In the wake of an Alabama season that ended outside of the College Football Playoff for the first time in its six years of existence, a Crimson Tide fever dream emerged.
What if the core members of the Alabama’s talented junior class returned for one final hurrah in Tuscaloosa? What if they delivered the program back to a playoff spot that many Alabama fans have come to consider a birthright under Nick Saban? What if star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rehabbed his hip injury in Tuscaloosa in the offseason and then returned to the Crimson Tide to reposition himself as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft?
Some of the pieces of that had already come together, with star linebacker Dylan Moses’ surprise return and tackle Alex Leatherwood’s announcement that he’d be back at Alabama. (Later on Monday, receiver Devonta Smith announced his return as well.)
On Monday morning, however, that Crimson Tide fever dream was essentially extinguished. Tagovailoa announced that he’s heading to the NFL draft at a press conference in Tuscaloosa.
“It was a really hard decision,” Tagovailoa said. “Going through my rehab and talking to my parents about it, it’s been tough. I had been going back and forth. Some things make sense. Some others don’t. I just had to factor in a lot of things.”
The decision leaves Alabama in a position it expected heading into the 2019 season – trying to figure out a way to replace one of the most iconic players in program history. In less than three full seasons, Tagovailoa won a national title with a mystical relief appearance, went 22-2 as a starter and set numerous school records, including 87 touchdown passes.
For Tagovailoa, he enters the NFL draft process as one of the most compelling prospects in league history. Tagovailoa has the talent to go No. 1 overall – a position now essentially ceded to LSU’s Joe Burrow – but his recovery from a dislocated hip and injury history create a unique set of variables. It will inevitably lead to endless speculation and potential variance surrounding his selection.
Tagovailoa began the 2019 season as the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. He only ended up being forced to make a decision whether to stay or go pro after his serious hip injury, which he suffered at Mississippi State on Nov. 16. The television shot of him being carted off the field in Starkville became one of the indelible images of the college football season.
Tagovailoa said he spoke to plenty of NFL general managers – “too many,” he joked – and couldn’t say with certainty that he’d be a high first-round pick. “I don’t think I can tell you that,” he said. “I don’t think any of the teams can tell you that. It really depends on how the doctor’s report goes with my MRI, my X-rays at the three-month mark.”
Tagovailoa said he’s “optimistic” that he’ll be able to play next season for the NFL team that drafts him. He met with doctors in New York over the weekend, and the early prognosis on returning from his injury remains good, he said. But he noted that until the three- or four-month mark after the injury – no earlier than Feb. 16 – no one will be “able to really tell” what his immediate future holds.
That could be in time for medical evaluations at the NFL combine, which begins on Feb. 23. What’s considered a more crucial step in Tagovailoa’s evaluation process, according to a veteran NFL executive, is going to be the little-known NFL combine recheck that’s in April.
Every year, players with lingering medical issues return to Indianapolis about six weeks after the NFL combine for another round of medical evaluations. “That will be critical,” the veteran NFL executive said. “It’s going to be a grade of incomplete [at the actual combine]. What happens when he goes back for the recheck six weeks later? Really, really important.”
Essentially, projecting Tagovailoa’s spot in the NFL draft requires knowledge that NFL teams, scouts and pundits simply don’t have. Any hot Tua takes are based in ignorance, as the rate of his recovery and ability to fully recapture the magic that made him such a coveted quarterback won’t be known for months.
What’s known for certain is that Tagovailoa has developed a reputation for fragility. Fair or not, his two ankle surgeries at Alabama and the current hip injury he’s rehabbing will be big topics in NFL front offices.
An NFL scout summed up Tagovailoa’s future to Yahoo Sports this way on Monday: “Before the injury, he was a surefire first-round pick. It would have been a no-brainer that he’d declare. But the injury leaves a lot of unknowns at this point. Where he falls in the draft will depend on how comfortable team doctors feel, and the timetable of when/if he’ll be back to 100 percent. A lot of the answers will be determined through the pre-draft process. So teams have to wait and see.”
For Alabama, they’re facing replacing a player who transformed the program’s offensive paradigm with his effortless passing touch. “He’s had as much of an impact on our program here as any player we’ve ever had,” Saban said.
There will be an intense quarterback battle to replace Tagovailoa. Redshirt sophomore Mac Jones played well behind Tagovailoa, including torching Michigan for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-16 Citrus Bowl blowout. Tua’s brother, Taulia, just finished his freshman year and will compete with Jones for the job along with blue-chip freshman quarterback prospect Bryce Young from Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei. “If you love competition,” Tua said of the quarterback race, “now is the best time for it.”
And with that, Tagovailoa exited Alabama with the same departure he’s long used at his press conferences: “God bless, Roll Tide.”
He enters the NFL draft crucible as one of the most fascinating prospects ever. And he leaves behind a proud program that he distinctly changed.
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