There are a couple of stats cited enthusiastically -- combatively in some cases -- by the internet’s Tua Tagovailoa truthers meant to end any and all debate about the quarterback’s passing acumen.
This statistical exchange is part of a long-simmering online battle between those who doubt Tagovailoa’s ceiling as a pro QB or those -- Dolphins fans, usually -- who insist he’s far more than a noodle-armed offensive caretaker. Not having taken an official position on whether Tua is good (or bad), I set out to figure out his potential in Miami’s new offense with what could be the best wideout duo in the league.
So let’s go: It’s the Tuanon forces versus the anti-Tuas ahead of a 2022 season that will likely determine whether Tagovailoa is a long-term NFL starter or a serviceable journeyman signal caller.
Is Tua Aggressive? It’s Complicated
Many Tua backers point to the Next Gen Stats data point not calling Tua one of the NFL’s most aggressive passers, but the league’s most aggressive thrower of the football. A league-leading 19.3 percent of his 2021 attempts were considered aggressive, per the oracles at Next Gen Stats, a touch higher than Joe Burrow. The stat, for the record, “tracks the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.”
This rubs against the widely held perception of Tagovailoa as an unceasingly conservative passer, a careful game manager whose ceiling is capped by an unwillingness -- or lack of ability -- to make the tough downfield throw.
The aggressiveness stat loses some of its luster when one considers Tua’s pass-catching corps in Miami, composed largely of guys who create very little separation. Last year, for instance, DeVante Parker -- now a Patriot -- was dead last among NFL pass catchers in average separation (1.7 yards). Mike Gesicki (3.3) created as much separation as Jared Cook in 2021. Preston Williams has never been a separation leader -- far from it. Jaylen Waddle, as you may have expected, has been the exception for Miami, ranking in the top-25 wideouts in average separation.
Certainly average separation is not an end-all-be-all statistic; plenty of good pass catchers have exceedingly low separation numbers. But there’s reason to believe Tagovailoa’s aggressiveness measurements are at least partly skewed by his lumbering receivers and tight ends, sans Waddle.
One thing’s for sure in the raging online Tua debates. Whether it’s his preference, his limitations, or the Dolphins’ offensive scheme, Tagovailoa as a pro has never been one to force the ball downfield. In 2021, a meager 7.5 percent of Tagovailoa’s attempts traveled more than 20 yards, third-lowest among QBs (only Daniel Jones and Andy Dalton had lower rates). He was hardly horrendous as a deep passer; Pro Football Focus graded Tua as the 21st best downfield passer in 2021, alongside guys like Derek Carr and Jalen Hurts. And he had the league’s third-best downfield passing completion rate (48.3 percent), trailing only Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray. Those quarterbacks, of course, had about twice as many deep ball tries as Tagovailoa.
Then there’s Tua’s average intended air yards per attempt in his second NFL season, a measurement that puts the Dolphins quarterback among football’s most conservative passers.
Tua Under Pressure
A member of Tuanon might point to the Dolphins’ lousy offensive line as the reason Tagovailoa threw short passes so frequently in 2021. And it’s true -- Miami’s offensive line stunk last year. Pro Football Focus graded the Dolphins as the NFL’s worst pass blocking team. In 2020, they were ranked 21st in pass protection. Tua was pressured on 32 percent of his 2021 drop backs, smack dab in the middle of the league, and his average time to throw ranked among the lowest in the league.
That Tagovailoa was awful under pressure last season will stun neither Tua’s detractors nor his biggest backers. PFF graded him 34th out of 49 qualifying QBs while facing pressure in 2021, alongside signal callers like Justin Fields, Mike Glennon, and Davis Mills. He was near the bottom of the NFL in average depth of target when under pressure. Suffice it to say Tagovailoa has hardly profiled as a quarterback who can thrive with a pass rush in his face.
What have the Dolphins done to bolster their down-bad offensive line? Quite a lot, actually. In March, Miami signed three-time Pro Bowl OT Terron Armstead to a five-year contract and G Connor Williams, shoring up the left side of their offensive line -- a major weak spot over the past two years. The Dolphins also cut ties with Jesse Davis, one of the league’s worst pass blockers in 2021. These moves should ensure the team’s pass protection is at worst middling in 2022, a potentially important development for a quarterback like Tagovailoa.
Does Tua Add Expected Points?
Now for the nerdiest portion of this exercise: Determining if Tua Tagovailoa actually adds expected points to Miami’s offense when he drops back to pass. It’s an exercise as simple as it can be revealing.
Below is a look at Tagovailoa’s expected points added (EPA) per play, his adjusted EPA per play, and his combined EPA and completion rate over expected (CPOE) -- a key measurement in a QB’s performance. Tagovailoa’s seasonal ranks in each category are in parentheses.
Dolphins fans might want to look away from Ryan Fitzpatrick’s stellar EPA per play and adjusted EPA before he was unceremoniously benched in favor of Tagovailoa at midseason in 2020. There were only a handful of QBs playing better than old Fitzy during that first half of the 2020 season, and all of them are among the game’s elite. Tough break for Fitz (and the Dolphins).
Tua showed reasonable improvement in each of these efficiency categories in his second pro season -- a case for Tagovailoa being a bit overwhelmed as a rookie in a so-so Miami offense.
If you want to cherry pick a bit, Tagovailoa’s best stretch of 2021 -- Week 6-13 -- saw him rank eighth in EPA per play and seventh in adjusted EPA. Impressively -- and notably -- Tua’s completion rate over expected (6.4) led all quarterbacks over that span. He took full advantage of a string of soft matchups that included the Jets, Falcons, and Jaguars. Good for him.
For a guy whose game seems to be predicated on shorter passes, Tagovailoa isn’t all that accurate with said throws. In fact, his 41.9 percent completion rate on attempts between 11 and 19 air yards was dead dog last in the NFL in 2021 -- worse than Zach Wilson, worse than Sam Darnold, worse than everyone. His yards per attempt on those passes (7.27) was among the lowest in the league. And Tua’s combined completion rate over expected in his first two NFL seasons (0.6) ranks 25th, a hair above Taylor Heinicke and a tick below Jared Goff, neither of whom are clear-cut NFL starters.
Can Tyreek Hill Thrive With Tua?
Jaylen Waddle fared just fine with Tua under center for the Dolphins in 2021, commanding a target on 25 percent of his pass routes -- the 12th highest rate among wideouts. Waddle became a PPR cheat code with a bottomed-out average depth of target of 7, the fifth-lowest among receivers who ran at least 400 routes in 2021. Waddle -- whose blazing speed could make him a deep threat with the right QB -- was something of a YAC machine, finishing ninth in yards after the catch (455) while missing one game last year.
Hill, meanwhile, was primarily used as a secondary-busting deep threat in the Kansas City offense before Chiefs opponents dropped two safeties deep and turned Patrick Mahomes into Alex Smith (before you throw your phone or tablet into the nearest body of water, consider Mahomes had the league’s sixth-lowest intended air yards per attempt in 2021). The Chiefs’ philosophical offensive change in 2021 brought Hill’s yards per target all the way from 9.6 to 7.8. His yards per catch fell by 3.4 yards.
Hill’s fantasy production last season hinged far more on his ability to vacuum up short receptions and create yards after the catch. He finished the regular season with the 11th most YAC among wideouts, the same as 2020, though his 2020 YAC per reception was 4.9, half a yard more than his 2021 YAC per catch. Hill being the fastest guy in pro football certainly makes him a potential YAC nightmare for opposing defenses if Mike McDaniel can put the so-called Cheetah in favorable positions while secondaries fret about Waddle getting loose.
Hill, lest we forget, didn't start scoring long touchdowns when Patrick Mahomes took over the Kansas City offense. He got it done in 2017 with the weak-armed Alex Smith, who connected with Hill for five touchdowns of more than 50 yards -- the third most of any QB-WR combo in league history. Smith's success with Hill could very well be a harbinger of good things to come for Tagovailoa and his new No. 1 wideout.
If McDaniel brings the 49ers’ passing game approach to Miami -- an approach highly reliant on the quarterback delivering accurate, short throws to playmaking pass catchers -- Tagovailoa is going to have to be far better on intermediate attempts than he was last year (remember, no QB was worse in 2021 on throws of 11 to 19 air yards).
This is where Jimmy Garoppolo, for all his warts, excelled. Only Joe Burrow had a better completion rate on intermediate tosses than Jimmy G in the 2021 regular season. An incredible 34.2 percent of Garoppolo’s passing yardage came on those intermediate attempts, as Garoppolo time and again put Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and others in position to catch and run like hell. It’s what made the little-used 49ers’ passing game so incredibly efficient in 2021.
Tua will have to improve dramatically on intermediate passes if he’s going to do for the Dolphins offense what Jimmy G did in San Francisco (making him a deeply unfortunate analytics darling in the process). If he can match the accuracy -- or come close to it -- we saw during his outstanding six-week stretch in 2021, Tagovailoa will probably be good for real football purposes and decent for fantasy managers.
Even the most ardent Tuanon followers would concede their guy’s statistical profile leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps that’s why the Dolphins have had to make a commitment to Tagovailoa time and time again during his two years with the organization. Those constant commitments could fizzle out if Tagovailoa doesn’t take another developmental step in 2022 with a terrifying receiving duo ready to make him look like a stud.