Tua Tagovailoa was selected only one place ahead of Justin Herbert in the 2020 NFL draft and the two rookie quarterbacks are now set for an intriguing first meeting.
The Miami Dolphins resisted temptation to trade up as they held firm and picked Alabama prospect Tagovailoa at number five overall, before the Los Angeles Chargers, who were next in line, made Herbert the third QB taken.
Herbert has emphatically surpassed expectations as a rookie, having taken over the starting job in unexpected circumstances when Tyrod Taylor was forced to withdraw minutes before a Week 2 game with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Some stellar Herbert performances have not led to wins, though, with the Chargers faltering to 2-6 after a series of heartbreaking late losses.
Tagovailoa waited a while longer before taking the reins with the Dolphins, but has won his first two games under center after replacing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Dolphins were the laughing stock of the league early in 2019, but head coach Brian Flores has overseen an impressive transformation, putting the 5-3 Dolphins in playoff contention ahead of Sunday’s home game against the Chargers.
Rookie QBs Justin Herbert & Tua Tagovailoa will meet in Week 10
– Herbert (104.7) & Tagovailoa (103.8) have the 2nd & 3rd highest pass rtg by rookie QBs in the SB era
– Herbert is the 1st rookie since at least 1950 w/ 2,000+ pass yds & 15+ pass TD in his first 7 career starts
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 12, 2020
It is only the second time since 2004 that the Dolphins have been above .500 at the midway point of the season and their plus 16 points differential since Week 5 is the best in the NFL.
The Chargers looked to have ended their streak of miserable narrow losses against the Las Vegas Raiders last time out, but a game-winning TD on the last play of the game was overturned on replay review.
As a result, they have 15 losses by one score or fewer since the start of 2019 – the most in the NFL – and are 3-15 in such games. They are also 1-5 this year in games where they have led at halftime.
Herbert making history
Despite the chaotic collapses and late losses, former Oregon QB Herbert has racked up 2,146 passing yards in his first seven career games, the best-ever performance by a rookie, according to Stats Perform data.
Herbert, Cam Newton and the number one overall pick this year, Joe Burrow, are the only rookies to go above 2,000 inside seven games.
Widening that out beyond rookies, Billy Volek (2,305) and Patrick Mahomes (2,149) are the only QBs who had more yards than Herbert across their first seven career starts.
If Herbert can throw for multiple touchdowns against the Dolphins, he will be the first rookie to do so in six consecutive games, surpassing a record he currently shares with Dan Marino, Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson.
He has thrown for 250+ yards in all of his first seven starts as an NFL player, meaning he is fast closing in on the record held by Mahomes (10 straight games).
While some rookies may take a cautious approach as they adapt to frenetic NFL action, Herbert has had no issues throwing the ball deep.
Ten of his 17 touchdown passes in 2020 have had 20+ air yards, tied with Wilson for the league lead and ahead of Mahomes (eight), who is famed for his aggressive approach.
That has also led to turnovers too. Four of his five interceptions have been on deep passes, tied with Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz for most in the league.
Tua already making strides
Some questioned the timing of bringing in Tagovailoa at a time when Fitzpatrick was playing some of the best football of his career and making the Dolphins competitive.
Tagovailoa did not have to do much in his first win as a starter against the Los Angeles Rams, with defense and special teams scores helping the Dolphins to a comfortable 28-17 win where he only registered 93 passing yards.
Tua Tagovailoa has excelled (in a small sample size) when not blitzed this season, including going 14-17 for 189 yards and 2 TD vs ARI per @NextGenStats. He faces the Chargers Sunday, who blitz at the lowest rate in the NFL (13.8% of dropbacks). pic.twitter.com/wM7DjiLDai
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 10, 2020
But the Dolphins opened up the playbook for a statement 34-31 road win over the Arizona Cardinals last week, as he improved to 248 passing yards.
Tagovailoa had 11 completions of 10+ more yards and 12 first-down passes compared to figures of three and five respectively against the Rams.
There were also signs he can be a viable threat with his legs, with Tagovailoa rushing for 35 yards after not registering any yardage on the ground in his starting debut.
If he can move to 3-0 with a win over the Chargers, the rookie will become join Damon Huard, who is currently the only Dolphins QB in history to win his first three starts.
Tagovailoa has three TDs and is yet to throw an interception, making him the third Dolphin to record those numbers or better his first two career starts, and just the 15th NFL player ever, with Aaron Rodgers among the others to achieve the feat.