Why Justin Herbert can overtake Tua Tagovailoa in the NFL Draft process

Dylan Mickanen
NBC Sports Northwest

Tank for Tua.

That was the motto for the bottom-dwelling teams in the National Football League heading into and during the 2019 football season.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had finished as runner up for the Heisman Trophy in 2018 and had a National Championship-winning touchdown throw the season before that. Entering his junior season, he was poised for one final college season before declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Despite Tagovailoa looking like a franchise quarterback last season, he suffered a season-ending hip dislocation against Mississippi State in November just before halftime. However, he was still considered the draft classes' best quarterback until Joe Burrow finished what may have been the best single-season in NCAA football history. 

So with Burrow as the presumed top quarterback in the draft and widely expected to be taken first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, it leaves the question: is Tua still second?

Perhaps he is, but perhaps he's not.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has also entered the conversation to be potentially the second quarterback taken come draft day, and this isn't the first time Tagovailoa and Herbert have been compared.

Both quarterbacks grew up with the University of Oregon as their dream school. Then-Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich offered Herbert, a three-star quarterback prospect from Sheldon High School in Eugene, near the end of the recruiting cycle as his only Power 5 offer. The same coach also infamously screwed up the recruitment of Tagovailoa and never offered him, despite his five-star status. When Willie Taggart came to Eugene he tried to flip Tagovailoa, but it was too late and he went to Alabama. 

Both quarterbacks enjoyed successful college careers. Tagovailoa won a National Championship after starting the second half against Georgia. Herbert became a four-year starter at Oregon and won a Pac-12 and Rose Bowl Championship as a senior. 

When it comes to their leadership skills, both are as good of people as you can ask for. Herbert has been questioned for his leadership entering the draft, but every teammate he had at Oregon says that concern is unwarranted. That just because he's not as loud, doesn't mean he doesn't lead. 

When it comes to college tape, while both players look like NFL caliber players, Tagovailoa was the top player heading into the season for a reason and the tape reflects that. Herbert can look amazing sometimes, but also has games like at Arizona State last season or the first half at Washington, where he makes mind-numbingly awful throws. Mistakes like that are far less likely to occur with Tagovailoa, but Tagovailoa had superior talent around him at Alabama throwing to Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Judy while Herbert's targets led the NCAA in drops in 2018. That season, the Oregon quarterback was criticized for zoning in on his favorite target, Dillon Mitchell, but could you blame him? Anyone else he passed to dropped the ball. 

Also, Tagovailoa will be the only quarterback in the NFL next season that's left-handed and whichever team selects him will need to change their entire offensive line scheme to protect his blindside on the right rather than the left. Not a dealbreaker, but easily an inconvenience. 

Given the coronavirus pandemic, Justin Herbert may have a chance to overtake Tagovailoa, due to the abundance of postseason information about him. 

While Tagovailoa was finishing his rehab, Herbert was participating in many different draft process events before it all got canceled due to the pandemic. He was named MVP of Senior Bowl Practice and the Senior Bowl game, where he worked closely with and impressed Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.

He's very talented physically. He's got prototypical size and athletic ability. He has a really, really strong arm. On top of that, he's extremely intelligent and he's very conscientious. He gathers information, he can process it and he can call it. He went under center for the first time, probably, in his career and he answered that bell with flying colors. Every day I continue to be impressed with the things we ask him to do and he answers really well.

After the Senior Bowl, Herbert participated in the NFL Combine and even threw there, which most top quarterback prospects decline doing. He once again excelled.

Then, the Oregon football Pro Day was among the last pro days that happened before the pandemic canceled all the remaining ones. As always, Herbert looked like a franchise player with all the physical tools needed to succeed in the NFL.

Tua has been "fully cleared and ready to compete without any restrictions" according to the president of Steinberg Sports & Entertainment Chris Cabott, the firm that represents him. But he can't fly into teams for an individual workout nor can a team's personal medical doctors examine him. Even if the tape favors Tua over Herbert, is taking Tua over Herbert, who has impressed scouts much more recently while Tua has been in rehab, worth the risk? With the parity in the NFL, teams don't have top-five draft picks that often in the league and whiffing on one can derail a franchise or hitting on one can save one. 

It'll come down to each franchise's risk tolerance on if Tua or Herbert will be the choice for them, as Bleacher Report Draft Scout Matt Miller broke down recently.

Multiple teams prefer Justin Herbert to Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa because of injuries and the unknown. I was actually talking to a high level team executive yesterday and he said "You know, in a normal year you can honestly make an argument that Tua should be the number two overall pick and maybe number one overall pick but because you're taking a third party's word for it when it comes to his medicals at this point in time that teams are going to be a little bit hesitant," and because of that this guy and other teams have told me don't be surprised if Justin Herbert is the second quarterback picked because there are no questions about injuries when it comes to his evaluations.

As of now, the NFL has no plans to delay the NFL Draft, so we will get our answer on April 23. 

Why Justin Herbert can overtake Tua Tagovailoa in the NFL Draft process originally appeared on NBC Sports Northwest

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