The Dolphins already know that Tua Tagovailoa will be their quarterback in 2023. Whether they’re certain if they want him to be their quarterback in 2024 will become a lot clearer two months from Thursday.
That’s the May 2 deadline by which the Dolphins must decide whether to exercise his $23.1 million fifth-year option.
I asked two longtime former general managers if they would exercise the option, which would fully guarantee Tagovailoa $23.1 million in 2024 regardless of what happens next season.
And I got completely different answers, a reflection of how difficult this decision seems to be.
The one who said no cited one reason: “There’s just too much of an injury risk.”
The other said he would exercise the option for this reason: “He showed enough last season that you want to see this play out. If you don’t pick it up and he has a really good year next year, you’re going to have to pay him a lot more [in 2024]. I think it’s worth the risk.”
Both former GMs asked that their names not be used, because they remain involved in the game, though neither still works for a team.
For the Dolphins, this has become a $19 million decision — at the very least — for this reason:
If Tagovailoa plays well enough for the Dolphins to decide to continue on with him in 2024 — but doesn’t stay healthy enough for Miami to feel comfortable making a long-term investment — then the Dolphins might need to use the franchise tag on him in 2024.
And per overthecap.com, that franchise tag now projects to be $41.8 million. (It could end up being several million lower, or possibly a bit higher.)
So you’re looking at 1). either risking that Tagovailoa will stay healthy — and remain productive — and have a $23.1 million salary and cap hit in 2024, or 2). delaying the decision a year and end up potentially having his salary and cap hit enormously higher than that.
The other alternative, of course, is giving Tagovailoa a long-term deal next offseason. If he’s great and healthy next season, that likely would mean an average salary potentially in that $41 million range. But the contract could be structured in a way where the cap hit would be lower in 2024.
A few points to keep in mind about the option decision for Tagovailoa, who will turn 25 on Thursday:
▪ If you’re thinking the Dolphins might be able to get out of the $23.1 million if he sustains more concussions next season and retires, that’s not realistic. There’s no way his agents — he recently hired Athletes First to represent him — would jeopardize that payment.
And if Tagovailoa sustains multiple concussions, doctors likely would keep him sidelined for a significant period of time anyway.
Remember, the $23.1 million is fully guaranteed if the option is exercised.
▪ The Dolphins have done everything possible to show Tagovailoa that they’re invested in him and committed to him. Declining the option could have a corrosive effect in that regard. But I wouldn’t overestimate that factor; that shouldn’t affect his play.
▪ If the Dolphins bypass the fifth-year option, another alternative — albeit far less likely — is placing the $36.4 million transition tag on him, which would allow other teams to make an offer that the Dolphins could match. But Miami would receive no compensation if it didn’t match an offer.
▪ Here’s something that needs to be part of Miami’s thinking: Even if Tagovailoa misses games next season but is generally productive when he plays, there’s a good chance he would remain the best realistic quarterback option for 2024. That’s one incentive to exercise the option.
The Dolphins’ talent at several other positions suggests they won’t be getting a high draft pick.
And the 2024 free agent quarterback class is neither great nor deep, assuming (and it’s safe to assume) that Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts will either sign long-term contracts or have their fifth-year options picked up in the months ahead. The Packers have a club option on Jordan Love, and likely won’t allow him to leave.
That would leave Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston (who could be cut in the weeks ahead) and Mitch Trubisky as the only starting-caliber quarterbacks set for unrestricted free agency after the 2023 season. (And Trubisky is a fringe starter.)
If the Dolphins decline the Tagovailoa fifth-year option and he’s injured or plays poorly next season, you could hope that a surprising starting option will become available next spring, because that sometimes happens, as is the case with Derek Carr this offseason. But assuming that is a huge risk.
Though Southern Cal quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams — projected to go high in the 2024 Draft — told “People” magazine that the Dolphins “are probably my No. 1 spot,” college players obviously don’t get to choose where they play.
My initial view is that exercising Tagovailoa’s 2024 option is too big a risk — purely because of durability questions — and waiting a year would be prudent. But when the lack of appealing known alternatives for 2024 is factored in, this becomes a far more difficult decision.
I would prefer last year’s Tagovailoa — even missing four games — over a stopgap such as Tannehill or Winston. (The Vikings could keep Cousins if they make the playoffs again next season.)
Whatever the Dolphins decide, it can be reasonably justified.
▪ It would be very surprising if the Dolphins exercise right tackle Austin Jackson’s $14.2 million option for 2024 by the May 2 deadline. It would be unfathomable if the Dolphins exercised Noah Igbonighene’s $11.5 million option for 2024.
THIS AND THAT
The reps for several Dolphins free agents are awaiting offers and clarity from the team. Team executives Chris Grier and Brandon Shore are expected to meet with various agents during the NFL Combine this week.
▪ Because the Dolphins get far more cap relief by cutting Byron Jones with a June 1 designation than otherwise, Miami likely will be in a situation where it uses nearly all of its cap space in the first few weeks of free agency, then gets another $13.6 million in cap space relief on June 1.
The Dolphins are $16.4 million over the salary cap and will need to restructure several contracts, and make several cuts, to create enough room to sign: 1). two running backs (Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. or outside options), 2). a backup quarterback; 3). a veteran tight end to replace Mike Gesicki; 4). three veteran backup offensive linemen, including at least one who could challenge to start at right tackle; 5). two linebackers (Elandon Roberts, Duke Riley or outside options); 6). a starting-caliber cornerback; 7) Eric Rowe or a different third safety.
Jones has an $18.3 million cap number next season; Miami would have $14.8 million in dead money and a $3.8 cap savings on its 2023 cap if he’s cut before June 1 without a post-June 1 designation.
If Miami cuts him after June 1 — or releases him at the start of the new league year in mid March and designates him a post-June 1 cut — the Dolphins would have $4.7 million in dead money but $13.6 million in savings on its 2023 cap.
So the Dolphins, conceivably, could be down to a couple million in cap space at some point in April and wait to sign its draft class and fill any remaining holes until after its gets the Jones’ cap relief June 1.
Even if Miami releases Jones in mid-March and designates him a post-June 1 cut, that cap relief cannot be used until June. But Jones’ release, at some point, is expected; he indicated Saturday he’s not physically able to play.
▪ The Dolphins’ 13th annual Challenge Cancer event on Saturday raised more than $10 million, with additional donations expected in the months ahead.
The Dolphins have now raised more than $63 million of the $75 million committed toward helping fight the disease and supporting those impacted by cancer.
Saturday’s bike race drew a record 5,641 participants.
▪ Recommended listening: To coincide with Zach Thomas’ election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Fish Tank hosts Seth Levit and OJ McDuffie spent an hour reminiscing about Thomas with five of his former teammates (including Trace Armstrong) and two longtime Miami Herald writers (Greg Cote and former staffer Jason Cole).