Tua Tagovailoa's injury clouds his projection, turns top of NFL draft upside down

With one hit to the right hip of the possible QB1 during a four-touchdown blowout, the top of the 2020 NFL draft has completely changed shapes.

In what might have been his final game with the Crimson Tide, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa suffered a hip dislocation, as well as a possible posterior wall fracture. The severity of the injury is unclear, but the junior’s 2019 season is over.

“He is expected to make a full recovery but will miss the remainder of the season,” Alabama announced Saturday.

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His NFL future, however, remains very much unclear.

In the immediate aftermath of the injury, armchair doctors invoked the name of the venerable Bo Jackson — a generational two-sport athlete whose myth lives on — after his similar-appearing hip injury in a January 1991 playoff game that effectively ended his football career.

The most encouraging words that came from the statement of Alabama team surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain were these: “He is expected to make a full recovery.”

Until NFL physicians conduct thorough evaluations of Tagovailoa’s hip, there is no way to know how the league’s evaluators will rate him.

Tua Tagovailoa's hip injury leaves his 2020 NFL draft stock in serious doubt. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa's hip injury leaves his 2020 NFL draft stock in serious doubt. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

“This will be a deal where we finish up our reports on Tua the player,” one former NFL general manager who still works in scouting told Yahoo Sports, “and then he becomes Tua the patient.

“I hate to put it in those terms, but that’s the way this will go. There’s no way he won’t have a red check next to his name on a draft board, even if he checks out as well [medically as possible].”

A red mark indicates a medical concern. NFL teams now will be forced to venture into uncharted territory here regarding the player who once was considered the likely first overall pick in 2020.

Whether that was guaranteed is another matter. Although “Tank for Tua” became a rallying cry for the seemingly helpless Miami Dolphins to start the 2019 NFL season, so much has now changed. The Dolphins have won two straight games and would pick fourth overall if the draft were held Sunday morning before Week 11. And Tagovailoa’s QB1 status almost certainly has evaporated.

There appears to be one, and possibly two, quarterbacks that Tagovailoa’s injury — grave as this sounds — benefits the most. 

LSU’s Joe Burrow likely isn’t one of those players. Despite his two-INT fourth quarter Saturday night against Ole Miss (his first two-pick game in college and the first two fourth-quarter interceptions of his season), Burrow threw for 489 yards and five TDs on 32-of-42 passing (76.2 percent). He appeared to have locked up a top-five selection as much as a month ago.

Perhaps it bumps Burrow up to the No. 1 overall pick, currently slated to be the property of the Cincinnati Bengals, who lost their first nine games this season prior to Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders. There are others whose gains as a result of Tagovailoa’s injury who could end up benefiting more.

A new QB2 now?

Assuming Burrow ends up being the first quarterback drafted is a risky proposition. We’ve felt for most of this season that there would be nothing close to a consensus among NFL teams this year, and Tagovailoa clears that up somewhat.

But there’s little doubt that Oregon QB Justin Herbert stands to gain the most as a result. Herbert has been a bit of a forgotten man in the 2020 draft picture. When he first planted his flag on the NFL’s radar with a breakout 2017 season, Herbert — not Tagovailoa — was viewed as the future franchise QB down the road. And all he has done in his career is put up a brilliant 91-20 TD-INT ratio over parts of four seasons, display high-level NFL arm talent and put his team in the College Football Playoff ring with a strong 2019.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert might end up being the biggest beneficiary of Tua Tagovailoa's injury. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert might end up being the biggest beneficiary of Tua Tagovailoa's injury. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Herbert had one of his better games this season on Saturday against Arizona, throwing for four touchdowns that included some exceptional throws, although it included a few duds, including a pick and a pass in the end zone that should have been picked.

Herbert isn’t a perfect prospect. Tagovailoa has been the more effective passer in his time in college. Herbert’s consistency remains a sticking point for evaluators, and some have wondered if he lacks the killer instinct to be great. But top-shelf physical traits in quarterbacks have a way of sprinkling the magic dust in the eyes of general managers and coaches who sometimes feel that they would rather gamble on a player’s upside than his actual production. That’s why Herbert has an excellent chance to slide into a top-five spot now — something that was far from guaranteed before Tagovailoa got hurt.

“Teams like sure things,” the former GM said. “Or maybe it’s better to say that the fear of the unknown is really powerful when it comes to debating a player. Because if it’s a character concern or an injury situation, you’re now banking on them suddenly getting better, getting well. You’re trusting that the player’s health is going to improve.

“It used to be that [drafting a quarterback high] bought a staff time. Now those picks can be job killers. Just the nature of the NFL these days.”

Herbert is a known quantity. He’s played 39 games. He checks the boxes for size (6-foot-6, 237 pounds), durability, arm talent, intelligence and character. Whatever inconsistencies he has displayed at Oregon are viewed as problems that could be rectified with quality coaching and an upgrade to his pass-catching talent, as Herbert never has had a game-changer at wide receiver or tight end with the Ducks.

Another QB who could benefit greatly from the murky outlook for Tagovailoa is Utah State’s Jordan Love. Although Love has had a poor statistical season (11 TDs, 12 INTs) at the Group of 5 level, there’s still a fascination with his skills among scouts. He entered the season as a player whom many scouts felt could rise into the first-round discussion. 

It would not be a stretch to say that Love is something of a poor man’s Herbert as a prospect in a lot of ways.

Utah State QB Jordan Love hasn't had a banner season, but scouts are enamored with his skills. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
Utah State QB Jordan Love hasn't had a banner season, but scouts are enamored with his skills. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

“I am telling you, scouts can’t quit this guy,” one NFL scout who has viewed Love this season told Yahoo. “There’s too much talent to ignore. It’ll be a tough sell for some teams because he has not dominated at all. But if you just cut up his best throws, you’d think he was a top-10 pick.

“His flaws, they’re a concern. But I think the view on him will be that his issues are fixable. I think he’ll go to the Senior Bowl [Love is a redshirt junior who is believed to be on track for graduation and thus eligible for the game] and help himself. That’s where the momentum for him could really pick up again.”

How we will view Tagovailoa

If that’s indeed it for Tagovailoa’s college career, it was a brilliant one. Thirty victories and two losses. Eighty-seven touchdown passes (plus nine rushing) dwarfing his mere 11 interceptions. A national title victory he helped spur while coming off the bench down two scores against a fierce Georgia defense. Another title appearance last season.

Tagovailoa not only should go down as one of Alabama’s best quarterbacks ever but also as one of the best college football quarterbacks in the modern era.

But his NFL evaluation, which was tricky before the injury, now looms as problematic. Prior to the hip dislocation, there were questions about his short, stocky build; his left-handedness; Tagovailoa’s unusual throwing mechanics; and his propensity for getting hurt (prior ankle injuries), having not made it through the past two seasons healthy.

The hip puts him in the same pre-draft injury sphere as running backs such as Miami’s Willis McGahee and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, as well as former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. All three of those players suffered major knee injuries. And you could argue that two of the three — McGahee and Smith — were drafted far higher than expected and eventually outperformed a majority of expectations early in their careers.

But this is a hip we’re talking about, not a knee, and three non-QBs. There really hasn’t been a quarterback with this level of injury concern who potentially stands to lose this much heading into the NFL draft in recent times.

Tua Tagovailoa could be an extremely difficult evaluation for NFL scouts now. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa could be an extremely difficult evaluation for NFL scouts now. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

And while comparing Jackson’s injury nearly 30 years ago to what Tagovailoa suffered on Saturday is a sizable leap, there are more current and worrisome injury comps (such as former Baltimore Ravens TE Dennis Pitta) that could be more apt. Pitta had a bigger frame and played a different position at a higher weight, but his initial hip dislocation led to a second, related injury that ultimately ended his career.

Without knowing how Tagovailoa’s injury and subsequent rehabilitation progresses over the months to come, it’s difficult to know how NFL teams will ultimately view him as a prospect. One bad report or a setback in his rehab could derail the whole process.

Our view after running it by some NFL evaluators Saturday night and Sunday morning: While Tagovaloa might no longer be a top-pick candidate and even perhaps fall out of the top 10, there’s still a chance he remains a first-rounder.

The former GM explains why he agrees.

“Quarterbacks are five-year investments, right?” he said. “You draft a first-rounder, he gets four years on his contract and then the [fifth-year option]. You certainly hope the player you draft becomes a star, especially at that position. But you go into that pick with the idea that it’s a five-year experiment of sorts.”

“That’s why I think if he checks out [medically], you still easily could see him being a first-rounder.”

We have no way of knowing until March or April at the soonest. When Dallas took Smith (with the second pick of the second round), it had no idea that first year if he’d play. 

“That’s the risk you run. But if you believe in his talent and feel he’s going to get back on a reasonable timetable to play again, you make the pick. It requires conviction and guts because it could end up getting someone fired.”

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