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With last year's injuries behind him, Tua Tagovailoa is ready to help Dolphins take next step

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) watches from the sideline during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — As Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa enters his fourth NFL season, one goal is prominent in his mind: staying healthy.

“I wouldn’t like to. I would love to do that,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday when asked if playing a full 17-game season is a target for him.

Sunday's season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers will be Tagovailoa's first regular-season game since he suffered his second concussion of 2022 in a Christmas Day game against Green Bay. He missed Miami's final three games, including a playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Since then, much of the 25-year-old's offseason has been geared toward making himself more durable. The Dolphins finished 9-8 last year and have hopes of a deep playoff run.

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When Tagovailoa was healthy, the Dolphins had one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL. He led the league in passer rating (105.5) and guided Miami to the sixth-best overall offense, trailing only Kansas City in yards per play.

After briefly considering stepping away from football, Tagovailoa began training this offseason in martial arts, working on ways to land more safely when he takes hits in an effort to avoid head injuries. He's also wearing a new quarterback-specific helmet designed to help reduce concussions, and has bulked up his frame to better withstand the physical demands of the game.

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said a few weeks ago that this is the best version of Tagovailoa “that's existed.”

“I’m very confident because he hasn’t wasted a day in getting ready for the season,” McDaniel said Wednesday. “That was a huge goal of his. He understands what he means to this football team, and I can tell you honestly that he does not take that for granted at all.”

Tagovailoa appears ready to put last season's health issues behind him, but he also expressed the gratitude he has for the game.

“I think being appreciative of being able to continue to play is one thing," Tagovailoa said. “The thing with that is you can never take it for granted regardless of the position you’re in. Some guys have the luxury of finishing whole seasons, and other guys, as myself, I never had that luxury. Definitely cherishing the opportunity to continue to go out there and still lead these guys.”

His teammates have praised his leadership, growth and work ethic.

“I’m extremely proud," said receiver Jaylen Waddle, who played with Tagovailoa at Alabama. “He’s been a great player since I’ve met him, going to continue to be a great player. I’m just proud of him.”

Added Waddle: “He's a dog, man. Anybody that transforms his body into what y'all see now. Learns different skills to help his play. That just shows how much he really (wants) it and wants to be out there playing.”

The Chargers are led by the player drafted just one spot after Tagovailoa in Justin Herbert, who became one of the league’s highest-paid quarterbacks when he signed a five-year, $262.5 million extension at the start of training camp.

The Dolphins picked up the fifth-year option on Tagovailoa's rookie deal in March but have set aside contract talks until the end of the season. He's under contract through 2024 and will be guaranteed $23.2 million.

As other quarterbacks in his draft class secure mega deals, Tagovailoa knows he must earn his big payday.

“I’m always a person that wants to prove to myself that I deserve whatever I get,” he said during training camp. "So for me, I feel like this is something that I need to work for. It’s as plain and simple as that.”

Tagovailoa will try to lead the Dolphins to consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2000-01. Miami has had two straight winning seasons that have included lengthy winning streaks and losing streaks.

With a roster filled with Pro Bowlers, the Dolphins are hoping to take the next step by contending for a Super Bowl.

That starts in Week 1 against a Chargers team that beat them 23-17 in 2022.

“They had a great game plan for us last year,” Tagovailoa said. “It was tough to get things started in the first half and then trying to move on from that and into the game, trying to get a rhythm going offensively. They're well coached. They took a lot of things away that we would normally run. But really excited. This is going to be a good game.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl