Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t exactly look like the prototypical NFL quarterback prospect, and it’s not because he’s just 6’0. It’s one of Tagovailoa’s other traits that will make him one-of-a-kind in the NFL: He’s a lefty.
Now that he’s a member of the Miami Dolphins, who picked him fifth overall, Tagovailoa is the only left-handed quarterback in the league. The most recent was Kellen Moore, who was a backup for the Lions and Cowboys before retiring in 2018 to join the coaching ranks. The last two NFL touchdown passes thrown by lefties came from Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant and Titans safety Kevin Byard on trick plays in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
The NFL hasn’t always been an exclusively right-handed fraternity for quarterbacks. Steve Young and Ken Stabler were a pair of lefties who had Hall of Fame careers. Michael Vick, Boomer Esiason, and Mark Brunell all went to multiple Pro Bowls too.
Why lefty quarterbacks are rarer than ever is hard to say. A few NFL coaches and executives hypothesized baseball could be the reason. But Young told ESPN a likelier explanation is the rigidity of high school coaches who are afraid to change their playcalls and protections.
Either way, Tagovailoa is a unicorn of sorts in the NFL.
That’s more than just a piece of trivia, though. Tagovailoa’s left-handedness is something the Dolphins will have to account for moving forward. Particularly, when Miami builds an offensive line to protect him. History shows that can be easier said than done.
Other NFL teams have struggled to protect their lefty QBs
The last left-handed passer drafted in the top 10 was Matt Leinart. The Arizona Cardinals picked the Heisman Trophy winner 10th overall in 2006 and thrust him into the starting lineup just a few weeks into his rookie season.
The Cardinals finished the 2006 season with a 5-11 record, and their rookie quarterback threw 11 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. The following offseason, Arizona tried to provide Leinart some help by drafting Penn State offensive tackle Levi Brown with the fifth pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Brown was the starting left tackle for the Nittany Lions and earned All-Big Ten honors in his junior and senior seasons. However, he was immediately moved to right tackle with the Cardinals.
In most cases, a left tackle is considered significantly more valuable than right tackle. While the quality of pass rushers who line up on the right side has forced teams to invest more in right tackles as of late, the left tackle is still the offensive lineman responsible with protecting a right-handed quarterback’s blind side. With Tagovailoa at quarterback, that will need to be flip-flopped.
Arizona got poor results when it moved Brown to the right side. It wasn’t until 2010 — the year Leinart was released by the Cardinals — Brown was moved to left tackle after three lackluster seasons on the opposite side.
“I was hoping they’d do it earlier,” Brown told AZCardinals.com at the time. “I was hoping I’d be there to begin with. I don’t know what direction they were trying to go, but I’m here now.”
Left tackle didn’t work out either. Brown was traded to the Steelers in 2013 for literally nothing at all. Pittsburgh cut him a few months later and Brown is best remembered now as one of the worst draft picks the Cardinals ever made.
It’s impossible to know if Brown’s career was wasted by the transition from left tackle to right tackle. But finding an elite right tackle to protect a lefty’s blind side isn’t as easy as drafting the best offensive tackle in the nation and moving him to the right side.
The Broncos tried the same thing when they drafted Tim Tebow in 2010, and found slightly more success. A year after picking the lefty quarterback, Denver used a second-round pick to take Orlando Franklin, a mammoth lineman who played left tackle and left guard at Miami. Tebow only made 14 starts in two seasons with the Broncos, but Franklin stayed at right tackle even when Peyton Manning took over.
Even though he didn’t drown on the right side, Franklin was eventually moved to guard prior to his fourth season with the Broncos. He excelled on the interior and earned a five-year, $36.5 million contract with the Chargers.
If there’s a lesson for the Dolphins, it’s this: It needs to be wary of drafting a player without experience at right tackle. Assuming that player will make the transition smoothly is a dangerous risk. Fortunately, solving the problem is getting easier.
It’s becoming less difficult to find quality right tackles
Former NFL offensive lineman and current SB Nation contributor Geoff Schwartz spent most of his career — which spanned from 2008-2015 — playing on the right side of the line. In his words, “I couldn’t play left guard to save my life.” He’s not alone. Plenty of offensive linemen say there are significant challenges that come with switching sides.
“I really believe a lot of guys are more efficient at one side or the other,” Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth told PFF in 2012. “Sure, most tackles are good players and can play both sides, but usually there is a vast difference in how technical or athletic they are one side to the other, if they keep switching. I really could never see myself as a right tackle, I’m a left-hand dominant guy all the way.”
But recently, an emphasis has been placed on training linemen to avoid being pigeonholed. Versatility is an increasingly valuable skill. While many players may still struggle with swapping sides, there are others who have prepared for the possibility.
There are even elite draft prospects with a wealth of experience on the right side. Two of the consensus top four offensive linemen in the 2020 NFL Draft — Tristan Wirfs and Jedrick Wills — were right tackles in college.
Wills was responsible for protecting Tagovailoa’s blind side in college and earned first-team All-SEC honors doing so. He’s expected to be an early draft selection this April, often appearing in the top 10 of mock drafts. Both Wills and Wirfs are nothing like the right tackle of old: a bulldozer who specializes in run blocking and is a bit too slow to effectively pass block.
“Right tackles are no longer stereotypical road graders,” Stephen White wrote in his breakdown of Wirfs’ abilities. “Instead, I’m starting to see a lot of ‘dancing bear’ types who I would normally expect to see at left tackle lining up and playing well on the right side. Wirfs is just another example of that shift.”
So is Wills, Alabama’s starting right tackle during both the Jalen Hurts and Tagovailoa eras. While Hurts is right-handed, Wills told Rich Eisen that blocking for the two quarterbacks only meant slight differences in the called protections. Ultimately, the goal was always the same.
“No matter what side of the line you’re playing on, you have to protect,” Wills said. “At the end of the day, you have to ball no matter what.”
It’s unlikely Miami will get to pair him with Wills or Wirfs. Regardless, finding a tackle prepared to play on the right side may not be as difficult as it was for the Cardinals back in 2007.
Tagovailoa’s handedness won’t determine his NFL fate
There are valid reasons to be nervous about Tagovailoa’s ability to lead the way for the Dolphins for the next decade or two.
He’s shorter than most NFL quarterbacks, a real concern even if it hasn’t stopped Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, or Kyler Murray. His supporting cast on the Crimson Tide offense — including an elite pair of receivers in Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III — could have made him look better than he actually is.
Most importantly, Tagovailoa’s injury history could give teams pause. Even if he’s received “overwhelmingly positive” reviews from doctors on his hip surgery recovery, Tagovailoa has also had surgery on both of his ankles.
All those could be why Oregon’s Justin Herbert surged ahead of Tagovailoa in many mock drafts.
On the other hand (pun very much intended), Tagovailoa played in two national championships at Alabama — winning one of them — and finished his collegiate career with 87 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
Which hand Tagovailoa uses to throw is far down on the list of reasons he will or won’t succeed in the NFL. It’ll shape the way Miami builds its offensive line moving forward, but that’s a challenge that isn’t so daunting anymore.