The Tua Tactic

Immediately following the Tide’s 2018 National Championship victory, Tua Tagovailoa become the media’s Golden Child. Terms like “Tank for Tua” were coined, but I wasn’t sold yet. Tua had an incredible college career, but often struggled in big games as well as staying healthy. Tua suffered a high ankle sprain as a sophomore, another one as a junior, then had his snakebitten Alabama career ended by a horrific hip injury. His incredible story of recovery inspired many, but his injury riddled career has followed him to the NFL and is just part of what has kept him such a questionable project.

Tua looked good at times as a rookie, but that is the problem. Fellow rookie QBs Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts have all looked GREAT. He has managed games well, but lacked the “it factor” that the other 3 QBs have shown. Arguably surrounded by the best team of the four rookies, Tua only threw 11 TDs and 1800 yards, which are comparable to the stats of Josh Rosen. He was also benched on several different occasions, which were continuously reiterated to have been performance related. Just as when Tua was mysteriously named the starter, the same reason was mentioned for why he was benched…to give the team a “spark”. In a strange move by the Dolphins, Tua has already been named the 2021 starter for the team, but is that just an attempt to overcompensate for their former 5th Overall pick? The Dolphins have two 1st round picks in 2021, which leaves us begging to find out one question; will one of them be used to replace Tua Tagovailoa?

The Dolphins are in a very interesting situation this off-season. They finished with a respectable 10-6 record, yet they find themselves with the 3rd overall pick thanks to wise moves made by General Manager Chris Grier. They drafted Tua 5th overall last year, but are again forced to evaluate several of the best QB prospects in the 2021 class. They have a solid team, especially their defense, but face an unsually tough task due to their biggest weakness being quarterback. Although Tua won games, he also crumbled in the spotlight and was incoherent when it mattered the most and now seems to have the press of Miami against him.

As the GM you must identify what exactly is standing in Tua’s way from being a great QB. Is it his arm talent? His football IQ? Work ethic? Reps? Or is it something outside of football that is holding him back? If the team ultimately thinks he has grown and shown signs of progress to becoming who was thought to be drafted 5th overall, then the answer is clear…build around him. But if the several red flags that have popped up are more concerning than you imagined, then it is fair game to hit the reset button and grab one of the more surefire prospects such as Justin Fields and Zach Wilson. 

Outside of Tua’s big half in the 2018 Championship, he has struggled in the spotlight. In his breakout 2018 college season when facing top 30 defenses his stats were abysmal compared to the games against the majority of his cupcake opponents. He threw just 6 of his 43 touchdowns against top 30 defenses and threw all 6 of his interceptions as well. In 2019 he had just one victory against a top 25 opponent (#24 Texas A&M) and had his lowest QBR of the year against #2 LSU. Tua was young and growing in college, but what is concerning is that this trend has carried to the NFL. In his 5 career starts against top 16 defenses he has thrown for 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, averaging a QBR of 45.3. In his 5 starts against bottom 16 defenses he threw for 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, averaging a QBR of 57.1. He finished his rookie season with a PFF grade of 65.4, which was ranked 33rd in the NFL (a league with 32 teams). To put this grade in perspective, the Saints Swiss Army Knife Taysom Hill scored 5 points higher in the passing game than Tua did.

Tua’s statistical woes are the least of the Dolphin’s long term concerns. Usually in the league if a QB can win games they will erase any concerns involved with their statistical blunders (remember, Alex Smith kept an NFL job for years). However, if a QB can’t seize the moment in huge situations they will be likely be replaced. Late in the season in a primetime Week 16 matchup the Dolphins were in a must-win scenario against the Raiders. Tua started the game and floundered. Flores quickly pulled the plug on Tua and threw in Fitzpatrick for “a spark”, who was just electric enough to throw a truly heroic no-look pass while his head was being ripped off. This put the Dolphins in field position to win the game in the final seconds and Fitzpatrick was the hero once again. The following week the Dolphins weren’t as lucky, as their spark plug reliever was out with COVID and Tua was forced to do it himself. That did not go as planned as the Dolphins were pummeled after a career high 3 interception game by the rookie. Has the spotlight become too big for Tua?

So…What are the Options?

If Miami is not sold on Tua then they can get away with highway robbery. It is extremely rare that such a good team scores such a high pick. If they elect Fields or Wilson as their pick they certainly will have a big enough market to potentially land an additional 2nd round pick for Tua (given that was the going rate for the pathetic passer Josh Rosen). That would give the Dolphins a new franchise QB and a shot at landing three more Day 1 starters with their natural 18th overall pick along with two 2nd rounders. This is an extremely deep offensive line class and they could beef up front by taking a shot at someone like Rashawn Slater, Alex Leatherwood or Wyatt Davis. They could also bring in a young receiver in the second (perhaps even Chris Olave to pair with Justin Fields). Lastly, they could use some more depth on the defensive line and could find plenty of that with one of those three picks. Taking a QB 3rd overall would be a fair trade off in draft capital as long as the Dolphins received a 2nd Rounder in return for Tua. 

There have been rumors bouncing around the league that the Dolphins are one of Deshaun Watson’s most serious suitors. Franchise QBs rarely get traded in the NFL, but if this were to happen the Dolphins certainly would have what it takes to make the trade. With their multiple 1st Round picks along with former top 5 QB on the block they could put together a package that the Texans couldn’t resist. The Dolphins would lose a lot of future playmakers by forfeiting those picks, so they must be all in on Watson if that is the move they are going to make.

The other option the Dolphins have is to build around Tua. The obvious choice would be to take Penei Sewell 3rd overall (if he is there) then use the remaining picks to add depth to the stout Dolphins. The Oregon standout Offensive Tackle is one of the best prospects of all time and should be a perennial All-Pro once he gets to the league. By solidifying the offensive line the Dolphins can focus on other weaknesses without having to worry about the oft injured young QB as much. The only question with Sewell would be where to plug him into the offensive line, as Tua is a left handed QB it would flip the blindside protection to being the right tackle instead of the left. With their 18th Overall pick the Dolphins could invest in one of the top receiver candidates and possibly even draft Tua’s former Alabama weapon Jalen Waddle. 

Tua has had a limited amount of time to develop and his NFL Career has just begun, so it’s unfair to really put a label or cap on what he can become. He’s shown flashes of being a great game manager and generally hasn’t turned it over as much as many young rookies do. It is a risky move either way that likely will be critiqued for years, but that is part of the job description for being an NFL GM. If the Dolphins find themselves picking at 3 and Justin Fields is still on the board, then they need to jump at the opportunity. The race between Fields and Wilson is a tight one, but Fields ultimately fits the scheme of the Dolphins better than Wilson or Tua. Fields is one of the most aggressive quarterback prospects that I have seen. He is very young, but I believe he has the potential ceiling that could reach higher than Trevor Lawrence. If only Wilson remains on the board, then the Dolphins should take Sewell and work with Tua for another season. Wilson and Tua have similar weaknesses and potential so it wouldn’t make sense to make the leap for Wilson. If the Dolphins pass on Fields they will be inevitably passing on Herbert again and will be making the wrong QB decision for the second year in a row. If they can put together any sort of reasonable package for Deshaun Watson, then Flores would be a fool to not commit to that. The NFL moves at the speed of light and the Dolphins can not get bogged down if they aren’t completely sold on Tua. In today’s league a team can get away with making a bad 1st round pick, but what separates good teams from the great is the ability to make up for that mistake, and the rate of which that it is repaired.

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