The Top 5: Is Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa really a possibility for Detroit in the NFL draft?

Editor’s note: At last, after months of projection and conjecture and enough mock drafts to keep the internet turned on through a pandemic, the real thing is finally here. It’s draft week, folks, and there are five prospects who have separated as the favorites for Detroit at No. 3. MLive will profile each of them this week. Today: Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

Previously: Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah | Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons | Ohio State defensive end Chase Young | Auburn DT Derrick Brown

Name: Tuanigamanuolepola “Tua” Tagovailoa

Position: Quarterback

School: Alabama

Hometown: Ewa Beach, Hawaii

Size: 6-foot, 217 pounds

40-yard-dash: n/a

Bench press: n/a

Vertical jump: n/a

Broad jump: n/a

Key stats: 69.3% career completion rate for 7,442 yards, 87 touchdowns, just 11 interceptions; 71.2% completion rate on third down; 33 touchdown passes and just three interceptions before injuring his hip last season; 105.0 passer rating when under pressure the last two seasons; only 20.1% of his throws past the line of scrimmage last season were uncatchable, per PFF, fourth best in Power 5

Why he makes sense

It’s about Matthew Stafford as much as it is about Tua Tagovailoa. Stafford has piled up gaudy numbers in Detroit, there is no doubt about that. But for many, there are two numbers that matter most: 11, the years he’s had in Detroit; and 0, the championships he’s won, the playoff games he’s won, really anything that matters at all.

Now Stafford is 32 years old and coming off his third back injury in two years. The last one cost him eight games, and the Lions lost every single one of them. Now they hold the third overall pick in the draft because of it, and could have a shot at a guy who once was the favorite to go No. 1 overall. And there are a lot of folks who think it is time for that change.

Tagovailoa is the total package as a passer. His accuracy — with a career completion percentage checking in at a toasty 69.3% — is especially impressive. It’s just pinpoint stuff that you don’t often see in a college passer. The kid had 87 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions at Alabama. Before the injury last year, he had 33 touchdowns and three picks. That’s just unfair.

The same goes for his on-field IQ. You can see it with the way he manipulates coverages. You just don’t see it from college passers that often. Not like this anyway. He works through coverages as well as any college quarterback in the country, letting his receivers run open. And he held up very well when pressured, with a passer rating of 105.0 when under duress.

Nobody really questions Tua as a quarterback. His skill-set is as good as anybody’s in the country. That’s why he was the favorite to go No. 1 overall until he got hurt, and why he’s still projected for the top 10 despite suffering a devasting hip injury in November.

Why he doesn’t make sense

Honestly, it’s still about Matthew Stafford as much as it is about Tua Tagovailoa. Stafford missed the second half of last season with a back injury, yes, and the mounting back issues are a concern. There’s no getting around that. But Stafford was also playing some of the best ball of his career before the injury. He was among the six-best quarterbacks in the game by every major statistical measure. He was aggressive, leading the entire league in downfield passing, while his efficiency numbers didn’t suffer for it at all. In fact, his 106.0 QB rating was a career high. He had 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Put it all together, and Stafford was playing at a near-MVP level. He would have never won that award because the Lions were still below .500, but that just kind of underscores the point. The Lions had a top-five offense with Matthew Stafford on the field last season, a top-three passing attack — and they were still below .500. And that’s because they were giving up more points in their losses than anyone else in the league. Their defense was abysmal. Absolutely trash.

So it doesn’t really make sense for them to turn around and use their best resource to try to replace their best player from a season ago — the guy who was keeping them in games despite that trash defense — and doing so heading into a win-now year. It just doesn’t make sense.

Ownership has said the Lions must compete for the playoffs next season, and Tua wouldn’t help them do that. He might not play for anybody in 2020 because of the hip, and that’s the other part of the evaluation that doesn’t make sense for Detroit.

Tagovailoa is still healing from a fractured and dislocated right hip that he suffered last November. His doctors say he’s already healthy, but there are plenty of doubts about that at this point. Complicating matters is teams like Detroit can’t evaluate Tua with their own doctors because of the coronavirus pandemic, so they must trust external medical reports. And with so much riding on such a high pick — with jobs and the future of the entire franchise on the line with such a decision — that’s a lot of risk to put in someone else’s hands.

It’s also not all about the hip. Tua has also undergone surgery on both of his ankles, plus broke his wrist at Alabama. That’s a lot of wear and tear on such a young body. So what’s going to happen when he starts getting hit by grown men? Maybe he’ll be fine. But maybe he won’t be. And again, that’s a big roll of the dice to make with so much at stake.

Tua is so talented that someone will take that risk, perhaps even early. But it’s just difficult to see the Lions doing it. General manager Bob Quinn likes to minimize his exposure to risk in the first round by taking high-floor stars from proven programs. Tua is most of those things, but the injury risk is undeniable. And it’s hard to see Detroit suddenly having an appetite for that kind of risk when it already has a quarterback it loves playing at a high level — and so many other needs that must addressed to save this regime.

What Tua says

On his rehabilitation from hip surgery: “Mentally, it’s been a grind. The rehab process has been a grind. 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. But it’s definitely been a grind.”

On what he tells teams worried about his injury risk: “I think going into the interview rooms and these informal interviews, I just feel like I’ve got to be myself. If I’m not the person for the organization, then I’m not the person. I just feel like if I’m just myself going into the interviews, the right team will find me.”

On his lowest point: “I think the lowest point was just at that moment when I got hurt. That was the lowest point. I didn’t feel bad for myself when I was on the helicopter going to Birmingham, when I was in the hospital. The lowest point was when I got hurt.”

On whether he thinks he’ll be ready for Week 1: “I do. Yes sir.”

On the “Tank for Tua” movement in Miami: “I’ve been aware of that, not from my own knowledge but from the knowledge of my teammates. My teammates would tell me, ‘Hey, bro, look at this. Dolphins want you.’ I’d be flattered. But as a kid growing up, that’s like a dream to have an organization want you, especially the fans there.”

On which quarterbacks he tries to emulate: “I try to emulate my game after guys like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. I text with them here and there. For me, it’s not so much what those guys do on the field that strikes me — everyone knows how good they are. But it’s who they are as a person off the field and what they do off the field and how they go about their business that way.”

On sitting behind a veteran next season: “As a competitor, I want to be able to play. But you look at a lot of the guys that are really good, and a lot of the greats, they’ve been mentored by big-time quarterbacks as well and veteran quarterbacks. If a team needs me to go out there and start for them, I’ll do that. But if they need me to sit behind someone and learn from them, I can’t see what’s wrong with that as well.”

On throwing left-handed, even though he does everything else with his right: “My dad was the only lefty in our family and he wanted me to be a lefty as well, so he switched the way I threw. I didn’t touch the ball with my right as far as throwing, just threw with my left. I don’t think I would be here if I was a righty. … My dad wanted me to play baseball (too). I played tee-ball for about a year-and-a-half. I couldn’t do it. I played first base and I played outfield. Well, I played outfield and I was picking weeds. It was too slow for me. I couldn’t do it. They put me at first base thinking I’d get a lot more action. I was picked weeds again. It just didn’t work for me. … I hit right. Write with my right. Eat with my right. I golf right. I only throw with my left and shoot with my left.”

What they say

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: “If you look at Tua, the injury is the only factor in his durability moving forward. That’s why I put (Justin) Herbert at No. 5, Tua to No. 6 with the LA Chargers. Everybody’s got different views and opinions. That’s why you talk to people. If you aren’t going to talk and listen to what they say, and put it in a mock, then why do this exercise? So it’s not about what I think or what my ratings are, it’s what you’re hearing and every team’s not gonna always be thinking the right thing. Maybe Miami’s just playing games here and let names get out there and who knows, we’ll find out.That’s the whole illusion of the draft and that’s why that’s the element of the draft that makes it so much fun and so entertaining is we don’t know until those picks are made. But I think right now, what you’re hearing is Herbert maybe to Miami at five. Tua, some say, he’s going to fall further than six. I just felt like I can’t believe that’s gonna happen, I think it would be a great fit, but there are some that feel he could drop out of the top 10. We’ll see come Thursday.”

ESPN’s Todd McShay: “If I get Tua, who is right (health-wise), and his hip is back (to 100%) and he’s got that same twitch — he’s a lefty version of Drew Brees. But we just aren’t going to know. It’s one of the most unique cases that I’ve ever seen at the quarterback position, because you’re not going to know making that decision. But how do you pass on him knowing there’s a chance he could become your franchise quarterback? And become one of the elite players and lead you to a Super Bowl?”

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah: “With Tua and Herbert, I think there is a gap between them. I think Tua is a more instinctive natural player. He’s got better instincts. He’s just got a better feel. I think he’s got better touch and accuracy. He can layer the ball a little bit better. I think he’s more urgent and sudden in terms of working through progressions. I think obviously Herbert is bigger and stronger. Herbert in my opinion is actually a better athlete. I don’t think people understand that as much, but he’s a really good athlete. And he’s obviously durable, or has been durable recently. … I just think when something doesn’t go as expected, I think Tua has got a little bit more of a playmaker gene than Herbert does. But look, I think it’s going to come down to getting in the right situation and the right surrounding for both those kids.”

ProFootballFocus: “Any team debating selecting Tagovailoa will obviously have to thoroughly vet his recovery. But assuming he makes a complete recovery, we have far fewer concerns with his on-field play. Tagovailoa is a franchise quarterback prospect and any team in need of a quarterback at the top of the draft should be willing to part ways with a few extra draft picks to secure his services.”

The bottom line

There isn’t a bigger wild card on opening night. Tua has the skill-set to be the best quarterback — best player — in this draft. But his injury record is undeniable, and it’s unlikely the Lions — who have been risk-averse under Bob Quinn in the first round — will take on that kind of risk with where they are at as a franchise. They probably won’t draft Tua, although will certainly try to trade the third overall pick to someone who will.

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