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4 reasons Justin Herbert could be taken before Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL Draft

With the draft getting closer, Justin Herbert is gaining ground on Tua Tagovailoa to see who can be the second QB off the board.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We love the NFL Draft because it’s unpredictable. The media and draft Twitter will discuss players, rank them, and put together mock drafts, all based upon their grades and what they hear from teams. Then draft night comes, and someone goes off script. It happens every year.

As we close in on the 2020 draft, it feels we have some surprising movement coming at the quarterback position. Specifically: Is Justin Herbert moving ahead of Tua Tagovailoa?

For all the unexpected action that happens in the draft, this year has felt pretty simple at the top. There are four elite defensive players (Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons). There are four offensive tackles who stand above the rest (Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills, Andrew Thomas). And there are three top quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert).

These players should all be drafted within the first 11 picks. The order has always been up for debate, but for the most part, there’s been a consensus on where those three quarterbacks will go. It was Burrow to the Bengals with the first pick, then Tagovailoa in the top five (most likely to the Dolphins), and then Herbert after him (usually to the Chargers at No. 6).

But, something has happened recently. More experts and mock drafts — including Conor Orr, Daniel Jeremiah, and Gil Brandt — now have Herbert ahead of Tagovailoa. Why would they be?

Let’s look at a few of the reasons:

1. Tagovailoa has durability and health concerns

Herbert didn’t miss any games in his final two seasons at Oregon. He’s barely even missed a rep in that span. Yes, he sat out five games during his sophomore year with a collarbone injury, but he came back to finish the season and he’s managed to avoid big hits and injuries since then. Part of that was due to the caution of the Oregon coaching staff. They kept Herbert away from situations where he’d be exposed, and when Herbert did take off, he was quick to slide or avoid contact.

We all know about Tagovailoa’s injury history. He’s had surgery on both ankles and most recently on his dislocated hip, an injury that cut his final season at Alabama short. That’s a huge concern, even though he recently passed a physical from a trusted hip doctor,

It’s not just his hip and ankles. He’s had finger, quad, and knee injuries too. I can’t recall another quarterback projected so high who has been this injured.

Former Browns general manager Michael Lombardi recently said on his podcast that some teams have red-flagged Tagovailoa due to concerns he can’t stay healthy.

“Two teams I’ve talked to have flunked him,” Lombardi said. “They flunked him on not just the hip, but on the multitude of injuries. The risk far outweighs the reward.”

And while Tagovailoa is an awesome athlete, he’s not quick or fast enough to outrun professional defensive ends and outside pass rushers. He’s not Lamar Jackson. He’s going to get tackled and caught from behind. Can he either avoid these hits altogether or survive them?

2. Tagovailoa doesn’t have ideal size

Tagovailoa is 6’0 and has a slight build. I know there are examples of smaller quarterbacks being outstanding in the NFL — like Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and even last year with Kyler Murray — but some teams are scared off by quarterbacks who don’t fit the mold.

Well, Herbert fits the mold. He appears made in a quarterback factory. He’s 6’6, 236 pounds, and ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s got a rocket arm and can make any throw. Tagovailoa, while accurate and is able to layer his throws, isn’t the prototypical size that teams have generally looked for — and that could also tie into his durability issues.

3. Herbert had to do more with less in college

Tagovailoa played at a powerhouse for three straight seasons. He won a national championship, lost a national championship, and before getting hurt, he was possibly on the way to another championship berth.

Alabama has had countless skill position players get drafted high, including receivers, running backs, and tight ends. This year, both Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are projected to be first-round picks. Tagovailoa also had the pleasure of playing behind one of the top offensive line units over the last three seasons. He often threw to open receivers who could take short gains for long touchdowns.

This does not take away Tagovailoa’s ability as a quarterback, but historically, quarterbacks who’ve played with as much talent in college as Tagovailoa have not succeeded in the NFL. In my opinion, they struggle with not having the same level of production from their offensive line and their receivers’ inability to get so wide open. These quarterbacks aren’t used to feeling uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Herbert had almost the exact opposite of Tagovailoa’s talent. While Herbert did have the best offensive line last season, he didn’t play with drafted skill position players the last two years. There’s a hope that Juwan Johnson will be drafted this season and Mycah Pittman in 2022, but they aren’t locks. His running backs weren’t elite and tight end Jacob Breeland was lost for the season after six games. Yet, Herbert still led Oregon to 21 wins combined in 2018 and 2019.

4. Herbert has more room for growth

To his credit, Tagovailoa is a polished product. What you see is probably what you’re going to get in the NFL. Herbert is far from a polished product. Tagovailoa was a five-star recruit who lit up high school defenses. Herbert barely played until his senior season of high school. In college, Tagovailoa played for Nick Saban. Herbert played with three head coaches at Oregon, and in an offense the last two seasons that was run-first and asked Herbert to save the day for them. He was rarely the focus of the offense, and it’s tough to be consistent when this is the case.

I mentioned the talent discrepancy above, and it was clear on the field. Herbert’s receivers usually weren’t wide open and they dropped 100 passes the last two seasons. While Herbert does have warts, plenty of people, including myself, believe he’s got a huge ceiling that can be reached with an offense that centers on his strengths more often and surrounds him with better weapons.

Herbert showed himself to be much improved at the Senior Bowl, a taste of what he could do in the NFL.

Out of all these reasons Herbert might be taken higher than Tagovailoa, Nos. 1 and 4 reign supreme. There are teams that just can’t trust Tagovailoa to stay healthy and/or they feel Herbert’s upside is so high.

For now, Tagovailoa is still projected to go to the Dolphins more than any other team. But even if they decide they like Herbert better and Tagovailoa drops out of the top five, it’s hard to believe the Chargers won’t take him at No. 6. And if the Chargers pass on him, another quarterback-needy team with draft capital will trade up to quickly select him ASAP. No matter where they go, both quarterbacks will be top-10 picks.