Can Tua Tagovailoa Support Elite Fantasy Football Seasons From Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle?
An elite fantasy football receiver changing teams in the midst of said elite run isn't the most common occurrence in the football landscape I can thank of, but we do actually have a few instances of it this season.
Hill steps into a situation with more than enough opportunity to be treated as a true top receiver, but what are the ceiling expectations for Hill and standout sophomore Jaylen Waddle in their first season playing together -- and alongside Tua Tagovailoa?
Tua Tagovailoa's Efficiency and Deep-Ball Tendencies
Last season, the Dolphins split time at quarterback between Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett, due to injuries to Tagovailoa.
There was a sizable difference in efficiency between the two.
Tua averaged 0.12 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back in 2021, which was 0.02 points per drop back better than the NFL average of 0.10. Brissett averaged a -0.01.
In 11 games in which Tua played at least a majority of the team's snaps, he averaged 225.6 yards and 1.5 touchdowns on a passing average depth of target (aDOT) of 7.0 yards.
His Passing EPA per drop back over expected (i.e. adjusted for opponent) was a 0.03, so he did play above expectation even if the stats themselves seem underwhelming.
Perhaps as much as anything, the aDOT of 7.0 stands out. Tagovailoa was 0.8 yards shy of the NFL average in these featured games, and we know how quickly Hill and Waddle can cash in on the deep ball.
Among 30 passers with at least 50 deep balls in 2021 (i.e. 16-plus air yards downfield), Tagovailoa (who had exactly 50 such attempts) ranked 20th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per attempt.
Further, in terms of aDOT on actual deep balls, Tua ranked 29th in this sample. When he did go deep, it was still shorter than his peers, on average.
That's bad, right? It's not ideal for sure, and...
Tyreek Hill Isn't Just a Downfield Receiver Anymore
In 2021, we saw a shift in how defenses played against the Chiefs, which led to more underneath passing for Patrick Mahomes. That had a tangible impact on Hill's usage.
Hill saw a 10.4-yard average depth of target, a low since his rookie season back in 2016. His yards per catch rate (11.2) also dipped drastically (it was 15.6 yards in the four seasons prior), and his yards per route rate fell from 2.5 in that four-year span to 2.3.
Hill saw plenty of volume: 159 targets. He had never surpassed 137 in a season before, and yes, there was an extra game this past season, but his per-game average (9.4) was still a career-best.
That helped Hill churn out WR8 numbers even while playing a different game than he used to get to his pinnacle initially.
And Jaylen Waddle Is Great, Too
Waddle's rookie season deserves a good bit of praise.
He turned 140 targets into 104 catches for 1,015 yards and 6 touchdowns despite just a 6.8-yard aDOT.
In games with he and DeVante Parker (as a bit of a corollary to having a clear number-one and number-two option) playing relevant snaps together, Waddle held a 28.9% target share to Parker's 20.9% rate. (For what it's worth Mike Gesicki was at a 16.8% share in these games.)
Of course, Hill is likelier to hold the higher target share than Waddle is, but a combined 50.0% share isn't unreasonable in this offense with these two leading the way.
Anyway, back to the efficiency in Waddle's rookie season. Bogging down the overall EPA and NEP numbers on balls going his way were seven interceptions. Despite that, Waddle maintained a catch rate over expectation of 3.8 percentage points, via NextGenStats.
Also from NGS, among all rookie receivers with at least 75 targets since 2016, Waddle's average separation number ranked fifth. (Hill ranked second.)
There should be plenty of room on the field for these guys to work. There are reasons to believe that Tagovailoa can be efficient, and there are reasons to think that Hill and Waddle don't solely need downfield targets to produce fantasy points for our squads.
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle Fantasy Football Projections for 2022
numberFire's fantasy football projections are pretty keen on Tyreek making the transition well in 2022. He is projected for 143 targets, 94 catches, 1,236 yards, and 8.5 receiving touchdowns to rank as the WR9 in half-PPR formats.
Waddle is the WR19 on a line of 141 targets, 93 catches, 1,014 yards, and 6.5 touchdowns. He's within 10 points or so of the WR14 designation.
Via FanDuel's best ball average draft position, Hill is ranked as the WR8, and Waddle is the WR18 -- in line with how numberFire's model projects them.
In scouring the NFL player prop bets at FanDuel Sportsbook, Hill's receiving yardage prop is 1,025.5, which our projections anticipate he'll zoom past. Waddle's prop of 925.5 is too low, as well, according to our model.
Hill is listed as +2000 to lead the NFL in receiving yards. Waddle is +5000.
They may not be elite values relative to draft cost, but I don't think we need to worry much about whether or not Tagovailoa can support two top-15 receivers given their strong claims to elite volume within the offense.