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Tua Tagovailoa vs. Justin Herbert, Part I: NFL's next great QB rivalry?

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Why Stephen A. has Tua's Dolphins ahead of schedule (2:14)

Stephen A. Smith contends that Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins do not need to make the playoffs for their season to be a success. (2:14)

DAVIE, Fla. -- Two quarterbacks separated by one pick in the 2020 NFL draft will likely be connected throughout the rest of their pro careers. Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert face off for the first time when the Miami Dolphins host the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Football fans can only hope it's the start of the NFL's next great quarterback rivalry. There might never be anything like Tom Brady-Peyton Manning again, but there's plenty of excitement with the number of young quarterbacks who are emerging in the AFC.

Tagovailoa and Herbert are both competitors, but they aren't hyping this rivalry.

"That's just something that's going to have to be dealt with in the media," Tagovailoa said. "I have no animosity toward Justin Herbert, and for me, it's not even a competition between me and him. It's a competition for myself to go out and see what I can do to help our team be successful against their defense. And I'm pretty sure it's the same for Justin as well."

Herbert added: "Personally, I just look at it as a matchup each week and worry about the team that we're playing. It's always great to keep up with those guys, but it's more important to beat the guys that you're playing [in the division] against, whether it's the Raiders or the Broncos. ... The quarterback matchup is one of those keys to victory, but overall I think it's more important how the offense and defense plays."

And there will be important battles for each quarterback to face individually against the opposing defenses.

For Herbert, who has been excellent against the blitz this season, it will be how he performs against one of the NFL's best and most blitz-happy defenses. Dolphins coach Brian Flores acknowledged Herbert "makes you think twice about going that route." The matchup features the Chargers' No. 2 total offense vs. Dolphins' No. 4 scoring defense.

For Tagovailoa, it will be how the offense and his comfort level continue to evolve without 6-foot-5 wide receiver Preston Williams, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a foot injury. After a lackluster NFL debut, Tagovailoa opened it up Sunday vs. the Arizona Cardinals, unleashing a dynamite deep ball and flashing impressive mobility. It was the closest we have seen to Alabama Tagovailoa, so far, but he will have Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa chasing him and trying to squash his comfort.

Both of those matchups are essential, but most fans will still compare Tagovailoa and Herbert.

"It's Chargers vs. Dolphins, it's a team sport. That's what makes football so great. You have two outstanding rookie quarterbacks. This whole class so far has proven to be a pretty good class of rookie quarterbacks," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "I understand that people will say Tua vs. Herbert or Herbert vs. Tua."

The three teams that drafted a QB in the top 10 -- Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Burrow; Dolphins, Tagovailoa; Chargers, Herbert -- are likely more optimistic now that they have found their franchise guys.

Herbert is the first rookie QB since 1950 with 2,000-plus passing yards and 15-plus passing touchdowns in his first seven starts. He's averaging 307 yards per game, third among all NFL QBs (Cowboys' Dak Prescott, Seahawks' Russell Wilson), coupled with 17 touchdowns to five interceptions.

Despite being the second-most sacked QB this season (28), Burrow has been impressive, too. He's the only rookie QB so far who has eclipsed 400 passing yards in a game, and he has 11 touchdowns to five interceptions.

Tagovailoa, with two starts, is coming off maybe the best game of any of the trio, totaling 283 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a fourth-quarter comeback against the Cardinals last Sunday.

Herbert and Burrow are neck-and-neck in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year race. Tagovailoa, the last of the three to start, is playing catch up in terms of reps but setting the pace in terms of winning (Tagovailoa 2-0, Herbert 1-7, Burrow 2-5-1).

Despite coaches' pleas to focus on the team, quarterback battles are always magnified. It will be again next month when Tagovailoa faces Burrow for the first time. But among the quarterbacks, there is mutual love.

"I look forward to playing against [Tagovailoa] this week and hopefully saying hi," Herbert said. "He's a playmaker, he makes big-time plays in big-time situations. He's a smart, athletic guy who throws the ball all over the field, so he's been fun to watch."

From a team perspective, this one has a little more juice because both organizations spent substantial time evaluating Tagovailoa and Herbert in the pre-draft process. Ultimately, the Dolphins picking No. 5 made their call betting on Tagovailoa despite his uncertain health. That left the Chargers with Herbert, but there is no remorse.

"We got the quarterback we wanted," Lynn said. "Tua is an outstanding young man and quarterback, but we're very happy with our quarterback.”

The Dolphins would say the same, and it might not be until 2022 or beyond until we find out who has the best argument. Sunday will be the first Tagovailoa-Herbert battle, and one can only hope there will be many more to come.