In a sense, using a top NFL draft pick on Tua Tagovailoa is like asking a true freshman backup quarterback to substitute in at halftime of the college football national championship game. It’s a decision based on belief more than evidence.
I’ve heard a lot about Tagovailoa’s unknowns over the last few months. He’s coming off a terrifying hip injury that some feared could end his playing career, and has previously sprained both of his ankles and broken his left index finger. He was unable to participate in February’s NFL combine drills as he rehabbed from his hip injury, and was unable to invite scouts to an April Pro Day because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (NFL teams will have to go off of Trent Dilfer’s word, and quite frankly, Dilfer’s co-sign is ominous.) And surely, Tagovailoa’s college statistics were boosted by his otherworldly supporting cast at Alabama: He threw to Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, possibly the top two receivers in this year’s draft, plus DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who could both become first-round picks in the future. He worked in a pocket created by NFL-caliber offensive linemen (Jonah Williams was the top lineman off the board last year; Jedrick Wills Jr. could be the first lineman drafted this year), handed off to NFL-caliber running backs (Josh Jacobs was a first-round pick last year; Najee Harris could be one next year), and passed to NFL-caliber tight ends (Irv Smith Jr. was a 2019 second-round pick).
Tagovailoa is unlike other recent quarterback prospects in so many ways. He’s set to become the first left-handed quarterback to start an NFL game since Kellen Moore in 2015. Although Polynesian players are common on NFL rosters—in fact, Polynesians are disproportionately likely to make the league compared to other ethnicities—they rarely play quarterback, as Tua will become only the fourth Polynesian QB in league history, after Marcus Mariota, Marques Tuiasosopo, and Jack Thompson.
He’s also the player with the highest passer efficiency rating (199.4) in college football history—by a mile. (The players ranked second, third, and fourth were all no. 1 draft picks. The guy ranked sixth will presumably become one in a couple weeks.) Tagovailoa averaged the most adjusted yards per passing attempt (10.9) ever, and has the highest touchdown rate in college football history—that, too, by a mile.
College Football Career TD Pass Percentage
|Name||School||Pass TDs||Pass Attempts||TD Percentage|
|Name||School||Pass TDs||Pass Attempts||TD Percentage|
|Dwayne Haskins||Ohio State||54||590||9.15|
|Danny White||Arizona State||59||649||9.09|
Drafting Tagovailoa might seem like a choice based on belief rather than evidence, but there’s plenty of evidence that Tagovailoa is one of the most talented quarterback prospects ever. An NFL franchise will soon have the opportunity to take one of the best quarterbacks in college football history, and it likely won’t even have to use the first pick in the draft to get him.
I’m urging NFL teams to put their faith in Tagovailoa because I’ve put my faith in Tagovailoa before, and it was the most rewarding sports-watching experience of my life. In 2017, I hosted a college football podcast with my editor, Ben Glicksman, and for some reason, Ben decided to dedicate large swaths of the season to discussing how Bama would be better off playing its true freshman backup QB over reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts. (Pro tip: Podcast listeners love when chunks of every episode are devoted to an athlete they barely know and who does not regularly play.) Convincing myself that Tagovailoa was better than Hurts was low stakes: It was fun to imagine and unlikely to come to pass, since Alabama head coach Nick Saban isn’t historically the type of guy to make drastic spur-of-the-moment quarterback changes.
Then, in January 2018, I stood on the field in Atlanta as Tagovailoa threw a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat Georgia in the College Football Playoff national championship. Alabama had been hapless before he entered the game, with Hurts going 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards as the Crimson Tide were held scoreless during the first half. Tua single-handedly made Alabama’s offense competent, throwing three touchdowns, including the game-winner. I’d say it was like watching a dream come to life, but my dreams are normally less specific and outlandish. A month later I watched Nick Foles beat the Brady-Belichick Patriots to win the Super Bowl, and that made a lot more sense than what happened with Tua.
What followed for Tua was one of the strangest college football career arcs of all time. He arguably peaked before making his first start, failing to win a Heisman Trophy or another national championship. But Tagovailoa clearly improved over the course of his career. His yards per attempt, completion percentage, passer efficiency rating, and touchdown rate went up every season; his interception rate repeatedly went down.
His injury history is a legitimate cause for concern, and it’s understandable if NFL teams have questions about his durability. But other criticisms of Tua ring hollow. NFL.com’s scouting report on Tagovailoa says that he “needs better poise when pressured.” We’re talking about a guy who made this play in his first SEC game:
And this throw in his first college start:
USA Today’s scouting report on Tagovailoa lists “decision-making” as his biggest on-field weakness and says that he can “make some unnecessary throws that often end in turnovers.” We’re talking about a guy who threw 87 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions at Alabama, with a career 1.6 percent interception rate. He famously had a streak of 205 consecutive passes without a pick.
The Pro Football Focus draft guide notes that Tagovailoa was “blessed with a bevy of playmakers that pumped up his passing stats and gave him easy throws.” But the knock that any QB could have succeeded with Alabama’s roster seems to have been disproved by the way he burst onto the scene. Even with all that NFL talent, Bama appeared dead in the water in that title game against Georgia—despite having a future NFL quarterback in Hurts. (Hurts, who later transferred to Oklahoma after Tagovailoa replaced him at Alabama, became a Heisman finalist and is projected to be taken between the second and fourth rounds of the draft.) Then Tagovailoa came in and made them champions. Even as a freshman, he was a game-changer.
Tua doesn’t have the arm strength of Patrick Mahomes, and I have some concerns about what he’ll do if his first read is covered on certain plays. (This didn’t happen often with Jeudy, Ruggs, and Smith at Alabama.) But Tagovailoa seems like the archetype of the modern QB: a poised player who can wiggle and scoot away from defenders until one of his receivers comes open, and who doesn’t require a lot of time, space, or conventional footing to deliver a powerful, accurate throw.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay argued that Tagovailoa would be the potential no. 1 pick if not for his injury history. I’ll go a step further: I’d rather have Tagovailoa than LSU’s Joe Burrow. Burrow spent several seasons looking mediocre in college before breaking out in his transcendent 2019 campaign with the Tigers; Tagovailoa, meanwhile, has basically never played a bad game. Tua’s receiving corps was great, but so was Burrow’s. Burrow did a better job throwing to tightly guarded receivers than any college QB I’ve ever watched, but I’d feel safer with an offense led by Tagovailoa, who prefers to identify open targets and hit them in stride.
Tagovailoa debuted as a champion, and only improved during his career. Normally, we try to project whether players can become great; Tua is the rare case where we have exclusively seen greatness but fear that he may stop being great.
With the draft less than two weeks away, opinions on Tagovailoa vary wildly. On April 3, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller reported that “Tua ranks as QB4 on one board I saw … and was QB3 on another.” Former NFL general manager (and former Ringer podcaster) Mike Lombardi said that he flunked at least one team’s physical and could drop as far as the no. 12 pick. Yet in a Washington Post story published last week, Dilfer said, “If he would have never gotten hurt there would have been no discussion about who the best player in the draft is. He throws the football better than anyone throws the football. He throws better than Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino. Whoever gets him wins the draft because you are getting a Hall of Fame player.”
The biggest question mark surrounding Tua, of course, is the track record of injuries. But his hip injury—described a few months ago as “potentially career threatening”—now seems unlikely to hamper him in his debut NFL season. Recent medical checkups have been “overwhelmingly positive” and “as positive as possible.” He is expected to be ready for training camp, if and when it begins.
If Tagovailoa is injury-prone, then he also seems prone to miraculously bounce back from injuries. Last year he sprained his ankle, an ailment that some thought would end his season. Two weeks later, he threw for 418 yards and four touchdowns against eventual national champ LSU with a metal rod holding his ankle together. (It was the only regular-season loss of his college career, and I’d argue 418 yards and four touchdowns is pretty good.) Now, every discussion of Tua’s devastating hip injury includes a subsequent account of his remarkable recovery.
Drafting Tagovailoa is a risk, just like turning to an unproven true freshman backup quarterback at halftime of the national championship game is a risk. To some, the idea of betting on him might seem ridiculous, especially given all the ways that he differs from other top quarterback prospects who came before him. But what makes Tagovailoa different is that he’s uniquely great. The team that drafts Tua may feel the thrill of leaping into the unknown, even though he’s as close to a sure thing as quarterback prospects get.