“Tank for Tua” is a catchy headline and looks good with a hashtag in front of it, but should NFL decision-makers consider tanking for the Heisman runner-up and true junior starter at Alabama?
June is a time of study for professional scouts and evaluators. Those teams heading into the 2019 NFL season with a need at quarterback—we’re looking at you, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins—have already started zeroing in on the top prospects in college football.
Smart teams have been watching Tua Tagovailoa since he took the starting job from Jalen Hurts halfway through Alabama's national championship win over Georgia. What will teams find when they do a deep dive on the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite and a player many in the media believe can be a No. 1 overall pick?
Accuracy is an uncoachable trait, according to many professional quarterbacks and quarterback coaches. Washington State coach Mike Leach, known for producing huge numbers from his QBs, once said, "You can go get the shortstop and teach him to play QB easier than you can make someone accurate."
Improving footwork and release points can help, but innate ability plays the biggest role in whether a quarterback can or can't throw the ball where it's supposed to go. Tua can.
Throughout the 2018 college football season, Tua showed off touch that will remind you of Drew Brees or Steve Young. He rolls to his left, drifting in the pocket like a lefty Pat Mahomes, and then throws a beautiful spiral over leaping linebackers and between defensive backs right into the hands of Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III. Touch and accuracy are his specialties, with athleticism and toughness added in.
That toughness was seen late in the 2018 season, as a clearly hobbled Tagovailoa limped his way through the College Football Playoff. The injury was so bad that he was eventually taken out and replaced by Hurts in a weird twist of fate during the national title game.
Alabama would lose that game to Clemson in blowout fashion, but evaluators saw how the young passer would handle adversity and the types of hits that will surely come in the NFL.
Another thing stood out as Tua kept trying to play through injury—he will have no issue gaining the respect of his teammates with his gut-it-out performances. That type of confidence and toughness at quarterback will make Tua a locker room favorite.
Every prospect has weaknesses, though, and when looking at Tua's, the idea that teams should “tank” for him becomes ridiculous. He is not Andrew Luck. He’s closer to Deshaun Watson as a prospect, which is still very good, but remember that Watson was the third quarterback drafted in the 2017 class, behind Mitchell Trubisky and Mahomes.
Tape study isn’t the best way to gauge arm strength and velocity; scouts prefer to do that in person, but when watching Alabama tape, it’s immediately clear that Tua doesn’t have an arm like a Mahomes or Baker Mayfield. He’s again closer to Watson when it comes to arm strength—strong enough to make most throws but reliant on placement, timing and touch to complete passes. Will that be enough to cause doubt to seep into the minds of general managers and owners?
It was with Watson, even after a brilliant career that concluded with him taking down undefeated Alabama in the CFP championship. But a small frame and average arm strength hurt his stock. Both could affect Tagovailoa.
Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy wanted to silence the critics before they got started. That’s why he measured Tua at Alabama’s junior pro day. There would be no Kyler Murray-like debate about his actual height. Standing flat-backed against a wall in the Alabama weight room, Tagovailoa measured in at “6002,” which is scout-speak for 6 feet and ¼ inches tall. He also weighed in at a thick 230 pounds.
After quarterbacks under 6’1” have been drafted No. 1 overall the last two years (Mayfield and Murray), it doesn’t seem like height will be an issue unless scouts see that Tua has trouble with field vision on tape and in person. Tua does play a lot outside the pocket, which is something shorter quarterbacks often do, but his body type is closer to Russell Wilson's than Murray's or Mayfield's.
Given the offenses across today's NFL, it’s easy to see where Tua would be a fit.
Should the New Orleans Saints want to draft a passer to succeed Drew Brees, Tua is tailor-made for the scheme with his accuracy and intermediate passing skills. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans might be ready to cut bait with former top picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, and Tua has the skills to work in both offenses and be the type of leader each club wants.
The New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers all must be thinking about the future at the position. If Tua lasted long enough in the first round, he’s a slam-dunk decision for each front office.
But should any of these NFL teams bet the farm on a short quarterback with average arm strength? No. Not in a draft class that also features Jake Fromm (Georgia) and Justin Herbert (Oregon). To effectively tank, a team would have to decide right now that it wants Tua. It’s simply too early—even with all his positives—to know if he’s worth shutting down the season for.
The top quarterbacks drafted in the last three drafts, respectively—Trubisky, Mayfield, Murray—weren’t considered first-round prospects before their final season began. The Bears, Browns and Cardinals all waited and evaluated the process fluidly before deciding on their passer.
Scouting is a process. Where players rank now might not be where they rank in six months. Heading into the season, there is a world of hype around Tua—much of it deserved—but the idea that any NFL team should tank for him is Twitter hot takes gone wild.
Now Trevor Lawrence? That’s another story for another day.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.