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State of the 2021 Miami Dolphins: Will Tua Tagovailoa step up in Year 2?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Dolphins organization, Dolphins fans around the world and those who can't understand why the team doesn't wear its throwback uniforms all the time:

It was a magical year for the Dolphins in 2020. You drafted a new face of the franchise in Tua Tagovailoa, but it was Ryan Fitzpatrick who nearly led you to the playoffs. This season, the Fitzmagic is gone. And it's up to your young quarterback to assume that role and finish the journey. Is he the man for the job? Allow me to delve deeper into the state of the franchise ...

How the Dolphins got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Snapping a streak of losing seasons at three. The Dolphins won 10 games in 2020, an improvement of five games over the previous season. In fact, they went 9-3 in their final 12 games to reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2016.
  • Best rookie. For one week, at least. Tua Tagovailoa beat Justin Herbert (a.k.a., the Dolphins beat the Chargers) in a matchup of two of the top three quarterbacks selected in the 2020 draft. Tua had an uneven first year (we'll get to that in a moment), while Herbert was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, but in Week 10, Tua outplayed Justin.
  • No Tom Brady, no problem. The Patriots' seemingly constant struggle when playing the Dolphins in Miami is one of my low-key favorite narratives in the NFL. Don't judge me, but I do love it. And the Dolphins kept the tradition alive (or revived it, after getting spanked 43-0 by the Pats in 2019) in Week 15 last season, beating New England in Hard Rock Stadium for the sixth time in eight tries. There was no Gronk whiffing on a would-be game-saving tackle. But it was still cool.

The lows:

  • Stumbling out of the gate. The early slate for the Dolphins was stacked with some formidable teams. They faced the Patriots, Bills, Jaguars and Seahawks in the first four weeks. So it was no shock to see the Dolphins start the season 1-3.
  • Buffaloed. The Dolphins did have a chance to make the playoffs heading into Week 17. But they were destroyed by the Bills, 56-26. I mean, not that it took the shine away from a pretty cool 10-win season. But, well, maybe it did a little.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Brian Flores. It feels like people are ignoring the fact Flores has turned out to be a pretty damn good football coach. The Bill Belichick coaching tree can at times be very exciting: You never know what you're going to get! It's like when you spin off a TV show. You can either be a Better Call Saul or a Joey. You don't ever want to be a Joey. Like, seriously. You nearly killed the legacy of Friends.

But I was really impressed with Flores during his first season with the Dolphins when -- in the wake of trading away good players -- they won five of their final nine games after opening the season with seven straight defeats. The Fins were also very good last season, winning 10 games. But they didn't make the playoffs, even with an expanded playoff field. That's not Flores' fault, however. I mean, the Dolphins are still kind of in the middle of a rebuild, yet they've still had some success. And honestly, it's going to be hard to know what Flores is capable of if he doesn't get better play from the quarterback position.

Quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa. I like Tua. Maybe it's because he's a lefty. And I still contend to this day that if Matt Leinart -- another lefty -- had not gotten injured early in his career, he'd still be playing. But I've had enough of the Tua slander. There were some -- and you know who you are -- who wanted the Dolphins to pick a quarterback in the 2021 draft. That's lame. Dude suffered a serious hip injury in his final college season and has started nine NFL games. NINE. And people were already looking to move on from him. He's not Josh Rosen, for [stuff's] sake. Tua had nine touchdown passes and only one pick in his first six starts. He melted down toward the end of the season, but that's no reason to move on after one year.

In fact, the Dolphins' success probably hindered him a little bit. Brian Flores had somewhat of a quick hook with Tua because Miami was in the playoff mix. Had the Dolphins been floundering, I'm sure Tua would have been given more of a chance to work himself out of trouble. You can't blame Flores for turning to Ryan Fitzpatrick in key situations, though. The thing is, Fitzpatrick is gone. He was replaced by Jacoby Brissett, a steady NFL backup. I don't sense we'll see the same fervor to go to Jacoby if things start to go sideways for Tua. This is his season to prove himself. I'm of the mind he will.

Projected 2021 MVP: Xavien Howard, cornerback. I'm tempted to go with Tua. But let's say he struggles. I'm old enough to remember when Brissett was a low-key MVP candidate in the first weeks after replacing Andrew Luck a couple years ago. Injuries eventually knocked him off track. But I could see him replacing Tua and doing well. I know that's not saying a ton about Howard. But dude had a league-high 10 picks last season and has become a legit shutdown corner. He is the first player to post 10 or more interceptions and at least 20 passes defensed in a season since Asante Samuel and Hall of Famer Champ Bailey accomplished the feat in 2006.

All of that is great. But Howard wants a pay raise and decided not to attend mandatory minicamp last month. He has four years left on the $75.25 million extension he signed in 2019. To me, the Dolphins should resist temptation to trade Howard (unless it's to Chicago), because he's that important to the defense. But we should note that the Dolphins signed Byron Jones to a megadeal last year and have selected three defensive backs in the last two drafts, including 2020 first-round CB Noah Igbinoghene.

2021 breakout star: Raekwon Davis, defensive tackle. Davis started slow last year as a rookie, but really gained steam by the end of the season. He even made the PFWA All-Rookie Team. But Davis remained humble and even told reporters he didn't think he had a good rookie season. I mean, that kind of sounds like your friend who shoots an 81 and then complains about not breaking 80. But the former second-round pick could have a breakout season this year, and that could be trouble for the AFC East.

New face to know: Will Fuller, wide receiver. Fuller signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins in March and is going to need to prove that he can stay on the field for an entire season. Or at least close to an entire season. He won't play in Week 1 as he finishes serving the six-game suspension he received last year for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drugs policy. I mean, I'm the guy who drafts Fuller in fantasy every season. Yes, I'm the guy who takes an obnoxious victory lap once Fuller has that game where he goes for 150 and a pair of scores. But then something always seems to happen and I'm sitting there feeling chagrined by the end of the season. Chagrined, I tell you. It should be noted, though: Fuller was one of four players with at least 800 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns in 2020, joining Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and DK Metcalf. So, I was sort of right to draft him.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. I mean, the Dolphins won 10 games last season. Tua was a top-five pick in the draft. How can you not expect Miami to win games this year?

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at New England Patriots. The Dolphins will travel to New England in the opener for the second consecutive year. They will also host the Bills in their home opener for the second straight season. Division games to open the season are a pet peeve of mine. And the Dolphins dropped both games last year.
  • Week 5 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Well, I guess you can't avoid Tom Brady for long. But the Dolphins have usually played pretty well against Brady in the state of Florida. I know I'm stretching.
  • Week 17 at Tennessee Titans. Tennessee could be one of the teams Miami is competing against for a spot in the postseason. And remember, the Dolphins were a win away from making the playoffs last season.

Will the Dolphins be able to …

Count on Jaylen Waddle to be a spark on offense? A theme developed early in the 2021 draft. Teams reunited their young QBs with receivers they played with in college. Cincinnati did it. The Eagles did it. As did the Dolphins. Waddle is a field-stretcher the Dolphins were looking for. He led all Power 5 players with 21.1 yards per reception in 2020 (min. 25 receptions). He also averaged 4.4 yards per route in 2020 (third-most among FBS receivers, min. 100 receiving snaps). It should also be noted that Alabama quarterbacks had a perfect passer rating (158.3, when applying the NFL metric) when targeting Waddle since 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. You put him alongside Fuller, and the Dolphins could have a rather explosive offense.

Rely on a running back? And is it Myles Gaskin? I kind of hope so. Gaskin averaged 97.2 scrimmage yards per game last year, which ranked 11th in the NFL. He averaged 4.1 receptions per game, which is good for us fantasy dorks. But he has to stay healthy. Gaskin missed six games in 2020. The Dolphins did sign Malcolm Brown to add depth in the backfield. But I wouldn't expect Gaskin to see his workload decrease. He nearly doubled the carries of backup Salvon Ahmed last year and vastly outpaced him in targets per game, too. Gaskin could have a breakout season behind an improved offensive line. The Dolphins invested high draft picks in Austin Jackson (first-rounder) and Robert Hunt (second-rounder) in 2020, and then Liam Eichenberg was a steal in the second round of the 2021 draft. And since we are talking about the offense, it's fair to point out Chan Gailey resigned and will be replaced by George Godsey and Eric Studesville as co-coordinators. Yeah, I don't know, either. Co-coordinators sounds a lot like when Michael Scott and Jim Halpert were co-managers for Dunder Mifflin.

Continue their improvement on defense? The Dolphins finished dead last in scoring defense in Flores' first season as head coach. They improved to sixth last year, allowing 21.1 points per game. The Dolphins were a perfect 7-0 when they allowed 20 points or fewer last season. They also led the NFL with 28 takeaways in 2020. One of the keys for Miami was getting to the quarterback. The Dolphins ranked last in sacks in 2019 but improved to 10th last year, as Emmanuel Ogbah led the team with a career-high nine. And the Dolphins added first-round pick Jaelan Phillips, who had eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss for the Miami Hurricanes last year.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Tua's rookie season stats looked an awful lot like Dan Marino's rookie season stats. Marino went 7-2 as a starter during his rookie year. Tua posted a 6-3 mark. Marino completed 58.4 percent of his passes. Tua bested it with a 63.9 percent completion rate. Marino passed for 218.9 yards per game with a 17:5 TD-INT ratio. Tua passed for 200.6 yards per game with a 11:5 TD-INT ratio. I mean, these numbers are quite similar. And I'm of the mind that a lot of Dolphins fans would be pleased if Tua replicates the success of Marino again during his second year, when the Hall of Famer threw 48 touchdown passes to set a single-season record that stood for decades.

... people are overthinking: Tua's picks. You know, Tua threw three of his five interceptions last season in the Dolphins' Week 17 loss to Buffalo. In that game, he had a career-high 58 pass attempts and a career-low 62.5 passer rating. Let's not get out of control with the critiques just yet.

... people are overlooking, Part II: Tua's win percentage. He had the highest win percentage of all of the three qualifying rookie quarterbacks last year, matching Herbert in wins (6) and besting Joe Burrow, who went 2-7-1. Which might actually be fodder for the quarterback wins aren't a relevant stat crowd. But hey, I want to keep this positive for the Dolphins.

... people ore overlooking, Part III: Tua was as good as Aaron Rodgers. Well, at least in one category. Almost. Tua had a passer rating of 83.4 on tight-window throws, per Next Gen Stats. That was second to only Rodgers (87.7) and just ahead of Derek Carr (81.7), Tom Brady (78.9) and Drew Brees (78.0). Have you had enough Tua talk? I mean, this is a pretty big theme for the Dolphins' season.

For 2021 to be a success, the Dolphins MUST:

  • I have a feeling this is going to come down to Tua's performance, right? Here's my thing: The Dolphins won 10 games in 2020 -- and the playoffs are a realistic goal this season. I know I say this a lot for teams with young quarterbacks, but they really do have to figure out what they have in their young signal-caller. Making the playoffs with Jacoby Brissett replacing Tua would be fine, but it wouldn't be as good as the lefty showing that he is the quarterback of the future, even if Miami doesn't make the postseason this time around.

In closing

The good news for the Dolphins is I firmly believe Tua Tagovailoa is indeed that quarterback of the future. In fact, it appears to me that the Dolphins are on a trajectory similar to the one the Bills rode to the top of the AFC East last season. Which I guess could make Will Fuller this year's Stefon Diggs (or maybe that's Jaylen Waddle). Anyway, there is a lot of reason for optimism in Miami.

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