Tua Tagovailoa’s future is in Miami, but at what price?

The Miami Dolphins were the only team facing a major decision on a franchise quarterback — one still on his rookie contract and eligible for an extension — that didn’t take decisive action before the start of this season.

Given the overarching health concerns about Tua Tagovailoa heading into last offseason, with his 2022 cut short by multiple concussions that raised questions about his career trajectory, the pause didn’t seem surprising even as the Joe Burrows, Justin Herberts and Lamar Jacksons were getting massive paydays. But as the Dolphins enter their bye week with an offense that has gone from unstoppable and unpredictable to far more mundane, and as the quarterback’s MVP stock tumbles after he was the early-season front-runner, it’s fair to ponder where he fits into the quarterback compensation hierarchy — and what decisions loom for Miami.

Of greatest import, of course, is Tagovailoa’s health, which thankfully has not been an issue this season, with the 25-year-old avoiding any shots to the head and getting through every game cleanly. (The identification of his potential concussions, don’t forget, was a major NFL headline a year ago.) However, he remains short of true signature wins — a Week 1 defeat of the Chargers would rank as his best this season, I guess — and the Dolphins tend to come up short against better teams and defenses.

What to know from NFL Week 9: Nobody is playing better than the Ravens

It’s been a tale of two seasons already. Miami went 4-1 in the first five weeks, averaging an improbable 8.3 yards per play, 6.9 yards per rush and 9.8 net yards per pass while scoring 36.2 offensive points a game. They are just 2-2 in their last four games, however, with a modest 5.5 yards per pay, 4.4 yards per rush and just 6.6 net yards pass while scoring 24.3 points per game on offense.

“They’re not a contender” as one general manager put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he’s not at liberty to discuss other team’s chances. “I don’t buy them. And I kind of hate to say it, but who have they beat?”

Tagovailoa, earning less than $5 million this season, was near the NFL lead in virtually every quarterbacking category through four games, completing 71.7 percent of his passes for 9.7 yards per attempt, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 111.9 rating, second in the league. Since Week 5, he’s completing 66.9 percent of attempts for 7.0 yards per pass, with eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 99.9 (seventh best). In the Dolphins’ tests against potential playoff defenses, he and the offense have come up small, producing 20 points against Buffalo, 17 against Philadelphia and 14 against Kansas City Sunday in Germany. Their numbers skew heavily toward playing at home, and their playoff pedigree is lacking.

Given how bleak the free agent quarterback class is and how well versed Tagovailoa is in Coach Mike McDaniel’s offense, there isn’t a personnel executive in the NFL who doesn’t think this quarterback is back in Miami in 2024. Does he play out that season on a fifth-year option? It’s doubtful. At a time when quarterbacks who can post a 100-plus rating are few and far between, and for a franchise long in search of a fixture under center, this is a match.

But if Tagovailoa won’t be going anywhere, he also won’t be landing Burrow’s $219 million in injury guarantees, either. The concussion risk remains, and the structure of his deal will almost certainly differ in some key areas from those of his peers. “If he can get through this season without a concussion it would make a big difference for him,” said one top agent who has negotiated myriad QB deals but does not represent Tagovailoa, “but there is still always that concern. He’ll get his [$50 million per season] or close to it, and his agent will want a super long-term deal like [Patrick] Mahomes. But it’s going to have rolling injury guarantees. I don’t see any way around that.”

As for the Dolphins, it’ll be a while before we can really size them up again. They come out of the bye against the Raiders and get the Jets (twice), Commanders and Titans before a tough final three weeks. Right now, they have the look of another one and done playoff team, even with Tagovailoa under center.

Is Caleb Williams still the top NFL prospect?

Before the season, it seemed a formality that USC Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams would be the first pick of the draft. Teams appeared to be tanking for him, coaches and GMs were lusting for his services, and he checked every box for a can’t-miss prospect.

Now, some are not so sure. It’s been a rough stretch for USC, which has lost three of four; Williams isn’t going to win another Heisman; and more warts (or perceived warts) are showing.

“That’s not a [first overall pick] for me,” said one longtime executive, whose evaluations have proven sage over time, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a prospect. Another executive agreed that, if nothing else, the field has closed the gap on Williams as the college season winds down. Despite some conjecture to the contrary, there remains every expectation the Gonzaga High product goes pro after this season, which will make for some interesting fodder in the spring.

Notes from around the league

The Seahawks give up significant draft capital to land defensive lineman Leonard Williams at last week’s trade deadline, and then a defense that was giving up 3.6 yards per carry promptly gave up 298 yards on the ground at Baltimore — an astounding 7.3 yards per rush on a day when Lamar Jackson didn’t go crazy scrambling. Hmmm. Seattle looked horribly equipped to compete with an NFL heavyweight at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. … Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike has been one of the league’s breakout players in 2023, finding a level of consistency pushing the pocket and making an impact behind the line of scrimmage that will put him in $20 million-a-year territory. A franchise tag might be looming, although Baltimore linebacker Patrick Queen would be just as worthy. …

Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud probably put a stranglehold on rookie of the year honors with a five-touchdown master class Sunday. He’s crushed the blitz all season, but attack-minded Tampa Coach Todd Bowles blitzed him 12 times, anyway. Bowles got one sack out of it, according to TruMedia, while Stroud went 9 for 11 for 164 yards, a touchdown and a sparkling 149.1 rating the rest of the time. Not a great trade-off …

The QB-needy potential playoff teams that didn’t trade for Josh Dobbs at the deadline will rue it. What the journeyman pulled off for the Vikings Sunday, having just arrived in a trade with the Cardinals, was superlative. I wouldn’t count out Minnesota as a potential wild-card team even without Kirk Cousins for the remainder of the year.

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