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Tua Tagovailoa’s season-ending hip injury might have an NFL silver lining

Tagovailoa will almost certainly lose money, but could wind up surrounded by much better players.

LSU v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Before suffering a season-ending hip injury against Mississippi State, Tua Tagovailoa was steaming toward a football wasteland. The one-time Heisman frontrunner had played well enough to emerge as a likely top-five pick — and that meant a spot in a total teardown in the NFL.

Tagovailoa’s wizardry at Alabama had cemented his spot as one of the top two quarterbacks eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft, alongside LSU star Joe Burrow. There’s a chance he’ll still be the second quarterback taken off the board, but the near-certainty he’d be selected as part of grand-scale rebuilds in Cincinnati or Miami has waned as clubs wait to hear reports of his rehabilitation:

Tagovailoa underwent successful surgery to repair his dislocated and fractured hip earlier this week. Though concerns will linger about his ability to remain the explosive athlete who occasionally seemed superhuman under Nick Saban, his early prognosis suggests a full recovery. If he’s looking at an approximate four-month span before resuming football activities and at least six before practicing, that time off and questions about ever finding his top gear again will undoubtedly affect his draft stock.

That will have a negative impact on his rookie contract and the money he’ll make as a pro. It could also be a net benefit for his NFL career.

A slide to the middle of the draft would push Tagovailoa to a softer landing spot

There’s still a chance the big-armed Hawaiian winds up with the Dolphins or Bengals. While he’d instantly become the centerpiece of either franchise, he’d also be playing alongside supporting casts that would need more than a season’s worth of draft picks and free agent signings to even approach league average.

Whichever rookie QB ends up in Ohio or Florida will end up playing in an offense with little to offer a budding quarterback. To wit:

Why no QB should be eager to join the Bengals or Dolphins

Position group Bengals Dolphins
Position group Bengals Dolphins
Blockers Allowed sacks on 8.3% of dropbacks (24th in NFL) Allowed sacks on 10.4% of dropbacks (30th)
Run game Gaining 3.8 yards per carry (25th) Gaining 3.0 yards per carry (32nd)
Receivers Primed to lose A.J. Green to free agency in 2020 Traded away Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills past two offseasons

There’s a benefit should injury concerns slide him to the middle of the first round or later. This would connect him to a handful of teams with stronger rosters and a gaping need for a franchise QB. There’s a wide range of talented-but-flawed rosters floating above the Dolphins-Bengals-Washington tier of hopelessness but below the realm of true contenders.

Teams like the Bears, Titans, and Buccaneers need fresh faces behind center. The Steelers, Chargers, Broncos, and maybe even the Panthers need succession plans for aging passers.

Any of those franchises would provide a softer introduction to the league than a place where Tagovailoa would be the focal point opposing defenses swarm to in Cincinnati or Miami. Chicago, who would have to trade their way back into the first round thanks to 2018’s Khalil Mack trade, could buttress him with one of the league’s top defenses. Tampa Bay would give him elite receiving help. Denver can flank him with emerging skill players like Courtland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay, and Royce Freeman. Pittsburgh — who, like the Bears, would have to trade back into the first round — could make him the centerpiece of a new era of Steeler football.

Of course, the Dolphins also have three picks in the first round of next year’s draft. It’s entirely possible Tagovailoa isn’t their first choice — as previously noted, they’ve got needs basically everywhere — and he still winds up in South Beach when the team cashes in picks acquired from the Texans and Steelers later on Day 1.

Would a stronger supporting cast be worth the financial cost to Tagovailoa?

There would likely be an on-field benefit to a slide down draft boards, at least for Tagovailoa’s rookie campaign. There would definitely be a financial drawback that comes with it. Here’s what last year’s Day 1 picks will make in guaranteed money over the first four years of their NFL careers:

Guaranteed contracts, selected 2019 first round picks

2019 Draft pick Player Guaranteed money, first 4 seasons
2019 Draft pick Player Guaranteed money, first 4 seasons
1 Kyler Murray $35.035m
2 Nick Bosa $33.552m
5 Devin White $29.316m
10 Devin Bush $18.872m
15 Dwayne Haskins $14.417m
20 Noah Fant $9.884m
32 N'Keal Harry $7.731m

A slide of just four picks could cost Tagovailoa as much as $6 million. Falling to the very end of the first round would result in a loss of $25 million. If Miami and Cincinnati each decide he’s not a risk worth taking, there’s little chance he’d be a top-five selection — Washington and both New York franchises are likely to fill out that group on Day 1. None need a young quarterback at the moment.

If the strong-armed passer’s recovery is going well, he might not lose much more than that. Slots 6-10 of the 2020 draft are currently slated to include Tampa Bay and Denver. They’re flanked by teams with a stable quarterback situation but major holes elsewhere like the Jets, Cardinals, and Falcons — all of whom would be happy to trade down in the first round to accumulate assets and fill out rosters in need of talent. Even with a relatively loaded crop of veteran talent set to hit next spring’s free agent marketplace, NFL franchises remain ever-thirsty for a young, dynamic passing talent who can clear salary cap room with a relatively inexpensive rookie contract.

So where could the Alabama quarterback fall?

We’ve seen injury derail the draft stock of a handful of players in recent years. Jaylon Smith’s knee injury pushed him from a potential top-five pick and into the second round, where he emerged as a bargain pickup for the Cowboys. Myles Jack followed a similar path with the Jaguars. Last year, Jeffrey Simmons tore his ACL in February 2019, still wound up as a first-round pick by the Titans (19th overall), and made his NFL debut seven months later.

None of those players were quarterbacks. Playing the most important position on the field raises Tagovailoa’s stock. None of them had to deal with a dislocated hip either, which tempers some of that value and makes his 2020 stock much more volatile. Some mock drafts have him keeping his position in the top four. Others have him languishing on draft boards until Day 2. Since it’s roughly five-and-a-half months until the draft, almost all of these educated guesses will be wrong.

One recent trend in the pre-draft process is that many quarterbacks, even flawed ones, tend to pick up steam in the dead zone that follows the Super Bowl, thanks to the league’s desire for young over-performing passers. Baker Mayfield went from a first-round hopeful to the first overall pick. Mitchell Trubisky and Daniel Jones worked their way into top-six selections despite underwhelming college careers.

Tagovailoa will be subject to similar scrutiny that weighs his strengths (a national championship and a career 87:11 TD:INT ratio) against his weaknesses (a sub-optimal build at 6’1 and, uh, a broken hip). His fortunes won’t rise on the strength of his throws at the Combine or based on what scouts are saying about his locker room demeanor. His hopes hinge on the reports his doctors give and how much NFL teams buy in to that prognosis. If even one quarterback-needy team sees value there, he could be off the board before 2019’s contenders can begin dreaming about a bargain QB at the end of the first round or start of the second.

Tagovailoa would be both the foundation and architect in the middle of a massive rebuild from the teams at the top of the 2020 draft. A slide out of the top five would provide a blueprint and some freestanding pieces that would make it much easier for the young passer to become a finished project as an NFL passer. That would come with a significant financial loss, but it could be a net win if he emerges as an elite quarterback in the right setting — a quarterback who’d likely sign the biggest contract extension in league history sometime in 2023.