The cases for Tua Tagovailoa staying at Bama or declaring for the NFL draft

Eric Edholm

The outlook of the 2020 NFL draft and the future of Tua Tagovailoa will hinge on the Alabama quarterback’s pending decision. Tagovailoa tweeted Wednesday night that he will announce his huge decision — stay in school or declare for the draft — on Monday.

We haven’t had a looming draft decision quite like this in recent memory. There have been injured players who have had tough calls on staying or going, but not with a quarterback as highly regarded as Tagovailoa.

Entering the season, the common narrative was that the Miami Dolphins were “Tanking for Tua.” How wrong that proved to be, given that Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending, and potentially career-altering, hip dislocation in the Nov. 16 victory over Mississippi State. Call it a coincidence, but the Dolphins went from 2-7 at the time to finishing 5-11 and picking fifth in the draft.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, left, talks with Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the Citrus Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
QB Tua Tagovailoa will let the world know on Monday if he's returning to Nick Saban and Alabama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Funny thing is, Miami still could use one of its three first-rounders on Tagovailoa. That is, if he thinks coming out is what’s best. We simply don’t know which way the wind is blowing on this one. There are cases to be made for both sides of his looming decision.

Here are the pros and cons of what Tagovailoa must weigh:

The reasons for coming back to Alabama

If Tagovailoa returns to Alabama, it could mean that there’s enough concern — or not enough time to quell the concern — over his hip injury. Despite all the positive forecasts from the Alabama medical team that performed Tagovailoa’s surgery, the fact is we don’t know yet his health status. It’s too soon.

This is a multi-month wait to have any firm outlooks for the health of his hip and when he’ll be ready to resume normal football activities. With the deadline to declare for the NFL draft being Jan. 17, Tagovailoa and his team are essentially flying blind on this one. No NFL teams’ doctors have been able to yet give him a thorough evaluation, which significantly clouds the picture.

That means Tagovailoa would be betting on himself. It’s a tougher call than it might sound. He’s also likely insured up to his shoulder pads with a Lloyd’s of London-type of loss-of-value insurance policy. That wouldn’t offer total protection for Tagovailoa, but it would give him some peace of mind in terms of possibly getting hurt again and further damaging his NFL prospects.

And guess what? Bama could be loaded again next season and certainly will be among the three or four favorites to win a national title. Sure, that might not be the biggest reason for Tagovailoa to come back. But with linebacker Dylan Moses saying he’s coming back, there also have been major whispers in the draft community that other big-name Crimson Tide players could follow suit. On Thursday, left tackle Alex Leatherwood announced he was returning to school. Wideout DeVonta Smith is another possibility to come back. There might be more.

Coming back could allow Tagovailoa to rehab and return at a reasonable pace, without the sometimes unfair expectations levied on a pro prospect earning money to play football. Better yet, he’d be rehabbing with the same medical staff that performed his surgery and could take his time getting back on the field.

Mac Jones at least provided the Tide with some steady play and could even begin the 2020 season as Alabama’s starter if needed. Yes, it opens with USC next season in Arlington, Texas, but Alabama’s first major SEC test doesn’t appear to come until after its bye — a Nov. 7 game at LSU.

A very minor point here, but that game could provide Tagovailoa a chance to beat the one team that he lost to in 2019. Is that a reason to come back? No, not really. But returning to school and capping off his career in brilliant fashion could put Tagovailoa in the discussion for best college quarterback of his generation.

That’s something to consider as a factor. The Tagovailoa family clan has relocated to Alabama and is said to be a big, well-liked part of the community there, and family certainly will be a big part of his decision-making process, even if the call for what’s best for Tua ultimately remains the bottom line.

Plus, there’s the monetary factor. The difference, money-wise, between being drafted fifth and, say, 15th overall is a factor of about double. Devin White, last year’s No. 5 selection, earned a fully guaranteed, four-year deal worth about $29.3 million, including a signing bonus of about $19.3 million. The 15th pick, Dwayne Haskins, signed a four-year deal worth $14.4 million ($8.5 million at signing). If Tagovailoa thinks he can come back and earn a spot in the top three selections in 2021, he’d make up for the lost year of earnings with a contract worth around $35 million total.

We have not had a case like Tagovailoa in recent years to compare to, injury risk-wise, and so NFL teams could be spooked about his short- and long-term prognosis, especially after he’s had multiple ankle surgeries that also cloud his health picture.

Any GM who uses a first-round pick — especially one in the top half of Round 1 — will be taking a big risk. QB misses can be job killers for decision makers, if recent NFL history is any indication.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) looks for a receiver to throw to against LSU during the second half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. LSU won 46-41. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
LSU got the best of Alabama and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in November, beating the Crimson Tide 46-41. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

The reasons for declaring for the NFL draft

What does Tagovailoa gain by coming back?

The questions about him are not really whether he’s a good football player or not; most NFL evaluators believe a healthy Tua is an NFL starter for most teams. The question clearly is about his health, first and foremost.

If Tagovailoa re-injures the hip, or gets hurt again in some other way, it’s certain he won’t be a 2021 first-round pick — high, middle or low. There would be too long a pattern there. Projecting injuries is the toughest thing for NFL evaluators to do, but the biggest indicator is past injuries. In fact, simply making it through a college season healthy might not even fully answer some of those questions for certain NFL decision makers.

Plus, if Tagovailoa comes back, he’d immediately find himself second in line for QB pecking order behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Possibly third if Ohio State’s Justin Fields continues to grow. We say this every cycle with the NFL draft, to the point of ocular straining from all the eye-rolling, but next year’s quarterback class could be stronger at the top than this year’s group.

We might not know how teams will weigh all of Tagovailoa’s injury concerns. But head coach Nick Saban also seemed to give a strong indication of where Tagovailoa stands in the eyes of the league when he said, based on the feedback he’s received since mid-December from about 20 NFL teams, only one Bama player grades out as a possible top-15 selection.

“We only had one guy that has that high of a grade and he’s not going to be playing in the [bowl] game because he’s injured,” Saban said. “And that injury may affect his grade, unfortunately, for him, right now.”

Saban was talking about Tua. Even with the injury qualification the coach added, a positive medical evaluation in the coming months could restore Tagovailoa’s stock to pre-injury levels.

There has been talk that Tagovailoa meeting with prospective agents and marketing people in recent weeks, which suggests he’s taking the steps needed to declare now. And if you listen carefully to the words of Tagovailoa’s teammates in recent days and weeks, they tended to use the past tense when talking about him. Maybe they know his plans.

It might be a foregone conclusion that Joe Burrow will be the first overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Even so, there’s a road map for a healthy Tagovailoa to go pretty darned high. Several teams picking in the top 20 selections, plus a few more outside that range, will be seeking quarterbacks this offseason.

The Dolphins, who have three first-rounders (including No. 5 overall), certainly are one. The Los Angeles Chargers (No. 6), Carolina Panthers (No. 7), Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 9 and 20), Indianapolis Colts (No. 13), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 14), Atlanta Falcons (No. 16) and Las Vegas Raiders (Nos. 12 and 20) are all at least possibilities.

A buzz-needy Chargers team could do wonders for their profile to land Tagovailoa and usher in a new era. The Raiders could make a splash in their new home — the draft, after all, will be held in Vegas — with a Tua pick (the next Kenny Stabler, perhaps?). The Panthers, Colts, Bucs and Falcons might have decent short-term options but be willing to roll the dice on a top-five talent falling farther than expected. And would anyone put it past, say, the New England Patriots to engineer a shocking trade to land Tagovailoa?

If the positive medical reports are to be believed, he simply will not fall out of the first round, and NFL teams could even feel strongly enough about Tagovailoa to have him penciled into their 2020 plans. It would be a risk, but in the end it would be a tough risk to pass on.

Better to get your money now than to hope for a better draft position — while keeping your fingers crossed for good health without pay — down the road.

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