No. 3 pick will reveal how committed Dolphins are to Tua Tagovailoa

DAVIE, Fla. -- Shortly after the Miami Dolphins' season ended with a deflating thud after a 56-26 loss to the Buffalo Bills, there was a faint rainbow of good news 1,500 miles away.

The Tennessee Titans' last-second win against the Houston Texans meant Miami, which owns Houston's first- and second-round picks courtesy of the blockbuster trade of left tackle Laremy Tunsil in August 2019, will have the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

It didn't take long for a provocative narrative to take hold: Will the Dolphins consider drafting a quarterback at No. 3 to replace rookie Tua Tagovailoa?

The question seemed unthinkable a few months ago, and to many it still seems silly given Tagovailoa has made only nine NFL starts. But after a rocky finish to the 2020 season, combined with the team's rare status as a contender with a top-three pick, there will be speculation. And the Dolphins are likely to show their level of commitment to Tagovailoa by choosing to build around him instead of selecting his replacement.

2020 breakdown

The biggest positive of Tagovailoa's rookie season was the team showed it could win with him (6-3 record) and he was one of the NFL's most efficient QBs heading into Week 17. Prior to his three-interception performance against Buffalo Sunday, Tagovailoa threw an interception on 0.9% of his throws -- lowest in the NFL. Even after Sunday's debacle, he finished tied for 10th. Miami's Ryan Fitzpatrick was 30th.

It's likely a key reason Tagovailoa was elevated to the starting lineup in Week 7, as he is a far less volatile passer than Fitzpatrick. As the Dolphins leaned on a great defense and special-teams group, the rookie was the QB less likely to lose the game for them with reckless decisions.

The biggest negative was Tagovailoa's effectiveness on downfield throws. He completed 37.3% of his 51 throws of 15-plus air yards this season, 29th best per NFL Next Gen Stats. Fitzpatrick was first, completing 62.5% of his 48 throws of 15-plus air yards.

Coach Brian Flores twice replaced Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter in favor of Fitzpatrick when the team needed a more aggressive passer to lead a comeback. For Tagovailoa to become the Dolphins' long-term answer, he needs to be the one leading the team through adversity. A full offseason of working on throwing receivers open and trusting his eyes should help. More aggressive playcalling by offensive coordinator Chan Gailey -- if he returns in 2021 -- would help, too.

But it's important to note the factors that affected Tagovailoa's performance. Miami's offensive weapons were limited because of injuries, opt-outs and lack of speed. The Dolphins' top three pass-catchers -- DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki and Preston Williams -- ranked among the NFL's 10 worst at getting separation and 20 worst in tight-window throw percentage among receiving options with at least 10 catches. That means Tagovailoa rarely had easy throws when targeting his top options.

He is also 14 months removed from a career-threatening hip injury, with rehab dominating nearly all of his 2020 offseason. Plus, Tagovailoa and Gailey didn't always seem like a good pairing. Gailey's offense seemed more aggressive, effective and a better fit for Fitzpatrick. There will need to be more trust and catering to Tagovailoa's strengths to get a better evaluation.

What the Dolphins are saying

If it was important to the Dolphins to quiet speculation about the draft, Flores could definitively say Tagovailoa is the franchise's quarterback and they don't plan to draft his replacement. But that shouldn't be expected, because the Dolphins rarely show their cards publicly. They didn't do it as they approached the selection of Tagovailoa at No. 5 overall in the 2020 draft, and doing so this year would hurt their leverage if they hope to trade the No. 3 pick.

Fans might be frustrated by the topic of replacing Tagovailoa after one year, but it can't be ruled out, so here's what the team is saying:

  • Tagovailoa on if he expects to be the Dolphins' 2021 starter: "I don't think I have control over any of those things. I think all I can do is continue to grow, continue to get better. Then [in the] offseason, just get with a good amount of the guys and see what we can do from there, going into next season."

  • Flores, in November, about the idea of the Dolphins needing to audition Tagovailoa ahead of the 2021 draft: "We brought Tua here because we believe in him, same as all the other draft picks. We believe in developing players. ... That would be the opposite of giving someone a 10-game audition."

  • Center Ted Karras on Tagovailoa: "The biggest jump you take in my experience is from Year 1 and Year 2, being more familiar with your guys. He's going to have a full offseason, which will be great for him. Just take advantage of all those moments to get reps with guys. This is a repetition sport. He's going to take a big jump. I'm excited for him."

The options

There are veteran options the Dolphins could target via trade or free agency if they were set on replacing Tagovailoa, but the most realistic route is the draft. Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick, but there are two other quarterbacks Miami could consider, both of whom are ranked among the draft's top prospects by ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.


We don't know enough about Tagovailoa as an NFL player to say he is or isn't the Dolphins' long-term answer at the position. Ultimately, I don't believe the Dolphins should or will draft a QB with the No. 3 overall pick.

The belief here is Tagovailoa deserves more than he was given in 2020 -- nine starts with one of the NFL's worst wide receiver groups when it comes to getting separation, a rookie-laden offensive line and a scheme that was originally built with Fitzpatrick in mind -- to prove he's the guy, and we've seen enough glimpses to believe he can be in time.

The No. 3 pick would be better used on building blocks to add around Tagovailoa, such as game-changing wide receivers DeVonta Smith (Alabama) or Ja'Marr Chase (LSU), or top-tier offensive tackle Penei Sewell (Oregon). But the Dolphins would be foolish not to at least evaluate the quarterbacks in this draft class.

It's a volatile topic sure to be debated for the next three-plus months leading up to the draft, and Dolphins general manager Chris Grier and Flores will have to decide if they are 100 percent committed to Tagovailoa.

The answer will define how they proceed.