Dolphins Facing Franchise-Defining Decision With Tua Tagovailoa's Next Contract

The former first-round pick has his share of detractors, but he’s put up big numbers during his tenure in Miami. Sooner or later, the Dolphins must decide whether Tagovailoa can lead the franchise to a Super Bowl.
Oct 22, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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Tua Tagovailoa is capable, but he's also imperfect. Unfortunately for the Miami Dolphins, having such a quarterback in the NFL is the ultimate franchise-altering dilemma when it’s time to decide on a new contract.

Speaking to league sources, opinions on what Tagovailoa’s future with the Miami Dolphins should be are scattershot.

“The best way to look at it is, you prepare for the speed at skill positions and Mike McDaniel, and then Tua,” a longtime NFL defensive coordinator says. “… He doesn’t like to get hit or read coverage. When is he at his best? RPOs and the quick game. Next question to ask yourself is how many quarterbacks would you take before him?”

Despite playing behind an average offensive line, Tagovailoa was protected by McDaniel’s scheme. He only faced pressure on 15.7% of dropbacks, the third-lowest figure of 2023 for qualifying quarterbacks. This is due to his 2.1 seconds in the pocket per dropback, the quickest release time in the sport.

Regardless of the split opinions on the quarterback, the formula worked. 

Last year, Tagovailoa led the NFL in passing yardage (4,624). He also threw 29 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, leading the Dolphins to their second straight playoff appearance. In 2022, the Alabama product paced the league in yards per attempt (9.2), yards per completion (13.7) and passer rating (105.5), albeit while missing four games due to concussions.

“[The Dolphins] should pay him [between the] fifth- and 10th-ranked quarterbacks,” a veteran front office executive says. “He has some talent and fits the system, but there’s no real upside and the medical is scary. He will only be as good as the players around him.”

Based on current deals, putting Tagovailoa somewhere between the fifth- and 10th-highest paid quarterbacks means a total value of $180–258 million. That’s a range which includes Josh Allen (fifth), Jalen Hurts (sixth), Kyler Murray (seventh), Deshaun Watson (eighth), Jared Goff (ninth) and Kirk Cousins (10th).

Most importantly, the guaranteed money would land between $130–179 million.

Speaking to an NFC general manager, he stated that if he were overseeing the Tagovailoa negotiations, he’d aim to pay him in the same ballpark as Goff.

Earlier this offseason, Goff signed a four-year, $212 million extension with the Detroit Lions, including $170.6 million guaranteed. The total value ranks ninth, with the guaranteed money being sixth. 

However, there’s another path Miami could take as well.

“I would definitely stretch it out,” a former NFL general manager says. “I couldn’t pay him the $50 million [per year] at this stage with the information we have. Play this year out, then tag him next year if you have to. Just because he played one full season, that doesn’t alleviate everybody’s doubts about durability. Plus, I felt like at the end of last year his talents grew a wart or two.”

Should Dolphins general manager Chris Grier go this route, Miami is looking at a $23.1 million cap hit for Tagovailoa in 2024, before a tag which will be approximately $40 million in ‘25. The Dolphins would then have the option of another tag (a 20% raise over the first tag’s value), which would mean retaining the ability to either sign Tagovailoa long-term, or trade him away.

At 26 years old, there’s still the question of whether the Dolphins and Tagovailoa are good enough together to make meaningful noise. 

In 2023, Miami went 1–6 against playoff teams. In those games, Tagovailoa threw eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions, never once surpassing 300 yards.

“He’s a good player but will never be elite,” another defensive coordinator who has faced Tagovailoa says. “… Try to make him read things. He just throws it to spots a lot of the time. Keep changing the windows on him and he will struggle.”

Clearly, though, he’s good enough to win plenty of games based on the existing roster around him. 

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa
Jun 5, 2024; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Tagovailoa looks on during mandatory minicamp at Baptist Health Training Complex. Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports / Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Without a crush of injuries last season, Tagovailoa and the Dolphins might have won the AFC East and hosted a playoff game or two. Instead, Miami faltered late, losing to the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills before being blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round in a game played in sub-zero temperatures.

The big question is whether Tagovailoa is a driver of Miami’s high-octane offense or a product of it. Digging into the numbers, the 2020 first-round choice ranked 15th in intended air yards per pass attempt (7.7) last season, while benefiting from the second-most yards after catch (2,177), trailing only Patrick Mahomes. Tagovailoa also checked in 27th in scrambles (15), meaning when the play breaks down, it’s largely over.

To one of the sources' aforementioned comments, where does Tagovailoa rank?

While that’s not the ultimate question Grier must ask himself, it’s among them. For the Dolphins, getting to the Super Bowl and finally winning one for the first time since 1973 is the ultimate goal. 

In the AFC, it’s impossible to make a good-faith argument that Tagovailoa is in the top-third of the conference’s quarterbacks. 

Any general manager would pick Mahomes, Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and C.J. Stroud before him. Then there’s Aaron Rodgers, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence, who all have strong cases to be placed ahead of Tagovailoa. Do that, and Miami’s signal-caller is suddenly in the bottom half of the conference. 

As training camp looms, the Dolphins have to make a decision.

Pay Tagovailoa, get long-term cost certainty and continue building around him with top-tier weaponry and a defense designed to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

Or, let Tagovailoa play out his fifth-year option, hold the franchise tag as a strong option and see if the long-term move becomes obvious after these next 17 (and potentially more) games. 

For Grier and the Dolphins, it’s a franchise-defining decision.


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Matt Verderame

MATT VERDERAME

Matt Verderame is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated covering the NFL. Before joining SI in March 2023, he wrote for wrote for FanSided and Awful Announcing. He hosts The Matt Verderame Show on Patreon and is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. A proud father of two girls and lover of all Italian food, Verderame is an eternal defender of Rudy, the greatest football movie of all time.