Despite having an above-average first season, Tua Tagovailoa was one of the most over-hated QBs in his rookie year. After seeing Justin Herbert exceed expectations for the Chargers, many fans were disappointed after the Dolphins passed on him for Tua. He was regarded as the top QB until he got hurt, and Joe Burrow rocketed up draft boards. Does Tua deserve the harsh criticism, or is it justified?
First, let’s look at his rookie stats last year, which were surprisingly above average. In 10 games, he had a 64.1% completion rating with 1,814 yards, 14 total touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. If he continued that pace and started every game, he would have 2902 yards, 22 total touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Those stats are pretty normal for an NFL rookie and are good, considering he was still recovering from a major injury. For comparison, Burrow’s projected 16 game stats was roughly 4,300 yards and 25 total touchdowns. It’s common for rookies to struggle at any position, especially QB, but Tua wasn’t terrible. Kyler Murray had roughly the same stats as a rookie (24 Total TDs 12 Ints) while playing all 16 games. If Tua could match those stats while playing fewer games, he’s in a pretty good spot.
Another thing to note is a rookie QB’s surrounding cast. Burrow and Herbert had much better talent surrounding them last year, hence the better stats. Both the Bengals and Chargers receiving duos were better than any of Tua’s options last year. Behind Devante Parker and Mike Gesicki, the Dolphins have complementary pass-catchers like Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns, average at best. Tua’s pass catchers for next season have improved with the addition of Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller. Waddle has been impressive in camp so far, and Fuller has been a sneaky threat when healthy. With additional receiving help, Tua has the help he needs to take the next steps as a QB. There’s potential on Miami’s offense, and like Tua, some of their players still need to develop.
Tagovailoa may not have had the best stats but beat out some of his peers in some categories. Tua’s deep passing numbers (10/29, 259 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) were better than Burrow’s (9/48, 293 yards, 1 drop), and his bad throw percentage (18.8%) beat out Jalen Hurts’ (26.7%) and was close to Herbert’s (18%). Many people don’t realize that Miami’s coaching didn’t lean on Tua to win them games. Because of how well the Dolphins defense played in 2020, the offense’s job was to play turnover-free and complimentary football. In that regard, Tagovailoa played great because it took him a long time to throw his first interception, and he finished with a 6-3 record.
Now let’s look at a negative, his ability to read defenses. Tagovailoa was taken out of two games, Denver and Las Vegas, but the Broncos game stood out. For the most part, Tagovailoa appeared confused and baffled by what the Broncos were doing defensively. As explained in John Vogel’s article, Tua made good pre-snap reads, but disguised coverage got him, which is where his mistakes came from. It’s completely normal for a rookie to have trouble reading defenses. It’s how they learn from their mistakes and adapt after that matters.
At the end of the day, Tagovailoa was a rookie. Coaches understood he’d do things on the field that a 15-year veteran like Fitzpatrick would never do. He’ll have to learn his mistakes with reading defenses and making risky throws with more NFL experience. There’s a reason he was chosen 5th overall despite his major injury. When entering the draft, Tua’s pro comparison was Drew Brees, which tells you something about his ceiling. He has all he needs to make the jump next season, and if he learns from his mistakes can improve vastly. Don’t be surprised next year when the Dolphins make the playoffs with Tua at the helm.