Tom Rudawky is a former NFL scout for the New York Giants who previously worked in football operations for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. He now writes for The 33rd Team among other publications. Find him on Twitter @TRudy831
In the 2020 NFL draft, the quarterback-needy Miami Dolphins spent their first of three first round picks on Tua Tagovailoa, ushering in a new era for the franchise that hadn’t seen elite quarterback play since Dan Marino. Tua was wildly successful during his college career at Alabama, but one of the anti-Tua arguments coming out was that his supporting cast of skill players was so immensely talented that things were much easier on him while playing one of the game’s toughest positions. Even for the most severe Tua “truthers,” it’s a point that’s hard to argue. In his senior season, Tua’s receivers included Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, and Devonta Smith. He played behind offensive tackles Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood. Oh yeah – and that Alabama team featured Najee Harris at running back.
Through two years in the NFL, the jury is most definitely still out on Tagovailoa. He’s highly accurate in the short and intermediate areas, but at times the Dolphins have really struggled to push the ball downfield, in large part due to Tua’s modest arm strength. In fairness, Miami’s offensive line has been among the worst in football each of the last two seasons, something that’s greatly limited what the Dolphins can do from a schematic standpoint to generate downfield production.
Tua’s first two seasons have been filled with a lot of noise off the field as well. The Dolphins had been in the middle of Deshaun Watson trade rumors for about a year, with many believing they were going to eventually acquire the star quarterback. This past season, it caused a lot of awkwardness, with former head coach Brian Flores having to answer questions about the rumors on a weekly basis.
Now months later, Mike McDaniel is the new head man, Watson is a Cleveland Brown, and Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross and General Manager Chris Grier have both publicly stated that Tagovailoa is their guy – no questions asked. This represents a clear direction for the franchise heading into 2022.
This offseason, the Dolphins have made Tagovailoa’s success a clear priority. They signed Left Tackle Terron Armstead and guard Connor Williams in free agency, giving Tagovailoa better reinforcements up front. They’ve also continued to attack the skill positions in a big way, providing the type of playmakers he had become accustomed to for years in Tuscaloosa.
In wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Devante Parker, and Cedrick Wilson, tight end Mike Gesicki, and running back Chase Edmonds, they’ve built that true “basketball team,” with varying skill sets and different archetypes that give their quarterback the opportunity to play consistent, winning football.
In Hill and Waddle, Miami has two electrifying, game-wrecking playmakers. Hill plays faster than any receiver in the league and is extremely challenging to guard underneath due to his quick twitch change of direction and elusiveness after the catch. Waddle proved himself to be a very reliable target for Tua as a rookie in 2021. He’s got great hands, is a quick and fluid route runner, and also possesses the speed to outrun angles and hit the home run. Having one of these players is unique, but being able to deploy both players presents enormous challenges for all defenses. Their speed must be respected and accounted for at all times, opening up more opportunities underneath.
Enter Parker and Wilson, who stand to benefit greatly from the threat that Waddle and Hill present. Since he entered the league in 2015, Parker has been one of the best contested catch receivers in the league. What Parker may lack in speed, elusiveness, or route running he more than makes up for in strength, strong hands, and athleticism at the catch point. Having him means they have that big-bodied, physical target that will continue helping extending drives and making plays downfield.
I’m especially intrigued by how this can open things up for Wilson, though. A 3-year, $22 million signing during the free agency period, Wilson is a slot receiver with very good size, route running, and hands. He’s a big, fluid target that gets open and catches the ball – something Tagovailoa will love as a tertiary option. This is a signing that makes a lot of sense when you look at the rest of the Dolphins skill group, and considering Wilson is only 26 years old and came fairly cheap, represents a great value. Wilson rounds out the main cast in what figures to be a highly productive receiver group.
In Gesicki, Raheem Mostert and Edmonds, Tua also has a marquee tight end and pair of speedy running back to feature. Gesicki emerged as a top tier TE last year, totaling 73 receptions and 780 yards on the year. I was a little surprised Miami didn’t extend him long-term, but they instead utilized the franchise tag, securing his services one more season. Gesicki excels because of his athletic skill set. He’s such a mismatch due to his combination of size, athleticism, and ability to make plays in traffic. Edmonds, like Wilson, was acquired in free agency by Grier. He’s an elusive, one-cut runner with solid running and receiving skills. I’d expect Miami to feature multiple backs, including Mostert, but Edmonds should get a good share of the looks, at least initially.
As much criticism as Tagovailoa has received at times, and as much noise has surrounded him, he’s now set up for success in a way he hasn’t been previously since he entered the league in 2020. With a skill group around him that possesses immense balance, he is well-equipped to steer an offense led by an innovative offensive mind in McDaniel.
Grier set out to create an environment where his young quarterback could thrive, and on paper, he’s done just that. The jury may be out on Tua now, but after the 2022 season, having been surrounded by this dynamic group of playmakers, we’ll know exactly what we need to about Tua – and that’s whether or not the Dolphins have found the answer at quarterback, or whether they must go back to the drawing board in yet another attempt to improve the position.