clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Tyreek Hill Trade Is an Opportunity and an Ultimatum for Tua Tagovailoa

The Dolphins have overhauled their offense. They’re about to find out whether Tagovailoa is capable of taking it to another level.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The latest blockbuster trade of this NFL offseason sent receiver Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs to the Dolphins in exchange for five draft picks: the 29th, 50th, and a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, plus fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2023. Miami is also giving Hill a four-year contract extension that will make him the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history, with $52.5 million guaranteed at signing and $72.2 million guaranteed over the first three years of the deal, which kicks in at the start of the 2023 league year.

In combination with the two first-round picks the Dolphins sent to the Eagles last offseason to move up in the draft and take receiver Jaylen Waddle, that means Miami has spent more than three first-round picks in the last calendar year on a pair of dynamic receivers whose top-flight speed and after-the-catch ability make them ideal targets for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whom Hill spoke of in his introductory press conference in Miami.

“Tua is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL,” Hill said.

This is true! Tagovailoa ranked sixth in the NFL last season in Pro Football Focus’s accuracy rate over expected, behind only Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers. He was seventh in completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 135 throws.

It’s just that it’s not exactly the most ringing endorsement, either, particularly when Tagovailoa’s accuracy is connected to the main drawback of his game: that he throws mostly short passes that haven’t generally translated to good offense. Hill’s statement felt a little bit like someone telling a friend that their wedding dress is “really eye-catching,” or that a student has “really improved,” or when anybody uses the word “eccentric” to describe just about anything.

In his introductory press conference last month, Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins’ new head coach, took a similar just-the-facts approach to the question of what should be expected of Tagovailoa this season.

“I haven’t seen a quarterback win a football game by himself, ever, really. He has to have somebody to throw to,” McDaniel said. “He’d better not be getting tackled before he throws, so somebody better block.”

Again, all true! Just a little underwhelming. (Though it doesn’t beat the gold standard of facts-only quarterback endorsements, which happened when Sean McVay declared last January that Jared Goff was “the quarterback right now.”)

Poor Tua. The Dolphins have loaded up in ways that should make any quarterback happy and feel well-positioned for success, yet somehow their offseason has come off like a backhanded compliment. Miami’s offense should be better in 2022, but Tagovailoa will be left with few excuses if there isn’t significant growth.

The Hill trade wasn’t the first big acquisition of the Dolphins’ offseason. It came one day after they signed former Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, one of the top free agents on the market, to a five-year deal worth up to $87.5 million with $43.4 million guaranteed. Miami also signed receiver Cedrick Wilson, running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, and guard Connor Williams in free agency, and brought back tight end Mike Gesicki on the franchise tag.

The additions of Armstead and Williams address an offensive line that ranked last in the NFL in both ESPN’s pass block win rate and Pro Football Focus’s pass block efficiency while giving up a league-leading 258 pressures. Armstead is a three-time Pro Bowler and represents an obvious upgrade. Williams doesn’t have the same pedigree and has struggled with penalties at times, but his 76.7 PFF pass-blocking grade last season would have been the best on the Dolphins by nearly 10 points.

Edmonds and Mostert are a versatile duo at running back, important in McDaniel’s wide-zone, play-action-heavy offense. And Mostert, who ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, combines with Hill, who ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash, and Waddle, who didn’t run a 40 at the combine or his pro day last offseason but, I promise you, is also really, really fast, to give the Dolphins some of the best team speed on offense in the NFL. For his part, Gesicki offers a 6-foot-6 jump-ball target who can help in the red zone.

Hill and Waddle, especially, can provide yards after the catch in McDaniel’s scheme. McDaniel’s last job was coordinating a San Francisco offense that featured Deebo Samuel, who ranked 28th in the NFL among receivers in yards after the catch on passes thrown less than 10 yards downfield, with 126. He will now have Waddle, who ranked sixth with 237 yards, and Hill, who ranked 11th with 205, essential for a quarterback who relies on short passes, which brings us back to Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa is entering his third season and he’s never ranked above 20th in EPA per play or 24th in PFF grade, and his 7.0 average intended air yards was third lowest among quarterbacks with at least 135 passing attempts last season (only Ben Roethlisberger and Jared Goff ranked lower), according to Next Gen Stats. It’s fair to say that Miami’s reliance on short throws has been partly necessitated by the weakness of its offensive line. It’s also been hard to deduce how much of that strategy was attributable to pressure and how much was attributable to the limitations of Tagovailoa’s arm.

Where the balance of that responsibility lies should be easier to deduce after Miami’s moves this offseason. The Dolphins have upgraded their offensive line, running game, and passing attack, and added an offensive-minded head coach schooled in a scheme that is essentially Spanx for quarterbacks, leaving Tagovailoa as the dependent variable of the Dolphins’ 2022 season. And, by the way, despite what they gave up to get Hill, the Dophins still have two first-round picks in 2023 if they determine Tua’s not what they’re looking for.

To be fair, not everything is perfect about Tagovailoa’s situation. Though Armstead and Williams unquestionably upgrade Miami’s offensive line, they both play on the left side, leaving protection of the left-handed Tagovailoa’s blind side unaddressed. The team recently released Jesse Davis, last season’s right tackle. It’s possible the Dolphins could move last year’s right guard, Robert Hunt, to right tackle, where he started 11 games as a rookie in 2020, or try Liam Eichenberg there. Austin Jackson, who started at left tackle and left guard last season, will likely need to compete for a spot on the right side of the line. But overall, it’s hard to argue that Tagovailoa’s supporting cast should hold him back.

There is one offseason addition who, from Tagovailoa’s perspective, might not be entirely helpful to his cause. Miami signed Teddy Bridgewater to a one-year, $6.5 million contract to be … well … that’s the issue. It figures that the Dolphins would only make the kind of investment they have this offseason to support a quarterback they hope can be the long-term future of their franchise, Tagovailoa. Bridgewater, though, hasn’t exactly said he expects to be the backup.

“Honestly that’s a conversation I’d rather keep in-house,” Bridgewater told Miami reporters last Monday. “It’s a unique opportunity and I’m happy to be a part of it this season.”

Bridgewater is a competitive person who’s played well as a starter in the past, so it’s more than reasonable that he wouldn’t want to declare himself the backup before a single practice. Still, it’s one more example of a moment in which Tagovailoa could have received a vote of confidence and didn’t. Luckily for him, votes of confidence don’t block and compliments don’t catch passes, so this offseason should still feel good for Tagovailoa, the most accurate maybe-starter who doesn’t have to win games on his own in the NFL.