QB Breakdown Blog, Pt. 5
Welcome back to the QB Breakdown blog! Draft time is just about here (thank goodness), and we have arrived at our final quarterback of the 2020 class. It has been a lot of fun so far, and you can read all five of my analyses here on WOCR.
We have saved the best for last, in my opinion, as while I have covered Jalen Hurts, Jordan Love, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, this final quarterback ranks at the top my board due to his unmatched college production and accuracy, but may also be the biggest wild card with the biggest potential to flop out of any of the quarterbacks to be picked in the first round.
Tua Tagovailoa Alabama. Jr, 6’0, 217 lbs.
Tua burst onto the scene as a true freshman at Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game, taking over for none other than Jalen Hurts at halftime vs. Georgia, facing a 13-point deficit and, at the time, the Bulldogs’ 3rd ranked defense according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The rest is history, as Tagovailoa capped off an overtime thriller with one of the great college football plays in recent memory, a 41-yard walk-off laser beam to DeVonta Smith to bring the Crimson Tide their 5th national championship of the Nick Saban era.
One could argue that Tagovailoa peaked there, though, as the rest of his career brought neither a Heisman trophy or another national championship. He was the wire-to-wire favorite the following season until a fateful twist that sent him to the bench in the SEC Championship against Georgia in the same stadium (the Mercedes-Benz Georgia Dome) that made him famous; an injury that sidelined him in the final quarter, while former backup Jalen Hurts, the same player he replaced the previous year, saved the day, getting the Tide back to the College Football Playoff.
Tagovailoa came back and was masterful in the semifinal game against Oklahoma, but came up short in a 44-16 drubbing against Clemson in the title game.
Last season, Tagovailoa picked up where he left off in terms of production, improving upon what was a record-breaking junior season in all passing categories. He could not stay on the field, though, as an ankle injury sideline him for two games before he made a return against LSU, then losing the remainder of his season to a hip injury suffered in the first half against Mississippi State.
To describe it as only a ‘hip injury’ would be selling it short, as Tagovailoa suffered a dislocation of his right hip along with a posterior wall fracture, a rare and serious injury that was compared to some as the same suffered by Bo Jackson, ultimately shortening and capping his career. His injury history includes the hip, a broken finger suffered in spring practice of 2018, a sprained knee, a quad contusion, and two ankle injuries that both required surgeries.
When on the field, Tagovailoa has been a surefire stud, but the frequency and regularity in which he has not been has been a cause for concern for NFL teams looking for a quarterback, with some projecting him falling as far as out of the top 10, especially due to teams being unable to perform their own medical evaluations due to the coronavirus. His on-field talent, though, has had some considering him worthy of the first overall pick before the added injury concerns.
By the Numbers
Last week, I spoke about Joe Burrow and how he broke the record book, both in the SEC and nationally in 2019. Tagvailoa did the same with a sensational sophomore season in 2018, and had improved in every statistical category in 2019 before having it cut short. Nobody comes close to the breathtaking statistics that Burrow put up in his senior season, but Tua came close twice, basically.
He was a one-man modernization of the Alabama offense and program at large, taking them from a traditional running team to an aerial assault: He finished with 10 more passing touchdowns than the second-best passer in program history in 21 fewer games, and had 4 games with 5 or more touchdowns (including one with 6); everybody else in Alabama history only has 1. He took a Crimson Tide unit that was 15th in offense in 2017 and led them to finishes of 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in 2018 and 2019, in scoring offense. Flanked by three receivers who are slated to go in the first two rounds Thursday and Friday, take a look at Tagovailoa’s passing numbers from his sophomore and junior seasons, via College Football Reference:
Like I said earlier, Tua finished 2nd in the Heisman in 2018, but 1st in a number of passing categories for the season among FBS QBs in adjusted yards per attempt (which factors touchdowns and interceptions), passer rating and yards per play, along with second in passing touchdowns and yards per attempt. He still holds the career marks for yards and adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating and yards per play in NCAA history.
He was also a touchdown machine, on pace for 51 last year before having it cut short, which would have been good for 2nd, only behind Burrow. Nobody else in college football history has been as deadly as Tagovailoa in terms of scoring touchdowns; he is (by far) the all-time leader in touchdown rate, or attempts per touchdown. Via The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman, Tua threw a touchdown on 12.7% of all of his throws, the best clip in the history of college football, with only one other quarterback breaking the 10% mark.
Again, no one had the mind-boggling numbers that Burrow did in his last season, but Tua was darn close; here is a side-by-side of the two quarterbacks classic passing stats, from Tua’s two seasons as a starter and Burrow’s last:
Tagovailoa had more yards per attempt than Burrow’s iconic season twice, and had a better passer rating than Burrow’s number one national ranking last season before injury. Just for fun, here’s a little comparison to what the final tally might look like if Tagovailoa had played in 15 games last season:
To go even a step further, if Tagovailoa had teed it up 527 times like Burrow did in 2019 and produced at the rate he did all season, he would have finished with an ungodly 5,943 yards and 69 touchdowns.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and there is an argument to be made that Tua’s statistics were equally a product of the Alabama football factory, beating up on a lesser SEC while surrounded by premier talent.
In fact, there probably has not been a better time to make such an argument, as this year’s crop of Alabama prospects on offense may be the most gifted in the program’s history: tackle Jedrick Wills, along with three receivers from the Crimson Tide, Jerry Jeudy, considered by many the best receiver prospect available, Henry Ruggs, who ran a 4.27 40-yard dash and DeVonta Smith, who caught over 1,200 yards worth of passes last year, are all expected to be taken in the first two rounds Thursday and Friday. According to Pro Football Focus, 87% of his throws came to pass catchers that were open. This doesn’t include the luxury of having the threat of two NFL-caliber running backs to occupy defenses, as Tagovailoa enjoyed just that with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs in his junior season, as well.
There is a precedent for an Alabama quarterback that finished second in the Heisman by benefitting from playing with the bevy of other great players and then becoming a lackluster pro; one AJ McCarron, winner of two national championships and Heisman finalist in 2013…and career backup.
To compare Tua to a fifth round talent in McCarron is probably a little unfair, but, if you look closely, you can see a trend of star NFL quarterbacks coming from college programs that aren’t traditional powers, grooming them to play without the talent gap that QBs at blue blood schools, like Alabama, grow accustomed to. Aaron Rodgers from Cal-Berkley, Lamar Jackson from Louisville, Patrick Mahomes from Texas Tech and Ben Roethlisberger from Miami OH are all examples of elite pros who came from less than elite college football schools. The same could be said of NBA superstars, with Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State, Steph Curry from Davidson and James Harden from Arizona State, none of which are traditional powers (remember this analogy). I’m not sure it’s a huge red flag, and one has to remember that Tagovailoa took the job from a future pro in Jalen Hurts, but it is something I might be mindful of if I was considering picking Tua in the first round.
The Truth is in the Tape
One of the main on-the-field knocks of Tagovailoa at Alabama was his lack of great performances in big games. As mentioned earlier, Tua struggled in the SEC Championship against Georgia, completing only 40% of his throws to go with 2 two interceptions, followed by two more in the National Championship loss to Clemson. He couldn’t quite put it to bed last year either, with an interception and a loss to LSU in what was his biggest game of the season last fall.
Still, Tua was masterful in what has been the best college football conference in the last decade and a half, and there is no shortage of NFL talent in the defenses that he faced on a regular basis at Alabama. Looking at film from both of his seasons as a starter, here is what stood out:
The main selling points for Tagovailoa are his lightning-quick release and high-level NFL accuracy. Watch film from almost any Tua game, and you’ll find some throws made with jaw-dropping precision. The Alabama receiving corps was a track team on grass, but Tagovailoa’s knack for hitting them in stride unlocked all kinds of hidden yardage that would not be possible with most quarterbacks. When I say ‘in stride’ I mean in stride; take a look at some of these tracker missiles downfield:
The ball gets out of Tagovailoa’s hands, fast, and he has the ability to get his feet and shoulders in a position to throw very quickly, which helped him really sell play-action and RPO passes before popping up and making a throw underneath. While only against Louisiana-Lafayette, not exactly a juggernaut, watch how quickly he is able to come out of the play fake, then look inside, then flip his feet and throw outside in a blink:
Here is another one against Arkansas where you can see how quickly he is able to flip his hips and throw:
I thought that this was a part of his game that could use some improvement, however. The number of throws that were inaccurate on these little slants and pop passes was too high, as oftentimes they were completions, but the ball placement caused a receiver to slow down. His height, less than ideal at only 6-foot, may have been a factor here as well, as he was susceptible to having his passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
I really wasn’t all that impressed with Tagovailoa’s athleticism in the open field. I think he will have a hard time running away from NFL defenders, and he seems to trust speed that isn’t really there, trying to run to the edge and get the corner on defenders that are able to run him down. He has a short stride that just doesn’t cover much ground, and I didn’t see a fourth gear that could make teams really worry about him as a runner.
Tua compensates for this though, with exceptional pocket movement. He is very quick with his feet, and here his short stride actually helps him accelerate and decelerate in a short space, much like a small slot receiver getting in and out of his cuts. Here are a few nice plays showing off his mobility in the pocket, beginning with this wiggle out of a sack for a first down:
He was excellent in keeping his eyes downfield while making subtle movements with his feet to navigate traffic, as seen here against Arkansas, and then Tennessee:
While usually a pretty sound decision-maker, Tua had a couple of head-scratchers, especially in the red zone. It seemed like the closer he got to the goal line, the less and less that he was willing to get rid of the ball and throw it away, leading to a few bad interceptions or balls that were nearly intercepted in scoring situations, which are killers in the NFL. Here is a particularly woeful play against Tennessee that should have been intercepted:
To continue on the same point, nearly all of Tagovailoa’s interceptions came in the middle of the field. I cannot say for certain that there was one recurring reason or cause, but it was a trend that I noticed throughout his two-plus years at Alabama. Tagovailoa has been susceptible to being confused by defensive disguises; here he is getting tricked into a pick-six against Clemson after a late blitz off the edge:
Most of his interceptions came from linebackers or underneath defenders, which would lead me to assume that he just didn’t see them dropping in coverage. I would say that this is worrisome, but he didn't make a habit out of putting the ball in harm's way very often. Here are a few of his completions to the other team, both in the middle of the field, and both caught by linebackers:
Tua sometimes was a little too obvious with his eyes, as most college quarterbacks are, but his ability to quickly reset and throw allowed him to stare and stare and stare at safeties and then get the ball out in a flash in the opposite direction. Watch how long he is able to look right before coming back left and dropping in a rainmaker against LSU:
The throw that made him famous was of the same variety, looking off for impossibly long and then snapping his feet and shoulders in a flash to deliver a strike. This will bode him well in the NFL. Look away, Georgia fans:
Projection & NFL Fit
The x-factor underlying the entire evaluation for Tagovailoa, regardless of his talent or production, is his health. As cliché as it has become, Tua’s best ability will be his availability. He cannot win any games in the medical tent or on the sideline in a baseball cap. His injury concerns are double-barreled; he has suffered from both a very serious, potentially catastrophic injury (his hip) as well as a variety of nickel-and-dime injuries that would classify him as injury-prone; he broke his wrist when he hit his hand on a lineman’s helmet; his left ankle injury came when one of his own linemen stepped on him, and the other came on a routine tackle out of bounds.
Those injuries would concern me more than the hip injury, which is, according to most all medical accounts, a very rare injury, because they are repeatable parts of the game; I wouldn't want to be holding my breath every time he drops back. For some teams, this will be enough to totally take him off of their boards, and the timing of the coronavirus has not helped him, with teams unable to go and examine him with their own doctors.
With all that said, though, to me, Tagovailoa is a special prospect, the best quarterback in this year’s draft. His accuracy, quick draw and propensity for finding open receivers for big gains is remarkable. His nuance with his footwork and touch throwing the ball are all graduate-level skills that some NFL quarterbacks never learn or acquire, and his feel for the game gains high marks from me. Maybe it is simply because he is left-handed, but he just looks different than everybody else; he gets rid of it quicker than anyone in the draft, and his ball is so catchable that he will be a match for any NFL receiving corps.
I compared NFL quarterbacks to NBA superstars earlier, and history will tell us that they are related in the fact that, per year, there are only one to two transformative players available, at the quarterback position and across all basketball players. The NBA draft that brought Tim Duncan produced Tracy McGrady… and 55 other players who made one combined all-star game in their entire careers. For every Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan taken in the first round, there have been equal amounts Mark Sanchez, Blake Bortles and Jake Locker. Since 2015, there have been 13 quarterbacks selected in the first round; there have only been four that have been top-caliber starters (Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson).
I say all of that to say this; superstar talent at quarterback is rare and incredibly hard to find, even among first round picks. Chances are, if there are four quarterbacks taken in the first round (as is projected), that at least one, if not two, will be no good. If I were in charge of an NFL team, I think that Tua would be worth the gamble despite the health concerns because of his promise as a prospect because drafting any one of them is a gamble, but I would be most comfortable taking him because he has a ceiling that I believe to be the highest of any player in the draft.
Of the above 4 passers, the best to be recently drafted, three of them (Watson, Wentz, Mahomes) had a checkered injury history in college and have all missed time in the NFL, but have made up for it with spectacular play when available, providing tremendous return on investment. He could make some lucky team very happy.
Happy Draft Day.
Best-Case Comparison: Drew Brees
Tua overcomes previous health concerns and is off to the races, using his accuracy and pocket mastery to become a left-handed passing savant not seen since the likes of Steve Young, and becomes a franchise cornerstone.
Worst-Case Comparison: Robert Griffin III
Tua is a tremendous talent, but his lack of size and great mobility put him in the crosshairs for dangerous hits, and he spends more Sundays in rehab or on the sideline than on the field.