Dolphins face big decision on QB Tua Tagovailoa's contract

Where do negotiations stand between Tua and the Dolphins? (0:38)

Jeremy Fowler reports that the Dolphins have started contract extension talks in earnest with Tua Tagovailoa. (0:38)

MIAMI -- Last week, Miami Dolphins cornerback Jalen Ramsey shared a photo on his Instagram account of the scorecard from his third-ever round of golf.

The post, which tagged the Dolphins' team account, revealed he shot a 94 -- a score not many novice golfers are capable of achieving. His partner that day, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, shot an 86.

The scores, however, weren't as important as Ramsey's message written at the bottom of the scorecard.

"PAY TUA!!!!!"

If what the Dolphins have said publicly can be believed, Ramsey's request could be obliged in the coming months. Tagovailoa is eligible for a contract extension this offseason -- a deal both sides have expressed interest in getting done. Tagovailoa made his case for a second contract after leading the NFL in passing yards last season with 4,624, while setting career highs in passing touchdowns (29), completion percentage (69.3%) and games played (18, including the playoffs). It was his first injury-free season since entering the league in 2020. However, he and the Dolphins finished 1-6 against teams with a winning record last year.

"I think we're hopeful," Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said. "When you go through these things ... these are deals that very rarely come together quickly. There are a lot of pieces and moving parts. We've had positive discussions so far, and we'll keep working here throughout the offseason."

As negotiations between Tagovailoa and the Dolphins intensify this offseason, Grier has to balance the rising cost of keeping a franchise quarterback against the harsh reality of not having one. Miami has started 25 different quarterbacks since Hall of Famer Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since 2000, and prior to the 2022 campaign -- Tua's first with head coach Mike McDaniel -- the Dolphins had not fielded a top-10 offense since 1995.

If the two sides can come to an agreement, the Dolphins will have accomplished what many NFL teams have failed to do over the past 10 years. In that span, all but five teams have spent a first-round pick on a quarterback. Of those 27 teams, 10 signed their first-round quarterback to a second contract.

If the sides are unable to agree to a deal this offseason, Tagovailoa has the fifth year of his rookie contract remaining in 2024 and could be franchise tagged the following year -- similar to what happened with Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins in recent years.

"Miami has struggled since Marino to get a quarterback, right?" an NFL front office executive told ESPN. "So they don't want to go back there. I get it, they whatever 'tanked for Tua' or whatever that was called -- they did all that stuff and so they're like, 'Well, I don't want to do all that again to get a guy,' and the agents know they did all that.

"If I'm the agent, I get it. It's just walking that line -- where do you come in? Is it $50 [million]? Is it $55 [million] where you're comfortable?"

Tagovailoa was one of five quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds of the 2020 NFL draft, along with the Bengals' Joe Burrow, the Chargers' Justin Herbert, the Packers' Jordan Love and the Eagles' Jalen Hurts.

He's the only one who has not signed a second contract.

Burrow and Herbert signed record-setting extensions worth $275 million and $262 million, respectively, while Hurts was close behind with a $255 million deal. Love signed a one-year deal worth $13.5 million in guaranteed money, but 2023 was his first full season as a starter.

NFL quarterback contracts are often a race to reset the market -- as Hurts, Jackson, Herbert and Burrow did, in order, last offseason. The Detroit Lions signed Jared Goff on Monday to a four-year extension worth $212 million, giving Tagovailoa and the Dolphins another reference point for negotiations.

So does a contract for Tagovailoa mean the richest deal in NFL history?

Despite his impressive 2023 campaign, Tagovailoa's accomplishments haven't matched his draft classmates'.

Burrow and Hurts have each reached a Super Bowl, and Herbert's production over his first four seasons makes his contract understandable; no player in the Super Bowl era has thrown for more yards in his first four seasons than Herbert's 17,223.

Tagovailoa also comes with injury concerns. He missed 11 games during his first three seasons due to injuries.

"The general rule of thumb is as players get older, they don't get more durable," a source familiar with front office operations told ESPN. "Generally speaking, if you've been hurt before, you're going to be hurt again. Tua, to play the entire year this year deserves a ton of credit. I'm just glad I'm not the one that's signing off on paying him."

Tagovailoa confronted his durability concerns with a breakfall jiu-jitsu training program last offseason, coupled with a physical transformation. He bulked up to 238 pounds before cutting down to 225 pounds by training camp.

It worked. He played all 18 games for the Dolphins in 2023 en route to a career season.

His contemporaries got off to stronger starts to their careers, but Tagovailoa's first two years in Miami were marked by a lack of continuity. The Dolphins cycled through three offensive coordinators and two quarterback coaches in those first two seasons before hiring McDaniel in February 2022. Tagovailoa has played for the same head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach the past two seasons.

In that span, he has thrown for the fourth-most passing yards (8,172) and fifth-most touchdowns (54). Tagovailoa's 102.9 passer rating and 67.4% completion percentage also rank second and fifth in the NFL, respectively. And he has more passing yards and passing touchdowns than Burrow, Hurts and Herbert, and has played in more games than Burrow.

"I think Miami's got to find that sweet spot of, what do they pay him and make him happy, yet not make him the No. 1 [highest-paid] overall?" an NFL front office executive told ESPN.

Contract negotiations are delicate and contain subtleties that can stall talks.

Both the Dolphins' and Tua's representatives at Athletes First have likely determined their ceiling and floor for Tagovailoa's deal, based on a list of comparable NFL players -- where they were drafted, how they've produced, and what their future trajectory looks like -- a source with knowledge of these kinds of negotiations told ESPN.

While both sides exercise this concept, the information is not always something that's shared between them.

"The ceiling and floor concept is a good way of trying to figure out [a deal]," a person familiar with NFL contract negotiations told ESPN. "Agents know the ceiling, agents know the floor -- teams will never give the ceiling, teams will always hide the floor."

For example, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, taken sixth overall in 2019, has career stats comparable to Tagovailoa's, albeit with 19 fewer touchdown passes and three more interceptions despite playing in seven more games. But he has never played a full season or surpassed 4,000 passing yards as Tagovailoa did in 2023. He signed a four-year, $160 million extension last offseason.

On the other end, Herbert, drafted one spot ahead of Tagovailoa in 2020, was named Offensive Rookie of the Year that season. He has played nine more games over the past four seasons and has 114 touchdown passes to Tagovailoa's 81 and nearly 5,000 more career passing yards. His size and arm talent made his $262 million extension a relatively easy decision for the Los Angeles Chargers.

"I sleep better at night knowing we have a franchise quarterback," then-Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said.

Jones and Herbert could represent the floor and ceiling, respectively, for Tagovailoa's contract.

Where negotiations often stall or come to a crawl, according to a source with knowledge of these types of negotiations, is determining the guaranteed money involved.

"The average per year is a deal that you could kind of figure out -- $52, $53, $54 [million]," a front office source told ESPN. "I think you could figure that part out. The guarantees with these deals are extraordinarily hard to get done."

The average annual values of Burrow's, Herbert's and Hurts' contracts are separated by $4 million. Their total guarantees, however, range from $219 million for Burrow to $193.7 million for Herbert to $179 million for Hurts.

That's where things get complicated for a player like Tagovailoa, whose injuries are well documented despite remaining healthy in 2023. As is the case with nearly every NFL contract, there will likely be a difference between the total guaranteed money Tagovailoa receives, which is not injury protected, and the fully guaranteed money he receives.

Herbert's extension included $193.7 million in total guarantees, but only $133.7 million of that is fully guaranteed. That difference between these guarantees is often tied to incentives -- like still being on the team's roster in Year 3 or 4 of the contract, or playing a certain amount of games.

A source familiar with contract negotiations of these types says the Dolphins will likely attach bonuses to their offer that protect themselves, while rewarding Tagovailoa for his continued durability.

"Signing bonus, base salary, workout bonus, per game roster bonuses -- that's something [the Dolphins are] going to want to put in the contract," the contract adviser said. "Per-game roster bonus is high because of his health -- but the agent side will balk at it."

Tagovailoa and the Dolphins also have the advantage of playing at least eight games in Florida each season, where there is no state income tax. Players are taxed in every state in which they earn income.

So, while his contract may not match Burrow's or Herbert's in total value, he could ultimately make up for it by playing at least 40 games over the next five years in an income tax-free state, compared to Ohio or the notoriously expensive California.

Grier doesn't like to negotiate deals with players through the media. When pressed about a potential timeline for Tagovailoa's extension, he simply confirmed it's being discussed.

Tagovailoa has declined to comment on his contract when asked, but told ESPN at the Pro Bowl in February that there had been communication between his reps and the Dolphins, and he will allow his agent to do his job.

"We've been in communication since the offseason began. ... Our goal is to get something done," Grier said. "[Tagovailoa's agent] Ryan Williams has been great. Tua has been great. We'll see. There is no timeline on it. At the end of the day, you had [to] know how these deals get done.

"They are complicated deals, and we're building a team through free agency as well. We'll work through it and see if we can get something done."

Tagovailoa's injury-riddled 2022 season made an extension unrealistic last offseason, despite Burrow, Herbert and Hurts signing. This year, there are two quarterback situations to monitor as his negotiations with the Dolphins continue.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract, while Love is on a one-year contract at well below market value. Neither player has been as consistent as Tagovailoa, but each has won a playoff game -- something Tagovailoa and the Dolphins are chasing.

While their situations are different, the Lawrence and Love deals could impact the "floor" for a potential Tagovailoa deal. According to a source, that proverbial race with Jacksonville and Green Bay may provide incentive to find a compromise if a deal is close.

"If you're far apart, then don't worry about it -- but if you're really close, if the agent's at [$]58 million and you're at 55 [million], go get it done," a front office executive told ESPN. "Whether it's 56 and a half or 57, get it done. Now if they're at 60 and you're at 50, that's a bigger gap to close."

Grier said the Dolphins are "strong believers" in Tagovailoa and think he still has another level he can reach. He was present for the start of their offseason program in April and has given no indication he won't be at organized team activities next week, despite having no deal in hand.

His presence will provide an opportunity to build chemistry with some of the Dolphins' offseason additions, who are excited to play with him.

"Just looking at Tua on paper, he's got it. In my eyes, I think he's one of the top quarterbacks in this league," tight end Jonnu Smith said. "I think he's one of, if not the most, accurate quarterback in this league. And that's just from me watching from the outside in. Now that I'm actually here, I'm sure I'll get to see that first-hand.

"He's a great player, a great leader. I've had a lot of respect for his game since he played at Alabama. Just seeing him play, he was always a fun guy to watch play, and I'm excited to catch some passes from him now."

Considering the difficulty involved in finding a starting quarterback capable of leading a team to the heights Miami envisions, there is motivation from the Dolphins to get a deal done.

Tagovailoa said this offseason that he believes an extension will be finalized, and that remains the expectation around the league as well.

"I think Miami's come this far. They've groomed him, he's going to get better," the front office executive said. "You don't want to lose him. It was so hard to get a quarterback. ... It's just finding that balance. My guess is $55 million [per year], maybe it's more."