The Dolphins discovered they would be losing their 2023 first-round pick as part of the NFL’s discipline for owner Stephen Ross engaging in illegal tampering. That’s the wrong kind of news to come down ahead of high expectations for the 2022 season.
Miami, before the penalties were handed out Tuesday, was having one of the league’s best offseasons for any franchise. With new wunderkind head coach Mike McDaniel, flashy new go-to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and other fresh personnel, the Dolphins are a hot pick to end their AFC playoff drought at five seasons.
But after looking at their key offensive upgrades, from coaching to the skill positions to offensive line, whether they back it up with a successful winning season still comes down to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa breaking out in Year 3.
There’s an immense amount of pressure on Tagovailoa given the talent and QB-friendly system around him. While 2020 first-round draftmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are already elite young passers, Tagovailoa has a ton to prove in a short time to convince the Dolphins he’s the right franchise choice.
Although there were rumors of the Dolphins seeking outside veteran help in an offseason that saw Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson traded — and more connection to Tom Brady — they ultimately went all in banking on Tua. Teddy Bridgewater came home to South Florida as the backup, but he’s no bridge like he was with the Panthers and Broncos.
Hill has heaped great praise on Tagovailoa prior to and through training camp, even calling him a more accurate passer than his former QB with the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes. There’s also a sudden feeling that Tagovailoa will show off a strong arm in a more aggressive downfield attack, even though that’s not been his profile so far in the NFL.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Tagovailoa living up to the promising skill set he displayed early at Alabama and earned him a No. 6 overall selection. But there’s equal reason to be skeptical with the shakiness in his significant two-year sample size, albeit in a different offense.
Now there’s no safety net should Tagovailoa fall flat with the latter outcome. If Tagovailoa plays poorly and the Dolphins need to turn to Bridgewater, it would suggest they would have had a top-half or even top-ten first-rounder in the 2023 draft.
Now that pick is forfeited. They still have a pick acquired from the 49ers to stay in the first round, but that team is likely to have another strong season. The Dolphins not only are set up to pick only once and very late, they also don’t have the potential to package a couple of picks and move up into the top five.
So if Tagovailoa can’t turn the corner into being more than a bottom-half starter in 2022, there’s no good fallback plan next year. The 2023 draft class features two elite QB prospects who will go in the top five, barring injury or major regression: Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. The Dolphins now have little chance of landing either, unless the 49ers somehow became completely awful with Trey Lance.
The Dolphins might then be dreaming of going after another South Florida native, Lamar Jackson, but there’s no way the Ravens won’t lock him up in time to keep him off the open market next year.
It’s arguable that Tagovailoa is the most polarizing and volatile player at the NFL’s most important position. Whether you call it make or break, boom or bust, it’s difficult to predict his 2022 performance, given all the variables of past and present. In the AFC East, the Bills have their clear long-term QB answer in Josh Allen and the Patriots and Jets might soon find out the same with Mac Jones and Zach Wilson.
The Dolphins better hope Tagovailoa transcends, or they will be left continuing to chase that elusive franchise QB for a quarter century.