Top 5 or lengthy slide? Tua Tagovailoa's fate is shaping up to be the NFL draft's biggest mystery

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

With the first round of the NFL draft next week, the medical debate over Tua Tagovailoa’s long-term prognosis appears to be settling into a dice roll for some NFL teams. That means the Alabama quarterback is shaping up to be arguably the biggest mystery in the draft, capable of both being selected in the top five or sliding out of the top 10 altogether.

Multiple executives in the draft market for a quarterback told Yahoo Sports the debate about Tagovailoa’s surgically repaired hip will not be fully resolved until a medical review in the summer — at the earliest. Three team officials told Yahoo Sports that doctors have advised them that Tagovailoa’s most reliable long-term assessment will be provided between nine months and one year since his surgery, which was completed last November. Two of those franchises hold a pick in the top half of the first round, and both also carry a measure of long-term quarterback need.

“It’s a situation where there needs to be more time for a better consensus on whether [Tagovailoa’s hip is] going to be a problem now versus in the future,” one team source said. “By the time the draft rolls around, we’re really not going to have all that information. Maybe the shorter term there is some progress so far, but there’s still some question about what’s going to happen longer-term. I don’t think we’re going to have all that clarity for this draft.”

How osteonecrosis is a factor in Tua Tagovailoa’s evaluation

The lingering concerns range from the surgically implanted hardware to fix Tagovailoa’s dislocated hip to his overall history of injuries to a debate over the percentage of potential osteonecrosis, a form of bone complication from lacking blood supply. As it stands, multiple teams have told Yahoo Sports that Alabama head coach Nick Saban has raved about Tagovailoa’s impact on his program and also his ability to reshape a franchise.

Tua Tagovailoa's uncertain medical prognosis means whatever team takes him is rolling the dice more than usual. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa's uncertain medical prognosis means whatever team takes him is rolling the dice more than usual. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Even that endorsement hasn’t stopped evaluators from grousing about the difficulty in assessing Tagovailoa’s tape, which is steeped in clean pockets and receiver targets that were often wide open in big-play windows. That has led to the typical nitpicking that occurs during the draft grind, right down to how Tagovailoa often takes hits or even falls at the ends of plays.

“I watched all of his tape and I’ve heard all the Russell Wilson comparisons, but Russell doesn’t take the kinds of hits Tagovailoa does,” one evaluator said. “Tagovailoa does take a lot of hard hits. He just does. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a red flag, but with his injury history you can’t ignore it.”

While Tagovailoa’s early medical assessments have been promising, the uncertainty has given way to some debate about Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who teams might be tempted to draft instead.

Could Lions or Giants trade out of spot for team hungry for Tua?

For their part, Tagovailoa’s representatives have worked hard to get Tagovailoa’s progress out into the light, from a taped workout that was sent to teams and statements from Dr. Lyle Cain, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center. Cain raved about Tagovailoa’s progress to Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm in March, when the quarterback was five months post-surgery.

“I am extremely pleased,” Cain said. “If you told me four, almost five, months ago now that he’d be where he is now, I think I would have been very happy. I think he’s done extremely well for where he started out.”

Whether Cain’s assessment will carry more weight than the medical opinions sought by NFL teams remains to be seen. In the ensuing six weeks following the scouting combine, the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers have done a significant amount of work on Tagovailoa, not only in film evaluation, but also on the medical end. Both have a need for a cornerstone quarterback, with the Dolphins picking fifth overall and the Chargers sixth. Complicating matters is the perception around the league that two teams at Nos. 3 and 4, the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants, are said to be open to trading out of their spots.

That’s a scenario that can lead to some heavy smokescreens from teams — especially when franchises at the mercy of the board are staring at one specific quarterback and hoping that he makes it to their slot. Given the risk of the Lions or Giants trading out, it remains a strong possibility that either the Dolphins or Chargers ultimately surrender assets to move to Detroit’s pick at No. 3 … if either strongly prefers Tagovailoa over Herbert, or vice versa.

That has set up a few of the draft’s biggest questions inside the top 10 picks. How does the quarterback board stack up for the Dolphins and Chargers? Where does each team stand on Tagovailoa’s medical assessment? And if Tagovailoa were to make it past the Chargers pick at No. 6 overall, how far could he slide?

That latter question might be the most intriguing as the draft approaches. The Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be a potential landing spot at No. 9 if Tagovailoa slides. After that, the Cleveland Browns at No. 10 and the New York Jets at No. 11 could both be trade-back candidates for other teams looking to make an aggressive move.

Given these possibilities, you could argue that the NFL draft will truly start between the third and sixth picks, when one of the biggest quarterback questions could end up shaping the top of the first round — not to mention the future of several franchises for years to come.

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