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NFL Draft

What Can We Expect From Tua Tagovailoa’s 1st Start?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 29, 2020
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Whether it was or was not the right time or decision to make the switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tua Tagovailoa is now irrelevant. There was time to discuss this move shortly after it was made, but no matter what side we fall on, it doesn’t matter whether we agreed or disagreed.

The fact of the matter is: it’s happening.

So what next? Well, for the Miami Dolphins, the Los Angeles Rams are next. The new question to ask and analyze is what this matchup could hold for Tagovailoa as he makes his first career start.

Tagovailoa has only attempted two passes in his NFL career. He completed both for a total of nine yards in the Dolphins’ final drive of their 24-0 shutout win over the New York Jets. I’m not sure there is too much weight to hold from those two passing plays Tagovailoa has under his belt. 

His first pass was a three-wide-receiver set out of a pistol formation that included a play-action rollout to his favorable left side (as he is left-handed) and gave him two easy options for him to dump the ball off to. His second pass was a 3x1 look where the three wide receivers to one side were all running in breaking routes about 3-5 yards past the line of scrimmage. 

It was some pretty easy stuff for Tagovailoa to read and make a decision with, and though there wasn’t too much to learn from them, it was good on Miami’s offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, to make Tagovailoa’s first significant passes since his devastating hip injury ones that could build his confidence.

Since there isn’t too much to emphasize with Tagovailoa’s early work, we turn our eyes to the Rams defense. The Rams boast two of the best players in the NFL in cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Those two players can be impactful, but the numbers for the rest of their defense are strong as well.

Rams’ opposing quarterbacks have combined for an 83.2 passer rating, which is below the league average, going a combined 167-for-254 with 1,497 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and six interceptions. That passing yards total is 12th best in the league and their eight passing touchdowns given up is the fourth fewest. They also aren’t an undisciplined bunch, as their total penalties and penalty yards are both below the league average.

Where the Rams defense could be most vulnerable is with their linebackers. Both Kenny Young and Micah Kizer have season grades of less than 40, according to Pro Football Focus. This could bode well for the Dolphins, as their No. 2 and No. 3 most-targeted players so far this season are tight end Mike Gesicki and running back Myles Gaskin. Coverage is where those two linebackers are graded the most poorly, and there could be a chance to exploit them. 

This also bodes well for Tagovailoa, who will likely be keying in on his tight end and running backs in the passing game as his security blankets. This could be a nice confidence-building matchup for him as the game goes on.

The interesting part of this quarterback switch comes from the Time to Throw stat (TT). This measures the average time between the snap of the ball and the quarterback releasing the throw. This stat can sometimes hint at game plan tendencies, quarterback tendencies, and even offensive line success. Fitzpatrick had the third quickest TT average in the NFL this year at 2.41, per Next Gen Stats. Tagovailoa isn’t really that kind of quarterback. At Alabama, it was more of deeper drops and letting those star receivers get open deep down the field for vertical shots. But that doesn’t mean Tagovailoa can’t be a quick-hit passer. 

We should also expect a good amount of RPO work to go along with a quicker-hitting offense. For those unfamiliar with the concept, USA Today explains it as such: “As the name implies, a run-pass option gives the quarterback the option to hand the ball off to his back or throw a quick pass to a receiver. He makes the decision based on the movement of a single defender, usually a safety or linebacker lurking on the second level of the defense, directly after the snap.”

Gailey was one of the first offensive coaches in the NFL to really adapt to the RPO offensive style, first dating back to the late 1990s, but more so in the late 2000s. That’s something Tagovailoa ran a ton of at Alabama and would be an easy way to incorporate some hesitation on the defense while giving Tagovailoa something to read post-snap. In the 2018 college football season, Tagovailoa completed more than 50% of his passes off RPOs, which was the highest in college football, while Alabama was also first in yards-per-play as a whole when running RPOs—all of that according to Pro Football Focus. 

So, what can we expect from Tagovailoa’s first game? First of all, expect the RPO offense to be alive and well. Expect the slants, the crossing routes, the quick-hitting stuff with the occasional big shot thrown in there when the time is right. I would say that due to the matchup against the Rams, expect Gesicki to either lead the team in targets or be second at worst if DeVante Parker really starts getting early separation off the line for those quick hitters. I’d expect a bit of a learning curve for Tagovailoa as he focuses on pre-snap reads to analyze the defense and where the ball might be going as opposed to being able to hold onto it a bit longer the way he did at Alabama. But again, the RPO style should make him comfortable enough to have a successful outing.

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