Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will have all eyes on him as the Dolphins prepare to enter the 2021 season.
Sure, the team signed quarterback Jacoby Brissett in free agency, but with the departure of Ryan Fitzpatrick, this is Tagovailoa’s team and job as long as he performs.
The No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft had an up-and-down rookie season that saw him make nine starts, but he was also benched twice for Fitzpatrick throughout his time as the starter. However, Tagovailoa made every start that he was healthy for once he took over the job.
Still, there are certainly areas where the second-year signal-caller can improve. Miami is a borderline playoff team, and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores certainly won’t want to waste Miami’s elite defense with so many players still in their primes.
The Dolphins showed all the confidence in the world in Tagovailoa by trading out of the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft since they didn’t want to take a quarterback.
In one of the best quarterback classes in recent years (three in the first three picks, five in the first 15 picks), the Dolphins were content at the position.
They should be.
After all they did invest a top-five pick in Tagovailoa just the year before even though he was coming off of a major hip injury.
It seems that things can only go up for Tagovailoa healthwise, and the Dolphins showed an extra vote of confidence by drafting one of his college wide receivers, Jaylen Waddle, with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Waddle and the addition of speedy wideout Will Fuller should make Miami’s offense about as dynamic as ever this coming season.
However, the Dolphins will only go as far as Tagovailoa takes them. Here are a few realistic expectations for him heading into his second NFL season.
1. Improve as a downfield passer
Tagovailoa threw for 1,814 yards as a rookie in 10 games (nine starts) to go with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. None of those numbers jump off the page, but they aren’t horrible.
Where Tagovailoa needs to improve is getting the ball downfield. The improved weapons should help, but the second-year passer has to be able to create more plays with his arm if the Dolphins want to be a playoff team.
As a rookie, Tagovailoa averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt, which was good for 30th in the NFL. He also finished 26th in the league in QBR and was 30th in net yards gained per pass attempt at 5.41.
That’s not great, and Miami’s offense sputtered at times with him under center. One wouldn’t have to look any further than the Las Vegas Raiders game, where Tagovailoa was benched for Fitzpatrick and the offense immediately came to life in a 26-25 victory.
Tagovailoa averaged just 3.6 completed air yards per pass attempt last season, and the longest completed pass he had all season went for just 35 yards.
Now that speedsters like Waddle and Fuller are on the roster, Miami has to open up its offense and make Tagovailoa throw the ball down the field. That will open things up in the running game, and it will also allow for easier completions underneath.
Tagovailoa was accurate as a rookie. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes and 74.1 percent of his throws were deemed on target (for comparison Fitzpatrick was accurate on 79.9 percent of passes).
There’s certainly room to grow, and it starts by making throws down the field to keep the defense guessing.
2. Get more playmakers involved on offense
Miami’s improved weapons make this goal a lot easier to hit, but it needs to be addressed nonetheless.
The Dolphins offense, at least throwing the ball, was a two-man show last season. DeVante Parker (793 receiving yards) and Mike Gesicki (703 receiving yards) were the only two players to register over 400 receiving yards last season.
Obviously, Waddle and Fuller will give Tagovailoa more options, but he needs to help people get involved on offense.
If you look at the great quarterbacks across the NFL, they are able to make due no matter what their weapons are, and Tagovailoa made an uninspiring core last season look like exactly that.
Full seasons from Lynn Bowden Jr. and Preston Williams will help, but the Dolphins need their franchise guy to take the next step.
After all, Tagovailoa was drafted at No. 5 to be the guy for years to come. He has to be able to make do with less, and now that the Dolphins have legitimate weapons, there needs to be multiple players pushing the 1,000-yard mark this season.
3. Finish the season with 25 passing touchdowns
From a pure numbers standpoint, Tagovailoa needs to throw more touchdowns this season.
If he misses the mark but the Dolphins are moving the ball and just scoring via the run, then that’s completely fine.
However, Miami averaged just 24.89 points in Tagovailoa’s starts last season, and he threw for just 11 touchdowns in those games.
Essentially, Tagovailoa contributed 66 of the Dolphins’ 224 points over that stretch, which is slightly less than 30 percent.
Between Tagovailoa and Fitzpatrick, Miami had 24 passing touchdowns in the 2020 campaign. In a full season, assuming he makes all 17 starts, 25 touchdowns is a reasonable and relatively reachable goal for Tagovailoa in this improved offense.
If you want him to take the next step, fans and the Dolphins should expect more from Tagovailoa next season.
He’s shown some flashes of being a franchise guy, but there’s a whole lot of untapped potential still left.
Miami is on the cusp of being a playoff team, but Tagovailoa’s play will determine if it actually will break through and earn a berth this season.