NFL's worst nightmare: Tua Tagovailoa slides to Patriots, rehabs and carries the torch in New England

Phil Perry
NBC Sports Boston

Cheery as Tua Tagovailoa seemed in his hospital bed earlier this week -- ukulele in hand, Marvin Gaye lyrics bouncing around the room -- it must've been hard for him to see any silver lining in the season-ending hip injury he suffered last weekend. He had his team in contention for a national championship. He was in the running to be the No. 1 overall pick.

Same goes for those teams at the bottom of the standings, the ones expecting to be at the top of the draft. Hard to take a glass-half-full approach here since Tagovailoa's injury looks like one that'll prevent him from being anyone's quarterback in 2020.

But the NFL, being the calculating business that it is, will have plenty of teams that will view the draft-day slide associated with Tagovailoa's injury as an opportunity. No shame in it. That's the reality of the sport.

Teams can feel for the player. But teams can also feel that -- whether they're in the middle of the pack or a competitor hoping to see a potential franchise player fall to the bottom of the first round -- they offer the best spot for a talent in distress to rehabilitate and thrive.

Acknowledging that everyone hopes Tagavailoa -- who by all accounts not only is a supremely entertaining quarterback to watch, but also a decent human being -- makes a full recovery, the question that percolated in the minds of football fans everywhere soon after he was hurt was, "Where will he end up?"

Former Jets general manager and Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum was one of those. Now working as an analyst for ESPN, he wondered if a Patriots marriage -- with their opportunistic front office and an inevitable change at the position within view -- made the most sense.

Joining an upcoming Patriots Talk Podcast with Tom Curran, Tannenbaum went into more detail on a potential match between Tagovailoa and the Patriots.

"First of all," Tannenbaum said, "we have a long way to go to know the severity of the injury. Hopefully, he makes a complete and full recovery. With that said, unfortunately, this is an injury I've had experience with. Many doctors will tell you that injury is somewhat unpredictable and it doesn't rehab on a certain trajectory with complete certainty.

"With that being said, assuming that most, if not all of the NFL landscape will view the injury in that same lens, I believe teams will see drafting Tua as an opportunity, but one that will maybe not take place in the top or certainly top half of the first round because you just don't know exactly what you're getting in terms of will he be ready in the 2020 season or will he need a longer rehab?

"If that's the case, I think a team like New England -- and this is obviously assuming they re-sign Tom Brady or he signs an extension at some point -- to look at someone like Tua and say, 'We can draft him knowing that he doesn't have to play in the short term.' And then in the long term, I think one of the things they do exceptionally well is they always think about what's in their long-term best interests.

"At some point, it'll turn into an opportunity and New England always does a great job about thinking about the long term. It's very conceivable to me that they could potentially draft somebody like Tua and that obviously could turn out to be an absolute dream scenario where whatever time that is and [Brady] passes the baton to somebody of the echelon of Tua, that could turn into a 25-30 year run of potentially two great quarterbacks. Obviously we're a million miles from that, but I think that's a scenario that could play out."

It's unclear at this point as to whether or not Tagovailoa will even enter the 2020 draft. But if he does, does it make sense for the Patriots to dip into that position, with that particular player, at the back end of the first round? Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons . . .

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(L to R) Tua Tagovailoa, Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham.
(L to R) Tua Tagovailoa, Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham.

WHY IT WOULD WORK

First, it's important to point out that there are merits to drafting a top-tier quarterback -- or something close -- to the Patriots. Why? The most obvious answer is that Brady's contract expires after this season. We'll have more information on his plans by the time the draft rolls around because if he does hit free agency, it stands to reason that in a fluctuating quarterback market (more on that in a minute), he'll be a hot commodity come March.

But even if Brady sticks around on a short-term deal, it'd make sense for the Patriots to continue to throw options at that position. They drafted Jarrett Stidham -- a player once considered to be a first-round talent they snagged in the fourth round -- and like the progress he's made. "Yeah, good. Jarrett is a smart kid," Bill Belichick said in October.

"He picks things up very quickly. He has a good grasp of the offense given where he is in his career. He's handled everything we've thrown at him. In practice, he does a good job. He gets a lot of passes on our defense and when he has the opportunity to get the offensive snaps, he's prepared and does a good job of those."

Even so, you can never be too prepared at that position. It's stating the obvious to say that if it's not filled capably, it's almost impossible to compete. Drafting Tagovailoa to compete with Stidham down the line would give the Patriots two talented passers to choose from as they try to transition from having the greatest to ever play the position for two decades. And if Brady's gone, then perhaps a bridge veteran could come in to keep the seat warm until one of the younger quarterbacks is ready. 

That's the roster-building portion of the equation. 

There's also the fact that Tagovailoa has proven, when healthy, he deserves to be considered as one of the most talented QBs in college football. His numbers would go above and beyond what the Patriots have typically drafted under Belichick at the position in the past. 

A touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2.2-to-1 is the average for Patriots QB draft picks since 2000. Patriots rookie QBs often left college with a 7.5 yards-per-attempt mark or better. They typically completed better than 60 percent of their passes. 

Tagovailoa blows those marks out of the water. His touchdown-to-interception ratio sits at nearly 8-to-1. He's averaged 10.9 yards per attempt at Alabama. And his completion percentage is closer to 70 (69.3) than it is 60. And he's done it all against some of the best defenses in football in the SEC. 

"What I can say watching him is that he has rare anticipation and ball placement -- especially on his deep throw," Tannenbaum said. "I've seen him play live a couple times, I've seen him at practice. I think he has good arm strength. I wouldn't say his arm strength is historic or elite, but he throws with rare anticipation and rare downfield ball placement. Some of those throws against LSU were incredible -- 40-to-50 yards down the field and hitting the receivers in stride. He can do that exceptionally well."

The advanced numbers bear that out. His adjusted completion percentage -- not accounting for throwaways, drops or passes batted at the line -- ranked sixth in college football last year (76.6 percent), per Pro Football Focus. His deep passing yards (1,214) were second in 2018, and he sat atop the list of PFF's big-time throw statistic (31). (Big-time throws are defined here.)

After asserting himself as the king of the explosive play last season, in 2019, Tagovailoa adapted to more of a West Coast offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian. According to The Draft Network, Tagovailoa's average depth of target this year came down (more than two yards per attempt), and he got the football out more quickly (2.34 seconds versus 2.50 seconds in 2018). With big-time playmakers at the receiver position, hitting them with shorter throws and letting them work after the catch has meant less risk while maintaining Alabama's offense as one of the most explosive in the country. 

Through the first five games of the season, Tagovailoa was recorded by PFF as having only two turnover-worth throws after grading out slightly above average as far as that particular metric was concerned in 2018. He'd taken only six sacks. He finished the season with 33 touchdowns and just three picks on 252 attempts.

The list of reasons for why the Patriots should pounce if he's available abound. Tagovailoa has taken on multiple systems -- including one run by former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll in 2017 -- and excelled against top competition. His accuracy and timing appear to be upper-echelon. And he might be available.

But he's not a perfect prospect, and his stature would make him an outside-the-norm selection for Belichick.

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Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa throws against Texas A&M.
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa throws against Texas A&M.

NOT THE PROTOTYPE

Physically, Tagovailoa falls short of what the Patriots have drafted at quarterback in the Belichick Era. As we noted in last spring's Prototypical Patriots series, the team has typically selected passers from Power 5 conferences who stood 6-foot-3 or taller. (Though, as we point out, the team's lone first or second-round selection at the position, Jimmy Garoppolo, was 6-2 and played at FCS power Eastern Illinois. Stidham also stands at 6-2.)

Tagovailoa is expected to measure at 6-1. 

The Patriots have also exclusively drafted quarterbacks who've spent four years in college. That includes players like Stidham and Ryan Mallett, who only played three years but transferred and so had to sit out for a season because of NCAA rules. 

Tagovailoa is in his third year at Alabama. 

Of the 11 quarterbacks Belichick has drafted, the Patriots have never taken a left-handed quarterback.

Tagovailoa is a lefty. 

Do those things matter? Hard to say. The Patriots have a fairly large sample size of draft picks at just about every position under Belichick, but the need for a quarterback has seldom been a pressing one thanks to Brady's presence on the roster. One would think that the two things Belichick has referred to in the past as being most critical to good quarterback play -- accuracy and decision-making -- would trump any of the above traits if they were strong enough. 

Given Tagovailoa's apparent football IQ to master two different offensive systems, given his turnover numbers, and given some of the advanced accuracy statistics available, his ball placement and decision making might just be strong enough for Belichick to buck whatever quarterback draft-pick trend he's established. 

The one area that could be a hangup though would be Tagovailoa's arm strength. As Tannenbaum referenced, it's not upper-tier. And for a team that plays its most important games in the elements outdoors in December and January, that's a factor. By comparison, Stidham was thought to be among the most impressive "arm talents" in this year's draft class despite being pegged as a mid-round pick. 

Tagovailoa's talent around him could also, oddly enough, complicate the picture of his professional prospects for some evaluators. Receiver Jerry Jeudy is a sure-fire first-rounder, and fellow wideout Henry Ruggs is also likely to be taken in the first 32 picks. Offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills also have a good shot to go in the first round.

"We always talk about that in draft meetings," Tannenbaum said, "which is, are you penalizing somebody because they have great players around them? ... Well, are you going to hurt somebody because they have great production? He's played great for a long time against the best defenses on the planet. I don't think you can penalize him for that. 

"Other guys, you're going to evaluate, and you're going to bet on the [development]. I understand that. But I don't know. Sometimes I think we overcomplicate things. Take Deshaun Watson. Deshaun Watson was a great player at Clemson and played really well in the biggest games, including against Alabama, and sometimes I think we complicate things unnecessarily. I don't think you can penalize Tua for playing really well with other great players around him."

Another drawback, if Brady is no longer with the team come draft time, would be Tagovailoa's availability. If the team couldn't pin down a veteran bridge option for 2020, and if it wanted to get Stidham more immediate competition, there's a chance they'd rather roll the dice later in the draft. 

LSU's Joe Burrow looks like the No. 1 overall pick in waiting, but Oregon's Justin Herbert, Washington's Jacob Eason and Georgia's Jake Fromm all look like promising quarterbacks and perhaps the Patriots would rather go with one of them if the chance presented itself.

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Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.

BOTTOM LINE

It's early, but Tagovailoa's inevitable slide down the draft board could end up giving the Patriots a rare opportunity as a team that has for two decades been selecting at the bottom of the first round: the ability to draft a consensus top player at the sport's most important position.

They'll have needs elsewhere. Tight end, offensive line and receiver help could all be in play in the first round for Belichick. But having a plan at quarterback trumps all. And for a team that always has the long play in mind, Tagovailoa's talent -- even with injury and arm-strength concerns -- could be too enticing to pass up if he's available to them.

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NFL's worst nightmare: Tua Tagovailoa slides to Patriots, rehabs and carries the torch in New England originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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