular season just eight weeks away, there’s still a chance that rebuild veers in a direction never imagined with the Dolphins drafting Tua fifth overall just 15 months ago.
Want more NFL news and analysis?
Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay in the loop on all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2021 season and beyond.