FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Just 13 games into his career as a starter, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa flashes all of the tangibles and intangibles to be a high-end NFL quarterback. He’s a sturdy 6-foot-1, weighs 218 pounds and has the frame and physique that fit into professional prototypes. He’s also preternaturally intuitive and accurate in the pocket, as his raw arm talent and throwing ability are rare.
“He can really [expletive] throw the ball,” said a veteran talent evaluator. “He’s accurate, strong-armed, quick and all of that. Some of the throws he’s made this season — WHOA!”
In NFL quarterback evaluation — perhaps the most inexact science in sports — there’s always something to nitpick. You’ve heard of a left-handed compliment? For quarterbacks in the NFL, there’s a left-handed detriment, as zero left-handed quarterbacks reside on NFL rosters. “The biggest knock against him,” an NFL scout told Yahoo Sports, “is going to be that he’s left-handed.”
While Tagovailoa, a true sophomore, isn’t draft eligible until after the 2019 season, he’s already generated buzz as a top prospect. He’s completed nearly 68 precent of his passes, thrown 37 touchdown passes and is both undefeated as a starter and led Alabama’s comeback victory in the national title game last season.
He’ll be the best left-handed quarterback prospect since Matt Leinart, or perhaps even Michael Vick. But in a league that favors the right more than Fox News, will the NFL’s righty preferences hurt him?
“This kid is a good player,” said Mike Williams, a former NFL personnel director who worked in front offices for 18 years. “I’ve only TV scouted him, but every time I’ve seen him, he’s dropping dimes. The accuracy really jumps out to me. The issue [with left-handers] is if they’re a middle-of-the-road guy. You just go in a different direction. But it’s different if he’s your guy.”
What’s the problem with lefties? No left-handed quarterback has started an NFL game since Kellen Moore for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. No lefties threw a pass in 2016, a first in NFL history. Moore’s retirement following the 2017 season left the NFL completely right handed for 2018. How scarce are southpaws? According to a story on NFL.com this summer, the last left-handed player to throw a touchdown in the NFL was Dez Bryant, which came on a trick play to Jason Witten in 2016.
Tim Tebow is slugging fastballs in minor league parks. Moore is Dak Prescott’s quarterback coach in Dallas. Vick hasn’t played since 2015. Lefties of lore like Steve Young, Boomer Esiason and Mark Brunell are long gone.
Williams, who is now the director of personnel for Collective Scouting/QB Collective, explains that the NFL bias comes more from the coordinators than the front office. There are subtle complications that range from an unfamiliar rotation of the ball to back-side protections being completely opposite.
“There’s not as much continuity,” Williams said. “If the No. 2 quarterback is the left-hander, he doesn’t fit with the group going drill-to-drill.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen, who coached Tebow at Florida, explained some of the nuances that make lefties unique. He noted the different pocket area, which complicates blocking schemes. “It opens up different for drop back and play action,” Mullen said.
One college coach pointed out that some coaches avoid recruiting left-handed quarterbacks completely. Considering lefties are just 10 percent of the human population, that makes the opportunity to recruit them rare enough. But Moore has joked in interviews, including with FiveThirtyEight, that the smart lefties with big arms end up as relief pitches instead of backup quarterbacks. The demand in baseball, where lefties are coveted, is much more robust.
Tagovailoa didn’t know that there weren’t any left-handed quarterback in the NFL when Yahoo Sports asked him about it on Wednesday morning. He said he grew up rooting for USC, relating to Leinart’s left-handed delivery so much that he wore the former USC star’s No. 11 in youth football. “That’s who I looked up to at first,” Tagovailoa said.
When he arrived at Alabama, Tagovailoa said a lot of the receivers remarked on how the spin was different when they first ran routes with him. But the adjustment didn’t take long. “It’s something you get used to pretty fast,” said star wideout Jerry Jeudy.
Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said the biggest factor for him coaching a left-handed quarterback is moving in the pocket, making sure it goes to the “strength of his throwing side.” He said it factors into play calling, as there’s a focus on calling the plays to move to Tagovailoa’s throwing strength.
“When you’re moving the pocket and he’s sprinting out or he’s running boots and nakeds, it’s a little awkward throwing to the right with a left-handed quarterback,” he said, “a little more challenging to align them to make throws.”
It would be fatalist to think that Tagovailoa can’t overcome the trend. While NFL scouts haven’t dug deep into Tagovailoa yet because he’s a year away from being draft eligible, there’s a strong feeling he’ll be a high-end first-round pick. Williams echoes the sentiment that NFL scouts and executives passed onto Yahoo Sports.
“Everything I see, he’d get consideration for the first round,” Williams said. “How high in the first round? There’s a lot more of a process to go through to determine that.”
And that would make Tagovailoa a trendsetter, as the quality and accuracy of his throws will surely outweigh what side they’re coming from.
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