Dolphins' draft sets up Tua Tagovailoa for success with speedy playmakers

MIAMI -- Tua Tagovailoa unleashed a toothy smile of enthusiasm and a yell of "let's go" Thursday night as he watched the Miami Dolphins select the draft's fastest wide receiver at No. 6, Alabama's Jaylen Waddle.

It was a glimpse into Tagovailoa's excitement for a reunion with his former teammate, but he also was picturing what Waddle will do for the Dolphins' offense and his own game.

There is debate over whether the Dolphins should have picked Waddle or Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith at No. 6 as well as the team's failure to draft a top-tier running back again, but the Dolphins still had a strong draft weekend. If you take any stock in post-draft grades, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. was among many analysts who listed Miami as having the NFL's best draft.

The Dolphins landed four potential Day 1 starters with their first four picks (Waddle, edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, safety Jevon Holland and offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg).

But the draft's biggest beneficiary for Miami? That's easy -- Tagovailoa.

"We watched a lot of Tua last year. In doing that, we saw really all the players at Alabama, and Waddle was somebody who definitely stood out," Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. "We think he'll fit inside or outside. He'll add a speed element. Obviously he has some value in the return game. His versatility is a big part of this."

The 2020 Dolphins lacked explosive playmakers and reliable offensive line protection, and Dolphins general manager Chris Grier and Flores hammered those needs with a fury this offseason. The addition of Waddle and William Fuller V is the roster's biggest upgrade.

Tagovailoa's Year 2 improvement is the most important factor in completing the Dolphins' transition from rebuilding team to contender. They're not in the Super Bowl conversation right now (let's see them make the playoffs first), but they are getting the talent to put them on the brink of contention.

Many of the elements hampering Tagovailoa as a rookie -- a lack of wide receiver separation, little offseason preparation coming off a career-threatening hip injury, offensive line struggles, lack of chemistry with the offensive playcaller, hesitancy to throw deep, tight-window passes to possession receivers -- have been removed by Miami's offseason moves.

It's not a perfect roster, but Tagovailoa has enough around him to flourish in 2021. Now it's up to him.

Picture a Dolphins offense with returning lead target DeVante Parker at X receiver, speedy deep threat Fuller at Z receiver, explosive Waddle in the slot and jump-ball specialist Mike Gesicki playing tight end or an extra slot receiver. The duo of Parker and Fuller outside combined with Waddle and Gesicki inside provides difficult, varied skill sets for defenses to combat every week.

If healthy and at their best, this group could challenge the Buffalo Bills for the best set of offensive playmakers in the AFC East.

Also, don't forget Miami has a pair of 6-foot-5 targets in wide receiver Preston Williams and rookie tight end Hunter Long, each likely headed for situational roles providing valuable depth for a group of starters with an extensive injury history. Shifty second-year player Lynn Bowden Jr. and yards-after-catch specialist Albert Wilson (returning after opting out of the 2020 season) also provide exciting receiving options. It's a better group at the top and the bottom.

The new additions should help Tagovailoa open up the passing attack just as he did at Alabama by throwing it deep. The biggest problem Tagovailoa might have is figuring out how to spread the touches around. This Dolphins offense shouldn't be slow or sluggish like last season; the speed cavalry has arrived.

On the Dolphins' offensive line, a starting lineup could feature left tackle Austin Jackson, left guard Solomon Kindley, center Matt Skura, right guard Robert Hunt and Eichenberg at right tackle, with veterans D.J. Fluker and Jesse Davis pushing the young, developing players for starting spots. This unit is still somewhat unproven, but it's in better shape already compared to last season.

Miami's biggest remaining question is at running back, where it could certainly use an upgrade. The Dolphins seem set to have Myles Gaskin continue as the lead back with power back Malcolm Brown and speedy Salvon Ahmed completing the trio. It's worth watching to see whether Miami looks to the trade or free-agency market to do so. Flores noted added speed at wide receiver should take defenders out of the box and continued offensive line development should open up more running lanes, even if it's a Gaskin-led backfield again.

Finally, Dolphins co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey are already deep in the process of building a new offense. Flores is excited about what he has seen from a scheme that is expected to be more flexible and take advantage of Tagovailoa's skills.

Some players -- including Tagovailoa -- are expected to arrive for on-field workouts later this month to try it out.

Offseason is a time for hope, but there's rightful reason for optimism surrounding these 2021 Dolphins.

The speed has arrived, the O-line protection is coming together and now it's up to Tagovailoa to maximize what the Dolphins have built around him.