When will Tua Tagovailoa start for Dolphins? Miami’s patience with rookie QB leaves 2020 debut in flux

The Dolphins are in no rush to let Tua Tagovailoa make a splash. Their rookie first-round quarterback will not be starting right away for Miami in Week 1. The question is, when is a good time for Tagovailoa make his NFL debut in 2020?

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will keep starting after doing so 13 times in 2019, turns 38 in November and is unsigned for next year. At the worst, that means Tagovailoa will be handed the top job early in 2021.

Here’s a breakdown of Tagovailoa’s status in the short term and what needs to happen for him to see his first meaningful action since playing his final healthy game for Alabama last Nov. 16:

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How healthy is Tua Tagovailoa in training camp?

This was the big first hurdle Tagovailoa had to clear to get on the field. The Dolphins had enough confidence that his past durability issues (knee and ankle sprains) wouldn’t resurface to draft him No. 5 overall in April. Before then, in March, Tagovailoa looked to be on track to recover well from season-ending hip surgery to repair a dislocation and fracture.

More than nine months later, Tagovailoa is again showing the arm talent and mobility that made him an elite prospect, moving and throwing with flashes of his massive upside. If availability is a critical first ability, Tagovailoa would seem to have it down.

Tagovailoa vs. Fitzpatrick in training camp

He hasn’t been afforded a real chance behind Fitzpatrick as the Dolphins have refrained from going full speed ahead with a fully healthy Tagovailoa. They have eased him in with mostly safe short-to-intermediate passing in practices to get his accuracy down early. The few times he’s been allowed to let it rip, Tagovailoa has impressed, based on team reports.

The answer then is not much. With an unusual limited offseason because of COVID-19 facility restrictions, Tagovailoa is truly getting in his heated early offseason work only now. With Fitzpatrick being a strong bridge QB, this was the plan as soon as Tagavailoa was selected. The Dolphins have not deviated from that plan.

Why did the Dolphins decide not to rush Tagovailoa?

The Dolphns are breaking in a new offense with unretired Chan Gailey. The last time Gailey’s spread concepts were in play for NFL teams, it also was in the AFC East, for the Bills as head coach and the Jets as play-caller. Fitzpatrick was in both Buffalo and New York for as long as Gailey was, starting most of the time in those stints.

Not only is Fitzpatrick accustomed to leading an offense for second-year head coach Brian Flores and has gained the trust and respect of his returning teammates, but he’s also the most well-versed QB Miami could have in trying to doing what Gailey wants to do. 

When Fitzpatrick missed a recent practice for personal reasons, Tagovailoa did get some first-team reps to confirm he’s well ahead of 2018 first-round flyer Josh Rosen. For the most part, it’s been a competition in name only with Fitzpatrick seeing consistent top duties.

The Dolphins remixed their offensive line and backfield through free agency, trading and the draft, but their key receivers remain the same. While Fitzparick has the chemistry advantage there, too — especially with No. 1 wide receiver DeVante Parker — Tagovailoa needs more time to develop a comfortable rapport with the whole group.

Before considering the coronavirus curveball, Fitzpatrick had plenty in his favor to start even if the Dolphins had made it a open competition with Tagavailoa.

How much does Fitzpatrick need to struggle before the Dolphins consider Tagovailoa?

The Dolphins have a tough early schedule. They face four returning playoff teams (at Patriots, vs. Bills, vs. Seahawks, at 49ers) in their first five games. Their only favorable matchup in that stretch is Week 3 (at Jaguars).

All those top teams have good secondaries and the streaky Fitzpatrick is known to throw interceptions in bunches. The Dolphins might be looking at a 1-4 start that quickly reminds them their rebuilding status hasn’t changed.

When Miami is out of contention and knowing Tagovailoa is the future of the team, there’s little upside to rolling with Fitzpatrick past October. On the other hand, the Dolphins could more resemble the team that finished 5-4 in 2019 vs. the one that started 0-7, hanging around early as a long shot wide-card hopeful in a seven-team AFC playoff field. It’s more likely the Dolphins are cooked after hosting both Los Angeles teams and their defensive playmakers to close their first-half schedule.

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When might Tagovailoa get to start?

When it’s eventual Fitzpatrick cools off and takes his lumps, the only question is when the Dolphins will feel that Tagovailoa is mentally and physically ready to take over for Gailey and Flores. Ideally, it would be nice to make the transition from Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa during a bye week for extra preparation. But the Dolphins aren’t off until Week 11, the week before Thanksgiving.

Barring an injury to Fitzpatrick, by Week 6 seems too early. That’s when the Dolphins travel to face the Broncos after that rough early stretch. It’s another tough defensive team and a difficult place for a rookie to play, even with no fans making noise in Denver.

The L.A. matchups are a possibility because that would give Tagovailoa back-to-back home starts to begin his career. At the Cardinals in Week 7, vs. Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker doesn’t feel like a great opportunity to let Tagovailoa loose.

Week 10 at home vs. the Jets before the by makes a lot of sense. In a strange twist of the schedule, they are also the Dolphins’ opponents after the bye in Week 12 in New York. That’s the combination of a lesser defense, a home game, good time to evaluate his first start and a good chance to improve in his second start.

The Dolphins need to avoid putting Tagovailoa in confidence-shaking situations as they are in the long game with him. Giving him more than a whole calendar year between starts is better than a rushed, desperate approach that doesn’t do him or them any favors.

How might Tagovailoa do as a rookie?

The Dolphins have some good offensive skill pieces to help Parker with second-year wide receiver Preston Williams and third-year tight end Mike Gesicki. They should have an improved 1-2 punch in Gailey’s running game with new veterans Matt Breida and Jordan Howard.

But the Dolphins are also looking at a completely new offensive line where three other drafted rookies — left tackle Austin Jackson, right tackle Robert Hunt, right guard Solomon Kindley — are set to join two free-agent pickups — left guard Ereck Flowers and center Ted Karras — as starters. There’s some real lack of experience there and it will take a while for cohesiveness to manifes up front or Gailey.

The Dolphins, with the potential for taking plenty of hits in pass protection, are likely to rein in Tagovailoa in games before slowly opening things up with him down the stretch There’s a perception that running will be a big part of Tagovailoa’s NFL game, but in reality, the more important athletic elements will be buying time to pust the balldownfield and feeling stong again about throwing while on the move outside of the pocket.

Tagovailoa needed time on his side after the injury-riddled ending to his special but short career at Alabama. The Dolphins are in position to give him all the time he needs with the goal of putting him the best position to have a breakout second season.

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