Dolphins are Close if Tua is the One

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You don't know the real Tua Tagovailoa. He wasn't what you saw last year.

First, Tua was rehabbing all offseason for an injury that ended the final season of his college career. That injury wasn’t a broken finger either. He dislocated his hip mid-game, had to be carted off, x-rayed, and then the hip was popped back into place. Tua also suffered a posterior wall fracture of the hip socket. He had surgery two days following the injury.

Second, Tua was playing backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins hired Chan Gailey, who was the last offensive coordinator that Fitzpatrick worked with when he played for the Jets in 2016. Gailey retired following that season and Fitzpatrick left to play in Tampa Bay. Miami lured Gailey from retirement and paired him with his old buddy Fitzpatrick. Gailey spent the offseason tailoring the entire offense for Fitzpatrick, his Day 1 starter.

Tua, while rehabbing during a COVID offseason, was learning an offense optimized for Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins came out of the bye in Week 8 against the Rams to give Tua his debut. It was great planning and thanks to an incredible defensive plan, the Dolphins dispatched Sean McVay’s offense and Tua didn’t have to do much. But in that game, both running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Isiah Ford were lost. The skill player with the most on-field snaps of that game (Preston Williams) was lost to injury during next week’s game against Arizona. Just over one game into his stint as QB, Tua was without RB1 and WR2.

For Tua to reach his apex as quickly as he can during this rookie deal, he must have optimal playcalling. But he also must improve in many areas. One of them is deeper passing. This is a team effort and a Tua effort. The offensive line needs to be better. Playcalling needs to be better. His teammates need to get better separation. And Tua needs to improve.

Perhaps surprisingly, on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Tua was more efficient than Fitzpatrick:

Tagovailoa: 6.0 YPA, 58% success, 0.10 EPA/att on 204 att
Fitzpatrick: 5.7 YPA, 56% success, 0.03 EPA/att on 192 att

Tua was likewise more efficient just inside of 15 yards. But when you move to 15+ air yards, that’s when Tua struggled and Fitzpatrick was clearly better:

Tagovailoa: 8.9 YPA, 39% success, -0.02 EPA/att on 49 att
Fitzpatrick: 17.0 YPA, 68% success, 0.78 EPA/att on 44 att

One issue the Dolphins had last season was receiver separation, or lack thereof. Using Next Gen Stats, we know the amount of cushion a receiver had at the time of snap on a play they were to be targeted. We also know the amount of separation that receiver had at the time they either caught the ball or it went past them as an incompletion.

Some offenses create cushion by design. The Cardinals are one such offense. Others did not, like the Dolphins. But creating cushion isn’t the be-all and end-all. Ideally, and more importantly, the receiver is getting separation when the ball arrives. This signals two things – one, the team has receivers that are getting open and two, the quarterback is finding one of them.

The top five teams in separation:

1. Packers
2. Chiefs
3. Cardinals
4. Bills
5. Rams

The Dolphins ranked 32nd.

The Dolphins ranked 30th in cushion as well. So even before the snap, the receiver that was to be targeted didn’t have as much space as some teams generated. Again, this isn’t essential, as the Packers, Bills, and Browns all were bad with pre-snap cushion as well. But they were able to get separation with the combination of receiver speed, offensive design, and quarterback’s read of the defense.

Another thing that’s capable of being calculated is “space erased” – a metric which takes the pre-snap cushion and subtracts the separation at time of catch to see how much space the defensive player in coverage was able to erase from the receiver.

It should be no surprise that teams who lost the least space on targets were the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, Browns, and 49ers. These offenses were designed by some of the best offensive minds in the game and have receivers capable of gaining separation and quarterbacks capable of finding the open receiver.

But the Dolphins ranked eighth worst in this metric. What makes matters worse is that the other teams that ranked ahead of them all had solid cushion pre-snap such that when they lost space, while suboptimal, wasn’t a death knell. For the Dolphins, on the other hand, it was terrible.

As a result of the lack of separation, both Tua and Fitzpatrick ranked top-6 in the NFL in aggressiveness, another player tracking metric which tracks the percentage of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.

The Dolphins knew they needed to fix this problem, and the best way to do that was to bring in two tremendous space creators.

First, they gave the bag to Will Fuller in free agency. We know how incredible a quarterback Deshaun Watson is, but he had major splits with and without Fuller on the field. Since 2017, Watson with…

Fuller on the field: 0.22 EPA/att
Fuller off the field: 0.06 EPA/att

There were nearly equal splits in dropbacks (1,204 with Fuller, 1,215 without Fuller). Yet Watson gained nearly 200 more total EPA with Fuller on the field.

Tua’s depth of target was 8.0 yards on the season, which was tied for 26th in the NFL. Just 14.8% of Tua’s pass attempts as a rookie came on throws over 15 yards downfield, which ranked 35th among 44 passers with at least 100 pass attempts in 2020. On those downfield passes, Tagovailoa completed just 39.5% (17-of-43), which ranked 27th out of 42 passers with 20 or more of those attempts.

While Tua didn’t throw deep often and was poor when doing so, depth of target belongs more to the WR than the QB. That should translate into more deep targets this year thrown by Tua, a deeper average target depth and hopefully, improvement in the efficiency of these targets.

Second, the Dolphins added Jaylen Waddle in the draft with the sixth overall pick. I love explosive receivers who returned punts in college, and that’s exactly what Waddle did, averaging 19.3 yards per punt return with two touchdowns on 38 career returns. Waddle averaged 21.1 yards per reception last season. He’s explosive, gets open quickly, has long speed and can separate. Essentially, he should fill a major void for the Dolphins last year.

Keep in mind, Tua’s top receivers in 2020 in order of receptions were TE Mike Gesicki, WR Lynn Bowden, and WR DeVante Parker.

This year, he clearly keeps Gesicki and Parker, but adds Fuller and Waddle. It should make for a big improvement in the caliber of the receiving corps. Last year, the Dolphins had the NFL’s 27th most expensive wide receiver corps. This year, it’s the most expensive.

Another issue for Tua was performance under pressure. When clean, he wasn’t that much worse than Fitzpatrick. But when pressured, the results weren’t close:

Fitzpatrick under pressure: 0.11 EPA/att, 52% success, 9.6 YPA
Tagovailoa under pressure: -0.35 EPA/att, 34% success, 5.5 YPA

While Fitzpatrick’s performance isn’t sustainable, the Dolphins must do a better job with protection and Tua must improve in this metric.

Flores did an exceptional job with the defense in 2020. His 2020 Dolphins became the NFL’s first team to record a defensive takeaway in every single game of the season since the 2012 Patriots. But the team will play stronger offenses this year. Even if the Dolphins defense improves some, it’s unlikely for them to do much better than they did last year in points allowed. That is because they were the NFL’s top defense on third downs and the best defense in the red zone. On average, the Dolphins held opponents to 2.5 points per game fewer than expected. That ranked third-best in the NFL.

I’m optimistic that Tua will look decidedly better this year. I think the offense can improve from a playcalling perspective. There were rampant issues which bled into passing and rushing efficiencies for Tua. I think a full and healthy offseason as QB1 will be huge for him. I think they added the right weapons to assist his performance. The Dolphins’ future this year hinges on whether Tua can get protection and consistently deliver.

Defensively, I’m very bullish on Flores and another year for many of these players in his system. The division isn’t getting any easier, but Miami is more likely to take a step in the right direction in 2021 (+115 to make the playoffs at PointsBet) than they are to get worse, and a 9.5 win total with the over at +110 is enticing if you believe that Tua outperforms the low expectations that seem to be widely prevalent nationwide.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub. For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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