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NFL Draft

Examining The Fit: Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa

  • The Draft Network
  • April 30, 2020
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The name of the game in player evaluation is identifying traits and skills that will translate to the pros; in this case, the NFL. When we watch quarterbacks, we talk about arm strength, field vision, pocket management and, of course, accuracy. 

Those skills translate into prototypes: toolsy quarterbacks with big arms and fearless throws, point-guard passers with pop-gun arms or scramble-first QBs who only win outside of structure. And those prototypes fit into scheme fits, where offensive systems can take imperfect quarterbacks and maximize their strengths, hide their deficiencies and generate success.

We've talked about how good Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Jordan Love and Jacob Eason are. Now, we have to reorient the conversation, not just on what they do well, but how what they do well fits into what they'll be asked to do at the next level.

This will be the first examination of team fits for these top quarterbacks using the information offered by The Draft Network’s Contextualized Quarterbacking portfolios. Here, we'll look at how Tagovailoa fits with his new team, the Dolphins.

Examining The Scheme

When Miami let go of Chad O'Shea and brought on long NFL mainstay Chan Gailey as the offensive coordinator, the emphasis was very clear: The Dolphins wanted to spread it out. The Sun Sentinel’s Omar Kelly shared this quote from general manager Chris Grier after Gailey was hired: 

"Chan was a little bit ahead in the [run/pass option offensive] game early on before it became, I guess, ‘in-style’ for the league.”

The RPO was a critical part of Alabama’s offense and was the best aspect of Tagovailoa's game; 26.6% of Tagovailoa's chartable passing attempts came to the middle of the field, between 0-20 yards from the line of scrimmage. It was the RPO hot spot for Alabama. Quick, in-breaking slants and Bang 8 posts to wide receivers Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy lived in those areas.

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Gailey is considered one of the trailblazers who brought spread offense to the NFL and primarily utilized the horizontal spread concepts familiar to Urban Meyer’s offense. This structure looks for a quarterback with a quick trigger, the ability to distribute outside of the numbers and elite placement in the short game. Tagovailoa’s best area of accuracy and placement, relative to the rest of the class, came in the 10-19 yard range — only Burrow is measurably better than him in the 0-9 range. Herbert, another QB option for the Dolphins at No. 5, was below average for the class in every measure but one at those depths.

Tagovailoa fits the offense extremely well — definitely better than Herbert as a passer. The main concern has to stem from the desire for a mobile quarterback, which originates from Kelly’s report. Coach Brian Flores has talked about the value of mobility at the quarterback position and Kelly, citing unidentified league sources, reported the Dolphins were looking for a mobile QB: 

“I think at any level you’ve got to have mobility. Pee Wee, college, high school. You’ve got to be able to step up in the pocket or slide in the pocket, or if you get a free runner [as a rusher], try to avoid that guy,” Flores said earlier this offseason. “I think mobility at that position, at any level, is a good thing. I would say just from a talent standpoint, yeah, that’s something we’re looking at.”

Tagovailoa struggled with mobility in his final season at Alabama, which is a curious phenomenon likely due to multiple injuries. Tagovailoa was the worst quarterback in the 2020 class passing outside of the pocket, despite being a solid thrower on the move. He lacked comfort when things broke down out of structure. Mobility is helpful in evading sacks, but Tagovailoa prefers to stand and deliver, which he did on 58% of his pressures, and when he escapes, he doesn't tend to make big plays.

Gailey’s offense should allow Tagovailoa to win in the same way he did at Alabama: quick-distribution, accurate ball placement, maximizing yards after catch (YAC) and making the defense wrong with good pre- and post-snap reads alike.

Examining The Weapons

Tagovailoa likes to do all of those things; he distributes quickly, hits his first read in stride and maximizes YAC. But how does it work with the Dolphins’ current roster?

Again, we find a snug fit. Miami’s receiving corps isn't particularly elite in terms of top-end talent or high-end depth, but it does have a quality cadre of underneath receivers including Albert Wilson, Allen Hurts and Jakeem Grant.

But these players are not the top receivers for the Dolphins. Over last season, the best weapons they had were DeVante Parker and Preston Williams — skyscraper pass-catchers who win contested balls on deep, outside shots. Parker and Williams have the ability to win on the quick slants and curls that typify a horizontal spread and RPO attack, but neither are particularly elusive with the ball in their hands or zippy as underneath route runners. They will likely remain in their current roles as outside, nine-ball receivers.

It's worth noting that, while those routes may not be the focus of the offense as they were when Ryan "Y.O.L.O." Fitzpatrick was captaining a depleted O'Shea offense, they are still valuable for any team. Effective deep, outside routes are critical to pulling safeties out of the box and creating intermediate space in the passing game.

While Williams and Parker will remain big-play studs, it won't be surprising to see one of Wilson, Hurns or Grant become Tagovailoa's early favorite target from the slot. Grant particularly excites as a YAC option for Tagovailoa, who had the greatest percentage of his offensive output come from YAC.

The player I cannot figure out a fit for is tight end Mike Gesicki. In Gailey's last two offenses — Buffalo from 2010-12 and with the Jets from 2015-16 — the only time he had a tight end among his top-five targets was in 2012 when Scott Chandler was a key part of the Bills’ offense. Gesicki is a linear player who wins with long speed and catch radius plays on seam routes and in the red zone. He'll win on quick RPOs given his size, and he has the athleticism to play in the slot and win on isolation routes as a backside flex TE. But it's tough to see him being featured there; he'd eat into the reps given to Allen, Hurns and Grant.

Keep an eye on running back targets as well. Both Gailey’s offenses and Tagovailoa’s playstyle reward pass-catching rushers. The player to watch for here is Matt Breida, a recent trade acquisition from San Francisco, who has 67 receptions over his three years in the league.

Examining The Fit

Whenever Tagovailoa steps into the starting role for Miami, the transition should be relatively smooth. Many of the philosophies championed by Gailey are familiar to Tagovailoa from Steve Sarkisian’s offense and fit both his traits and skills. Tagovailoa may take a redshirt year as a result of injury, but his film is comfortably pro-ready.

While the Dolphins could use a better offensive line and some improved YAC weapons, there's little that Tagovailoa shouldn't be able to execute in Year 1.

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