Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 4: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa

Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports
Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

4. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa

6-foot, 217 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.35 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Durability questions cloud — and dominate — his evaluation, but Tagovailoa is a quick processor with uncanny accuracy who should find ways to thrive if healthy.

The skinny: A 4-star Rivals recruit, the Hawaiian-born Tagovailoa shocked many when he chose the Crimson Tide over USC. Tagovailoa had wanted to attend Oregon to follow in the footsteps of Marcus Mariota (who played at the same high school as Tua), but former Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich didn’t offer Tagovailoa until after he signed with Alabama.

Tagovailoa was the backup to Jalen Hurts as a true freshman, appearing in eight regular-season games that season in relief (35-of-53 passing, 470 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT; 15 rushes, 106 yards, two TDs). When the Tide fell behind 13-0 at halftime to Georgia in the national title game, Nick Saban benched Hurts and called on Tagovailoa. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards with three TDs and an interceptions, throwing the game-winning TD pass in overtime.

Tagovailoa and Hurts battled for the starting job in 2018, with Tagovailoa winning — and it led to him bringing home a lot of national hardware. He was named the Maxwell Award winner, Walter Camp Player of the Year and SEC Offensive Player of the Year, also earning second-team AP All-America honors. Tagovailoa completed 245-of-355 passes for 3,966 yards, 43 TDs and six interceptions in 15 starts for the national runners-up, also rushing 57 times for 190 yards and five TDs.

As a junior in 2019, Tagovailoa started the first seven games before missing the Arkansas contest with an ankle injury. He returned to play games against LSU and Mississippi State before suffering a season-ending hip dislocation and hip fracture before halftime against the Bulldogs. He finished the season completing 180 of 252 passes for 2,840 yards with 33 TDs and three INTs.

Tagovailoa, who turned 22 in March, declared early for the 2020 NFL draft. He attended the scouting combine but didn’t work out while continuing to rehab his hip injury.

Upside: Outstanding processor and anticipator — sees things before they happen. Carries “creative genius” gene. Innovative playmaker who displayed the ability to thrive outside of structure. Doesn’t panic against defensive looks he hasn’t seen before.

Advanced understanding of passing concepts for a 22-year -old. Reads defenses pre- and post-snap and can execute high-level concepts. Meticulous note taker who can handle grueling NFL film study. Can toy with safeties and get them to bite with his eye work.

This patient throw — and look off of LSU safety Grant Delpit — allowed Jerry Jeudy to work away from the strength of the defense and make a big gain:

This is a nice job of looking off the safety and waiting for the moment to strike.
This is a nice job of looking off the safety and waiting for the moment to strike.

Plus-plus ball placement when given time — throws a catchable rock. Can eat up blitzes before they get home with lightning-quick decision making — can pepper defenses with throw after on-target throw. Special anticipation to throw his receivers open. Optimizes YAC potential on short and intermediate throws by leading his receivers. Showcases money accuracy on downfield attempts — drops it in the bucket like few can. Throws extremely well to the perimeter — threads the back shoulder.

Doesn’t get greedy — will take checkdowns and smart throws while measuring in ample risk when called for. Only six fumbles and 11 interceptions in 33 career games. Terrific production in have-to-have situations — 40-for-55 passing (72.7 percent), 620 yards, nine touchdowns, no picks on third and fourth downs in 2019. (H/t to Dane Brugler of The Athletic on that stat.)

Quick, sudden release — rarely had balls deflected at the line. Throws with conviction. When healthy, he can snap off throws with quality hip torque. Generates velocity in throws without feet being set. Feet and arm work in harmony in ideal conditions. Really nice toss here against Ole Miss last year where Tagovailoa saw the front-side pressure, stepped up in the pocket and reloaded with a nice ball to an open Jeudy:

We hope Tagovailoa can operate with this kind of pocket movement again.
We hope Tagovailoa can operate with this kind of pocket movement again.

Large hands (10 inches) to easily grip bigger NFL ball. Held on extra-point and field-goal tries for parts of three seasons and never bobbled a snap.

Ran multiple systems with complex terminology that mixed pro and college concepts. Routinely torched SEC defenses and produced eye-popping efficiency on a nearly weekly basis. Engendered confidence that his team could beat anyone on any day. Faced several big-game matchups and seldom wilted in the spotlight.

Program changer at a program that looks up to none. Handled the rigors and demands of the boiler room that is Alabama football under Nick Saban. Faced sky-high expectations and often surpassed them when healthy. Developed his own style of leadership and commanded a locker room full of 5-star recruits and massive egos. Diligent worker who has developed an extra layer of skin after multiple rehabs. Mentally and physically tough — willing to sacrifice and play through pain.

Downside: Injury concerns cannot be understated — especially in this coronavirus-altered offseason. Never played a full college season. Underwent “tightrope” ankle surgery on both ankles — left one in December 2018, right in October 2019. Suffered a knee sprain in 2018 that required a brace. Had surgery to repair a broken finger in March 2018.

And the big one: Suffered a dislocated hip and posterior hip wall fracture against Mississippi State last November, which required immediate reduction on the field, followed by surgery the following day by an orthopedic trauma surgeon in Houston, which ended his college career. Also suffered a concussion in the same game he suffered the hip injury.

Wasn’t the same quarterback playing through 2018 ankle injury — struggled some down the stretch. Fell out of shape following offseason, looking sluggish and overweight for Bama’s 2019 spring game (weighed 230 for Bama’s “Junior Day”). Has a short, square physique with short arms that has taken a beating. Was a competent and effective scrambler in college but might be limited in that capacity in the league. Might require a cautionary Year 1 timetable and could be hurt short term by the potential lack of a full offseason with his new team in 2020.

Lower-body mechanics are key to his throwing motion — will he regain that same torque, post-hip injury? If so, how quickly? Has some mechanical stuff that could use fine-tuning. Elongated windup on longer throws that DBs will pick up on. Pushes the ball instead of snapping his wrist. Misses the occasional layup by aiming and not throwing. Arm strength considered merely adequate pre-injury.

Here’s one against Tennessee where — despite having ample room to step up and deliver — Tagovailoa underthrew WR Henry Ruggs III by maybe 5 yards on what should have been six points:

Deep balls are an area where his arm strength and accuracy are a bit concerning.
Deep balls are an area where his arm strength and accuracy are a bit concerning.

Still a bit of a see-it, throw-it passer at times — doesn’t always take advantage of defenders’ leverage and will miss some shots because of it.

Teams that can pressure consistently while rushing four could give him trouble. Stark contrast in his passing efficiency in clean pockets (158-of-207 passing, 2,473 yards, 29-1 TD-INT ratio, zero sacks in 214 dropbacks in 2019) vs. when he’s pressured (22-of-45 passing, 365 yards, 4-2 TD-INT ratio, 10 sacks in 62 dropbacks). Gets panicky in muddy pockets and throws some prayer balls — more of an issue in 2018.

Didn’t face a lot of pressure situations with near-perfect circumstances at Bama. Subjects himself to danger by hanging onto the ball too long at times. Gets stuck on his progressions and will need to speed up his clock and react to pressure better. Will need to learn how to avoid pressure if he’s going to have a long career.

Operated in shotgun- and pistol-heavy offense that featured few dropbacks from center. System allowed a lot of friendly, wide-open looks, screen passes and layup throws (even on deep balls). Didn’t always need to be precise throwing downfield. Nine of his 11 career interceptions came between the numbers — will miss lurking defenders underneath.

Here’s a good example of that last season when Tagovailoa threw his first pick of the season when he tried to move the safety with his eyes but didn’t affect him — yet chose to try to zip it in there anyway. Bad decision:

Tua has missed some lurking defenders on some of his interceptions.
Tua has missed some lurking defenders on some of his interceptions.

Surrounded by elite talent that features multiple NFL draft picks (and expected draft picks in the future) at wide receiver, tight end, running back and on the offensive line. Might have thrown passes to seven first-round pass catchers — Calvin Ridley and Josh Jacobs in 2018 and 2019; Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III this year; and possibly Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris in 2021 or beyond — that did a lot of their damage after the catch.

Four fumbles in 2018 — left ball exposed at times in pocket and as runner. Some scouts have wondered if his quiet, laid-back style will work in the NFL — even though others are not concerned.

Best-suited destination: Ideally, Tagovailoa can land with a team with which there is not immediate pressure to be ready to start soon. The team that drafts him should incorporate the medical staff to give a cautious timeline to bring him along and essentially have its eyes on Tagovailoa being the full-time starter in 2021, while getting him whatever work it can in 2020.

Among the teams we think would be interested in Tagovailoa’s services include the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, and really any team that has the additional draft ammo — and the long-term vision and guts to make such a pick — should reasonably be added to the list.

Did you know: Tagovailoa’s father, Galu, was born in American Samoa, as were his mother Diane’s parents. Tua and his mother were born in Hawaii, but they observe Samoan customs and also Christian faith.

Galu, who was a defensive lineman at Santa Rosa Junior College in the late 1980s, trained his son to play quarterback from a very young age — and even reportedly insisted on him throwing left-handed. There are no other known lefties in their family lineage.

Tagovailoa’s family dynamic became something of a hot topic during an ESPN “College GameDay” segment in late 2018 in which Tua was raised by “the Bible and the belt” and that throwing interceptions in games would lead to the latter of the two.

They said it: “He got hurt in the Mississippi State game, everybody saw that. We then had to play Auburn. We’re in the locker room sitting together, the whole offense, going through the game plan. He walks in with his crutch, hobbling. It was heartbreaking seeing him like that but he was still there cheering us on. He had that fire to him. It was like he was going to go out there [to] play. Something so dramatic just happened to him, but he was still there for us, being the leader that he is.”

— Alabama OT Jedrick Wills Jr. on Tua, at the combine

Player comp: Tagovailoa combines elements of Mark Brunell’s and Drew Brees’ games. But will he be the next Greg Cook? We hope not.

Expected draft range: First-round pick, possibly in the top 10.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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