In 2022, Tua Tagovailoa showed he can be an effective quarterback, but durability remains a concern.
He missed five games, including the Dolphins’ season-ending loss in the wild-card round to the Bills, because of a pair of diagnosed concussions. Head coach Mike McDaniel and general manager Chris Grier have committed to Tagovailoa as the team’s starter in 2023. But given Tagovailoa’s injury history, Teddy Bridgewater set to be a free agent and third-stringer Skylar Thompson’s struggles as a rookie, backup quarterback figures to be one of the Dolphins’ top needs.
In the first of a series of position reviews, the Miami Herald will examine the team’s quarterback situation. Next up is running backs.
2022 in review
With the arrival of McDaniel and his offensive scheme, as well as an upgraded supporting cast, the Dolphins created an environment that produced the best version of Tagovailoa yet. The team started 3-0 for the first time since 2018, but then Tagovailoa was stretchered off the field in Cincinnati with a frightening concussion that would sideline him for the next two games.
Miami’s offense struggled in Tagovailoa’s absence, but he returned in Week 7 and led a five-game winning streak that saw him vault into brief MVP consideration. As the schedule turned to December, opposing defenses adjusted to Tagovailoa and Miami’s high-powered passing game; Tagovailoa mostly struggled as the Dolphins lost four games in a row after getting to 8-3.
Tagovailoa’s last game of the season would come on Christmas Day against the Packers. In the first half, he looked like the player the NFL world saw during the five-game winning streak, but three fourth-quarter interceptions cost Miami a winnable game. The following day, he was placed in concussion protocol after coaches observed unusual behavior and questioned Tagovailoa, who later reported concussion symptoms.
The Dolphins clinched a playoff berth in their season finale behind Thompson, who started for the injured Bridgewater, but were knocked out of the playoffs one week later. Miami was 8-5 in games Tagovailoa started but rarely got good injury luck from their other quarterbacks. Of the five games Tagovailoa did not start (including playoffs), the Dolphins only finished two with their original starting quarterback.
At the team’s end-of-season news conference, Grier said he does not anticipate Tagovailoa’s concussions will be an issue moving forward.
Skinny: Tagovailoa finished the regular season as the league’s highest-rated passer and threw a career-high 25 touchdown passes but was sidelined for the Dolphins’ biggest games of the season. If he can stay healthy, Miami has a player with the potential to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league. But that’s a big if for a player who has missed 10 games because of injury since entering the league in 2020.
Contract: Tagovailoa, who turns 25 in March, is entering the fourth year of his five-year rookie contract, which includes a team option for the fifth season. He has a cap hit of $9,633,093.
Skinny: Bridgewater appeared in five games and was 0-2 as a starter but did not finish either game; he was removed from a Week 3 game because of concussion protocol and then dislocated his pinkie in Week 17. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 683 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Contract: Bridgewater, who turns 31 in November, is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Thompson was one of the final picks of the 2022 NFL Draft at No. 247 overall and a surprise selection for a team that already had two quarterbacks entrenched on the roster. But Thompson impressed during training camp and the preseason and worked his way onto the 53-man roster. Injuries forced Thompson to make three starts, including the wild-card game against the Bills. By some advanced metrics, Thompson was one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the NFL this season. In eight games, including the playoffs, completed 52 percent of his passes for 754 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Contract: Thompson, who turns 26 in June, is entering the second year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $890,552.
1. Do the Dolphins show further commitment to Tagovailoa?
Grier publicly committed to Tagovailoa as the team’s 2023 starter but said “everything is on the table” regarding how the team handles his contract. Miami has until May 1 to exercise Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option, which would extend his contract through the 2024 season with a fully-guaranteed $22 million salary. If not, Tagovailoa would be scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after 2023.
Tagovailoa is also eligible for an extension this offseason but it financially might not make sense for a team that is currently up against the cap. Quarterback questions seem to dog the Dolphins no matter what, but exercising Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option would quiet some of those questions, to an extent.
2. What is the next step for Tagovailoa?
Before the second diagnosed concussion that effectively ended Tagovailoa’s season, he and the Dolphins were going through their worst stretch of the season. Prior to a breakout game of sorts against the Bills, Tagovailoa completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of 73.1 in losses to the 49ers and Chargers. The Dolphins didn’t make quick enough adjustments to defenses playing press man coverage, and defenders weren’t deceived as often by Tagovailoa’s eye manipulation.
In 2023, Tagovailoa will have the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons for the first time since high school. That continuity should aid Tagovailoa in his development. Now, the Dolphins need to hope Tagovailoa can stay healthy and produce consistent, high-level play against the better teams in the NFL
3. Can the Dolphins invest significant cap space on a backup?
In the past two offseasons, Miami made Jacoby Brissett and Bridgwater among the highest-paid backups in the NFL. Neither was able to maintain the level of play near what it was when Tagovailoa was in the lineup. And now the Dolphins likely won’t have as much room to work with compared to the last two offseasons. On paper, a backup quarterback shouldn’t be a pressing need. But with Tagovailoa’s injury history, it would be negligent for Miami not to enter the 2023 season with a proven, capable backup.
McDaniel did not answer a question regarding whether Thompson has earned the right to be Tagovailoa’s backup. But from a financial standpoint, Thompson making enough improvements to be the No. 2 quarterback would be the best possible scenario for a team that also needs to place its cap space in other positions.
If Bridgewater isn’t in search of a starting role, the Dolphins could opt to bring him back. But given his spate of injuries — he was also inactive for five consecutive games because of a knee injury — Miami might be best searching for a more durable backup.
Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo are a pair of longtime starters who may not be handed opportunities to lead teams in 2023 but have knowledge of McDaniel’s scheme. Joe Flacco, Case Keenum and Mike White are also scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.