When Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa dropped back and fired a 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime to defeat Georgia in the 2018 national championship game, he looked like a player on his way to becoming the top pick in the NFL draft.
Tagovailoa was a true freshman in that 2017 season, backing up Jalen Hurts. But that touchdown pass down the left sideline firmly put Tagovailoa on the radar for NFL teams on the lookout for their next franchise quarterback.
But everything changed on Nov. 16, 2019, when Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated hip during the second quarter of Alabama’s eventual 38-7 victory over Mississippi State.
Tagovailoa was carted off the field after the play — which ended up being the last snap of his collegiate career. Despite speculation that he would stay at Alabama in the wake of the injury, Tagovailoa announced on Jan. 6 at a joint news conference with coach Nick Saban that he was declaring for the 2020 draft.
“My three years at the University of Alabama have been the epitome of a roller coaster,” Tagovailoa told assembled media that day. “I’ve had a fair share of ups, of many ups and a handful of downs. And I couldn’t be happier to know that with all the success and failures I’ve had here at the university, it’s prepared me for life in general.”
“This is a decision that I’m going to have to live with. So I made it, and I’m good with it,” Tagovailoa added.
Saban noted that Tagovailoa “has probably had as much of an impact on our program here as any player that we have ever had.”
In his 32 games at Alabama — 24 starts over the 2018 and 2019 seasons — he completed 69 percent of his passes for 7,442 yards with 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also rushed for 348 yards and nine touchdowns.
In 2019, Tagovailoa completed 71 percent of his passes for 2,840 yards with 33 touchdowns and three picks.
Those are the kinds of numbers that have Tagovailoa at No. 6 in NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s latest Top 50 list.
“Overall, Tua is the ultimate point guard,” Jeremiah said, noting Tagovailoa’s ability to place passes in tight windows — particularly on short and intermediate routes. “If he can remain healthy, he has the potential to be one of the NFL’s most efficient passers.”
But concerns remain about Tagovailoa’s health. The quarterback was medically cleared to resume all workouts, as opposed to just doing his rehab, on March 9. That was a date he pointed to multiple times during his news conference at the NFL scouting combine in late February. He was looking forward to getting back to his regular training.
“Mentally, it’s been a grind,” Tagovailoa said at the combine. “But it’s not something that’s new to me. I’ve dealt with my hand injury, my left ankle and my right ankle. I sort of know what to expect going through this process.”
He said he was one of the last to leave the medical facility after undergoing multiple tests and checks on his hip that day in Indianapolis. But he nevertheless was confident that he would not only be prepared for the start of the NFL regular season, but also a team’s offseason program. And while he wasn’t planning to throw at Alabama’s scheduled pro day in mid-March, he was planning to hold his own individual pro day April 9.
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, those plans have changed. But Tagovailoa posted a few videos to his Instagram account March 23 displaying his ability to drop back, move around the pocket and throw on the run.
Tagovailoa largely has been connected to the Dolphins for the better part of the past year, and that speculation has continued throughout the pre-draft process. But on March 31, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter poured cold water on Miami being a lock to pick the quarterback.
“I’m not so sure the Dolphins are all in on Tua the way that people think,” Schefter said on “SportsCenter.” “And it will be interesting to think what they will do at five if he is there and Miami doesn’t trade up, move around — whatever it may be. I’m not so sure that Tua will be their guy.”
But there’s also a chance that a team needing a quarterback could trade up to take Tagovailoa ahead of the Dolphins at the fifth pick. Washington, which has the second pick, also reportedly has met with Tagovailoa during the pre-draft process.
While Tagovailoa won’t get to make that final in-person impression on NFL teams to assure them of his health, if teams study Tagovailoa’s effectiveness at Alabama they’ll likely determine the potential reward is worth the risk of taking the quarterback with a high pick.