Tua Tagovailoa feels confident his injured hip will be back to full strength in 2020. He proved as much by declaring for the NFL Draft.
The Alabama quarterback, a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2018 and a prime candidate last fall before a dislocated hip ended his season after nine games, formally ended his college career at a press conference in Tuscaloosa. That cleared up any uncertainty about his immediate NFL future — and gave the Dolphins an obvious next step in their ongoing rebuild.
Miami’s five-win season may have exceeded expectations (and ruined the Patriots’ championship hopes), but the Dolphins’ tanking plan may not have been totally derailed by fleeting moments of overachievement. Joe Burrow’s ascension to the presumptive top spot after a breakthrough at LSU means Tagovailoa — whose latest medical check-up saw him healing nicely — could be available when Miami makes the fifth overall selection in this year’s draft.
That would be a boon for the Dolphins, and the rest of the league could benefit as well.
What can Tagovailoa bring to Miami?
The Hawaiian would be the sun around which head coach Brian Flores’ solar system revolves. He’d be an immediate focus for the Miami offense, though Ryan Fitzpatrick’s presence (he’s under contract for a reasonable $8 million next season) would allow him extra time to adjust to the NFL — and get his bad hip back to 100 percent —without having to start right away.
He’d be the Dolphins’ latest attempt at a homegrown franchise quarterback, something the team’s lacked since Dan Marino retired. Since 2001, Miami has drafted passers like John Beck, Chad Henne, Pat White, and Ryan Tannehill. None of those players would go on to start a playoff game for the club, though Tannehill was the impetus behind 2016’s 10-6 season before suffering an ACL tear late in the season.
Tagovailoa could change all that. In three seasons and 32 games with the Tide (including 24 starts), he won a national championship, played in another NCAA title game, and compiled a stellar 87:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He threw for at least three touchdowns in more than half his college games. While some of that success can be attributed to a receiving corps loaded with first-round talent — some of which could be targeted by the Dolphins this spring later in the draft — it’s clear he has the arm strength, accuracy, and decision-making ability to transform an offense.
He’d be the latest young star in Miami’s scraggly constellation. DeVante Parker has been a revelation now that he’s been freed from former coach Adam Gase’s influence; his 802 receiving yards in the final eight weeks of the season were second only to Michael Thomas. Mike Gesicki has come on strong as a pass-catching tight end. A combination of draft picks and salary cap space could fill in the massive gaps around them (especially at tailback, since the 37-year-old Fitzpatrick was the team’s leading rusher in 2019).
Would Tagovailoa be available when the Dolphins make their first choice? Barring any major trades, it seems like a solid bet. Here’s how the top five shakes out in terms of quarterback need in 2020:
1. Bengals. Do they need a QB? Yes, and they can choose between Heisman winner Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa, or any other prospect who may rise through the pre-draft process.
2. Washington. Do they need a QB? No. They drafted Dwayne Haskins with the 15th overall pick in 2019.
3. Lions. Do they need a QB? Not really. Matthew Stafford will only be 32 years old next month and was having the best season of his career before a back injury cut it short.
4. Giants. Do they need a QB? No. They drafted Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2019.
5. Dolphins. Do they need a QB? Yes, and they’d be happy to draft whomever the Bengals don’t.
But even if another team threatens to jump the line, Miami has the assets to move up the draft board. Trading away young talent in Minkah Fitzpatrick, Laremy Tunsil, and Kenny Stills net the Dolphins a pair of extra first-round picks this spring. If the Dolphins have their hearts set on adding Tagovailoa, they’ll almost certainly be able to.
What does Tagovailoa’s declaration mean for the rest of the NFL?
While the Dolphins, as a quarterback-hungry team drafting in the top five, stand to benefit most from Tagovailoa’s decision, his entry is a rising tide for needy teams across the league.
The Chargers, making their selection one spot after Miami, could select the draft’s third quarterback if they decide they need to find Philip Rivers’ replacement, or they could luck into whatever position player the Dolphins pass up by drafting Tagovailoa.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has already said quarterback will be one of his team’s main focuses this offseason following Jacoby Brissett’s concerning decline to finish up the 2019 season. He could now find himself able to draft a franchise passer in the Justin Herbert/Jacob Eason/Jordan Love mold when Indianapolis is called to make the 13th pick.
The Lions, who hold the draft’s first real wild card after probable slam dunk picks at No. 1 (Burrow) and No. 2 (Ohio State wrecking ball pass rusher Chase Young), will be able to ask for a bigger return in a potential trade down now that Tagovailoa’s in the mix.
It’s bad news for what stands to be a banner crop of talented, but flawed free-agent quarterbacks, however. Passers like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill, Drew Brees, Rivers, and even Tom Brady are all set to see their contracts expire this offseason. Other starters like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton could join them.
Tagovailoa presents a high-upside option in a league with only 32 starting jobs. He’ll also be dirt cheap over the course of his rookie-scale contract. Would you rather bet on Tua’s potential for four years and roughly $30 million (with a team option for a fifth), or sign someone like Winston for two years at the same price (using Brissett’s recent contract extension as a template)?
Tagovailoa’s decision to dive into the draft waters is great news for the Dolphins, good news for the NFL, and another obstacle for the league’s veteran quarterbacks looking for one more shot at a starting job. He may just be the light at the end of Miami’s tunnel; as long as he’s healthy, he’s tailor-made for the franchise QB-shaped hole in the middle of the team’s foundation.
His announcement suggests he’s on track for a full recovery — and while his departure is a rough blow for Alabama, Nick Saban’s loss is the NFL’s gain.