Alabama's Devonta Smith a logical fit for Miami Dolphins, college teammate Tua Tagovailoa
Since the retirement of Dan Marino following the 1999 NFL season, the Miami Dolphins have struggled to find a long-term solution at the sport's most important decision, having started 22 different quarterbacks in the new millennium. None of those quarterbacks have made a Pro Bowl appearance with the team.
There's early speculation that coming off his rollercoaster rookie campaign, the Dolphins could shop last year's no. 5 overall pick, Tua Tagovailoa, and once again move to another new quarterback, resuming a 20-year game of hot potato. Thanks to a 2019 trade that sent Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and a pair of mid-round picks to the Houston Texans, the Dolphins own the no. 3 overall pick in the upcoming 2021 draft. Some speculate that the Dolphins might be tempted to use the pick to select either Justin Fields or Zach Wilson, or dangle the pick and potentially more draft capital for the Texans' dissatisfied star Deshaun Watson. I highly doubt either proposition comes to fruition, however.
Through four NFL seasons, Watson has made three Pro Bowl teams, but the Texans have already squeezed all they could from his rookie contract. Any team that acquires him will be inheriting his hefty $177.5 million extension, and foregoing the opportunity to build around a young quarterback on a cheap, rookie deal. The rookie quarterback contract has recently become the secret sauce for upstart teams building a winner. While difficult to execute, if you are able to draft and develop a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl, and get immediate production out of him, your organization has unlocked roughly $20 million in annual cap space to spend on building a championship-worthy supporting cast around him. The last four teams standing in the 2020-21 AFC playoffs were led by Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, all third and fourth-year quarterbacks still on cost-effective deals.
Of course, the cost-effective, early-career quarterback isn't a necessary ingredient to success in the NFL (just take a look at the NFC side of the 2020-21 playoffs for that matter). Nevertheless, the Dolphins are in a spot to win now, and maximizing on the remaining four years of Tagovailoa's rookie deal would likely be the most efficient option for them. Selecting Wilson or Fields would be a step backwards, as I don't believe either quarterback would be an immediate upgrade from Tagovailoa, nor would I expect either to be more seasoned or NFL-ready at this time. To be fair to Tagovailoa, 2020 was no ordinary season. Due to COVID-19, he wasn't given any preseason reps. Just two years ago, Josh Allen was the internet's punching bag; now, he's a legitimate MVP candidate. Quarterbacks take time to develop and need to be given proper arsenal in order to create an explosive offense. Hitting the reset button would send the Dolphins back to square one, and effectively erase the progress the team has made with Tua.
For better or worse, the Dolphins' immediate future lies in the hands of Tagovailoa, and it's time to start stockpiling weapons around the young QB for his sophomore year. Assuming the Jaguars do indeed select Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick, and the Jets take either Fields, Wilson, or Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, the Dolphins will be presented with the opportunity to draft Tagovailoa's college safety net and friend, Heisman winner DeVonta Smith.
Smith and Tagovailoa were both a part of Nick Saban's 2017 recruiting class. After spending the bulk of his freshman year on the bench, Tagovailoa's number was called upon in the second half of the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship game, where he later connected with Smith in overtime for a game-winning, 41-yard walk-off touchdown.
Three years later, back in the National Championship, Smith's prowess was on full-display for the entire nation. Last Monday night, Smith hauled in 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Had the Crimson Tide's 52-28 margin of victory been a bit slimmer, he probably would have finished with even higher totals.
In 2020, Smith's game reached a level we've rarely seen from a wide receiver in the college game, as he tracked 117 receptions, 1,856 receiving yards, and 24 all-purpose touchdowns (23 receiving, one rushing). Earlier this month, he became the first receiver to win the Heisman trophy since Michigan standout Desmond Howard took home the hardware in 1991 — it was only the third time ever that a receiver won the award.
“I love Smitty," Nick Saban said, following Alabama's blowout victory over LSU last month. "He’s probably done as much this year for our team as any player that we’ve ever had. He’s a great leader on the team. It’s not fair to compare him to somebody else that you didn’t even see, but I don’t think there’s many players in the country that have done more for their team than Smitty does for our team.”
Just days after Smith put on a clinic in the College Football Playoff semifinal, his college teammate's playoff hopes were dashed into the ground. The Dolphins came up just short of what would have been their third postseason appearance since 2001. Perhaps having a receiver of Smith's caliber will enable Tua to elevate his game in year two.
“I was with him for three years,” Tagovailoa said of Smith back in December. “He’s very smart, very instinctive. He’s very athletic and he’s fast too, and he goes up and he gets the ball.”
As the Dolphins jockey for position in the post-Brady AFC East, pairing Smith with Tua to recapture some Alabama magic at the professional level could take Miami's offense to new heights. Perhaps turning the offense over to two college champions is what the Dolphins need in order to revert the franchise back to its winning tradition.
And maybe, just maybe, upon the arrival of Smith, Tua will gradually grow to become the franchise's best signal-caller since Marino.
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(Photo via Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports)