Omar Kelly: Are Dolphins ruining relationship with Tua Tagovailoa by nickel and diming the quarterback?

Omar Kelly, Miami Herald on

Published in Football

MIAMI — The Miami Dolphins’ decision makers claim they are ready and willing to propose to Tua Tagovailoa.

General manager Chris Grier has professed his loyalty to the 2024 Pro Bowler, laughing off the thought of even researching any of the top rated quarterbacks in the 2024 NFL draft.

Head coach Mike McDaniel’s heart flutters every time he and Tagovailoa, the NFL’s 2023 leading passer, are together racking up yards and statistical accomplishments while pairing to lead the NFL’s top-ranked offense.

Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel has built every marketing campaign around the popular, yet polarizing former Alabama standout, whose name draws eyeballs and delivers television ratings.

The Dolphins’ trio of power have done everything but buy the quarterback an engagement ring and propose, which would be the equivalent of signing him to a multiyear extension that will make him not only the highest-paid player in franchise history, but give the 26-year-old a contract that puts him alongside his recently compensated peers.

That’s what Tagovailoa is waiting on after saying he didn’t need a deal before the 2023 season, like the ones Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert signed. Tagovailoa said he wanted to earn it, and he’s done everything this franchise has asked him to do for the past four seasons.

As this summer has progressed, Tagovailoa has probably became even more impatient, and discovering that Jacksonville gave Trevor Lawrence a five-year, $275 million extension, which reportedly includes $200 million in guaranteed money ($142 million at signing) certainly won’t help.

Now, Lawrence ($55 million), Joe Burrow ($55 million), Jared Goff ($52.5 million, Patrick Mahomes (52.6 million), Justin Herbert ($52.6 million), Lamar Jackson ($52 million) and Jalen Hurts ($51 million) all reside in the $50 million-a-year quarterback club, and Tagovailoa’s likely wondering when his payday, and financial security is coming.

“I’ll tell you one thing, the market is the market,” Tagovailoa said earlier this month when discussing the contract impasse. “If we didn’t have a market then none of that would matter. It would just be an organizational thing. It wouldn’t matter if that guy got paid that because it’s up to the organization.”

Tagovailoa was specifically referring to the four-year, $212 million extension the Detroit Lions gave Goff earlier that week, but the point he’s making applies to Lawrence, who hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as Tagovailoa has.

“The market is the market,” Tagovailoa repeated.

The problem is, the Dolphins have the leverage to play hardball with Tagovailoa at this moment.

They have him signed under the fifth-year option, which guarantees Tagovailoa $23.1 million for this season. That $1.35 million per game paycheck will be the largest Tagovailoa has ever received in his NFL career. But it’s a far cry from the $150 million-plus in guaranteed money his peers are getting.

It would also force him to assume all the risk in 2024 because one significant injury changes the game — football and contract negotiations — drastically for Tagovailoa.

Just ask Connor Williams — who held out during last year’s minicamp, seeking a $10 million a year salary before suffering an ACL tear in December that possibly ended his playing career — if you want an example of how things can go tragically wrong.


The Dolphins can also use the franchise tag (which is projected at $43 million) on Tagovailoa in 2025 to secure his services for another season, and can honestly do that again for 2026 for roughly $51.6 million, locking him up for three seasons at a grand total of just under $118 million.

That’s the break in case of emergency option. And that figure is the starting point for guaranteed money Tagovailoa’s agent should demand. However, based on Jaylen Waddle’s recent extension, it’s more realistic that Tagovailoa and his camp are in position to request four years of guaranteed money, which would conservatively put him in the $150-plus million neighborhood when it comes to guaranteed money.

The Dolphins can play hardball with Tagovailoa and his camp, just like the Baltimore Ravens did with Lamar Jackson before getting a deal done weeks after he requested a trade before the 2023 season.

But keep in mind, taking that route would likely prevent the Dolphins from improving the roster because they’d have to carry Tagovailoa’s massive salary on the salary cap for all those years.

That’s the reason why teams sign players to multiyear deals, to lower the initial cap hit, making their salaries and contracts more manageable.

That’s one of the reasons this deal has become extremely complicated, because it can help or hinder this franchise’s future.

The biggest question the Dolphins trio of power need to ask themselves is what’s the alternative if their stern negotiating stance sours their relationship with Tagovailoa, much like how last summer’s failed negotiations pushed Christian Wilkins out the door in free agency.

If we’re calling this wedding off, should the franchise be batting its eyes at Dak Prescott, who will become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t get a deal done with Dallas? Or Kirk Cousins, whom the Falcons might want to move off from if Michael Penix Jr. proves he’s capable of starting in 2025? Maybe Miami ends up with the leftovers from the Russell Wilson versus Justin Fields battle in Pittsburgh.

Or how about rolling the dice on the top quarterbacks in college football? Putting the team in position to secure a top rated one might require Miami being bad this season, but anything is possible when a nasty breakup poisons your team, which seems to be where this is headed if the two sides can’t do what Tagovailoa has requested, which is “find some common ground.”

For me, this deal begins and ends with the guaranteed money. I’ve covered the NFL for 16 seasons, so I know that’s the only real number that matters in these fake contracts the NFL doles out.

Is Tagovailoa worth a $50 million a season contract? He’s not, but everyone not named Mahomes isn’t either. And if we’re going to keep it real, most of these quarterbacks aren’t really making $50 million a season annually.

Burrow averages $47.8 million a season during the first three years of his seven-year, $275 million deal he got days before the start of last year’s regular season, which guaranteed him $146.5 million at signing.

Herbert averages $44.5 million a season over the first three years of his deal when you go through the entire contract. He’ll average $38.74 million a season over the first five seasons, but by then the contract will probably be restructured to help the Chargers create cap space. Or Herbert will be moved to another team, making him someone else’s franchise quarterback, or problem.

That’s the nature of the business when it comes to quarterbacks, and if the Dolphins want to keep theirs they better improve the offer, or be prepared to ruin the relationship.

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