The Dolphins loaded up ahead of the 2022 NFL season. They traded for Tyreek Hill, signed Terron Armstead and brought in a young, offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel, on top of a wave of other moves to bolster the depth of the offense and defense.
There was just one question everyone had: Ks Tua Tagovailao the right guy at quarterback? Tagovailoa had posted back-to-back solid, if unspectacular seasons. As a rookie in 2020, he had a 11:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 1,814 passing yards and a completion percentage of 64.1 percent in 10 games. In his second year, he completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,653 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 picks in 12 games.
The numbers showed a capable quarterback, but in a time where having an elite quarterback seemed to be the key to success in the playoffs, there were many wondering if Tagovailoa had what it took.
If early returns in 2022 are any indication, he’s passing the test. After Week 10, the Dolphins are in first place in the AFC East and haven’t lost a game in which Tagovailoa both started and ended. He has completed 71 percent of his passes for 2,265 yards with 18 touchdowns and only three picks. Though he missed several games with a concussion, Tagovailoa has emerged as a potential MVP candidate, with BetMGM giving him the third-best odds to win the award.
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Tagovailoa’s breakout campaign hasn’t stopped the speculation that his numbers might be overinflated and that he could be due for some regression. The Sporting News is taking a look at some of the biggest talking points around Tagovailoa’s game, and whether his numbers are for real.
Tua Tagovailoa’s season, by the numbers
There has been maybe no part of Tagovailoa’s game more critiqued coming into the year — and still — than his deep-ball ability. Tagovailoa has been criticized for his perceived lack of arm strength, with many believing he wouldn’t be able to fully take advantage of one of the best deep ball receivers in the NFL in Hill.
So how has he been deep passing in 2022? Well, simply put, he’s been one of the best. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, his average completed air yards of 8.1 leads the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks, as does his average air yards differential from completed to intended (minus-0.9) as he is the only QB not losing at least a yard on intended passes.
Tagovailoa has shown no aversion to airing the ball out. According to ProFootballFocus, Tagovailoa is tied for 15th in the league in deep pass attempts (20-plus yards down the field) with 32 this season, while his deep pass attempt rating of 12.9 percent is tied for eighth-best. For reference, Patrick Mahomes has 32 deep pass attempts this year on 410 dropbacks compared to Tagovailoa’s 263. His average depth of target of 9.5 yards ranks fourth in the league behind Marcus Mariota (10.8), Russell Wilson (10) and Justin Fields (9.9).
Tyreek Hill & Jaylen Waddle combined for over 200 yards on targets traveling 10+ air yards in the Dolphins’ Week 8 victory over the Lions:
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 30, 2022
And for those thinking the plan was going to be to just throw it short and let Hill and Jaylen Waddle run, Tagovailoa ranks 27th in the league in pass yards after the catch per completion, per Pro Football Reference.
MORE: Hill calls Tagovailoa ‘the best in the league’
Among qualifying quarterbacks, only Geno Smith’s deep-ball grade of 97.4 is higher than Tagovailoa’s 96.2. Tagovailoa is the only quarterback with an adjusted completion percentage over 56.7 percent as it checks in at 71.9 percent.
As would be expected with deep shots, the passes have at times been a bit risk-reward. He ranks fourth in the league in big-time throw percentage (32.4 percent) behind Smith, Carson Wentz and Josh Allen, but is also third in turnover-worthy plays at 13.5 percent behind Jacoby Brissett and Kyler Murray.
But overall, Tagovailoa has come to stop worrying and love the bomb. His 96.2 PFF passing grade on deep balls is his best passing grade at any level, per PFF (95.1 on intermediate, 63.4 on short and 67.7 behind the line of scrimmage), and his attempted deep pass rate is the highest of his career.
Thus far into the season, Tagovailoa isn’t just taking plenty of deep shots, he is connecting on them. Sure, his elite receivers have helped, but there are plenty of quarterbacks with elite deep-ball threats with numbers worse than the Dolphins quarterback’s thus far. He’s turned perhaps one of his biggest weaknesses into one of his biggest strengths.
Where arm strength was perhaps the biggest detractor to Tagovailoa coming out of Alabama in 2020, accuracy might have been his biggest calling card. Though he had been turnover problems, his 66.2 percent completion percentage in his first two seasons was the fifth-best for quarterbacks through their first two years with at least 20 career starts, according to Stathead.
He’s taken that up a notch in 2022. His adjusted completion percentage of 80.1 percent trails only Jalen Hurts (81.5 percent), per PFF, and he ranks fifth in big-time throws at 5 percent. At every level of the field, he has a completion percentage of at least 65 percent, and he charts above 70 percent on all passes under 20 yards in the air.
According to Pro Football Reference, Tagovailoa also ranks toward the bottom in bad throw percentage. Only 12 percent of his throws have been considered “bad throws,” which is the eighth-lowest rate in the NFL, while 70.2 percent of his passes have been considered “on target,” which ranks 17th in the league.
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Part of what helps Tagovailoa’s accuracy numbers is that he mitigates risk on his passes. According to Next Gen Stats, he has the fifth-lowest aggressiveness rating (12.1 percent) among qualifying quarterbacks, trailing only Trevor Lawrence (9.8 percent), Fields (10.1 percent), Mahomes (11.5 percent) and Smith (11.7 percent). Aggressiveness looks at passes thrown in tight coverage with a defender a yard or less away from the receiver when the ball arrives.
He has also over-performed in his completion percentage, ranking second among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage above expectation at 3.5 percent, with a completion percentage of 71 percent and expected completion percentage of 67.5 percent.
The hallmark of Tagovailoa’s game has been his accuracy, and that hasn’t changed in 2022. He remains one of the league’s most accurate passers.
When talking about MVP, it helps to put into context just how much more valuable a quarterback has been compared to the performance of a replacement-level QB. Fortunately, there are stats that help quantify that.
Football Outsiders‘ defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) looks at the value of a QB compared to a replacement-level quarterback, and gives how many yards a certain player than that replacement. Where does Tagovailoa sit? Well, he’s at No. 1, with 1,095 yards above replacement. He also leads the league in defense-adjusted value over average (53.3 percent).
By more metrics, expected points added (EPA) and completion percentage above expectation (CPOE), Tagovailoa remains at the top. His composite EPA+CPOE of 0.227 leads the league, as does his adjusted EPA per play (.426) and his success rate (54.8 percent), per rbsdm.com.
Heading into the year, many considered this to be a test season for Tagovailoa. He was finally going to have the weapons around him to truly test if the 2020 fifth overall pick was worthy of being considered a franchise quarterback.
Just about every metric that measures an aspect of his game or his value rates Tagovailoa as one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season. If 2022 has been a test so far, it’s safe to say he’s passing with flying colors.