There was a time, not that long ago, when Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was considered the favorite to be both the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft.
Then two things happened. The first was Joe Burrow's ascension from graduate transfer to record-setting program savior at LSU. The second was a fateful November afternoon in Starkville, Mississippi, when Tagovailoa crumpled to the ground in a heap with a dislocated hip.
As a result, it's Burrow who won the Heisman in New York. It's Burrow who most draftniks have penciled in as the Cincinnati Bengals' pick at No. 1 overall. And no one quite knows what Tagovailoa's future holds.
His injury was unfortunate, and it didn't do his checking account any favors. But there could be a silver lining—at least for quarterback-needy NFL teams.
Because if Tagovailoa can return to his pre-injury form, we may look back in a few years and wonder why the accurate, athletic young signal-caller wasn't drafted sooner—injury or no.
Of course, this all assumes the 21-year-old Tagovailoa enters the 2020 draft. In early December, he told ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit (via 247Sports' Sam Marsdale) that he's still weighing the risks and rewards of a potential senior season return to Alabama:
"You think of risk-reward on coming back, you think of risk-reward on leaving. When I kind of look at it, I look at it if I come back, the risk is what if I get hurt again? But the reward could be maybe I jump back to the top of the charts and the boards for all these teams.
"Now, you look at the other side of the spectrum -- if I leave, the risk is do I still go in the first round? Or do I even make it to the second round. These guys don't even know if I can play with the hip injury yet, too. And then I'd say the reward in all of that is yeah, I'll be getting paid millions, but a lot of the money that I could've make, you can't make that money up, so that'd be me leaving money on the table."
There won't be a more scrutinized or talked-about player over the next several weeks than Tagovailoa, who has until January 20 to make a decision on whether to enter the 2020 draft.
Still, the reports regarding his surgery and rehab have been universally positive. Per ESPN, Alabama team surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain has said on multiple occasions he anticipates Tagovailoa will make a "full recovery."
According to Alex Scarborough of ESPN, Tagovailoa said that while he knows he can't rush the rehab process, leaving Tuscaloosa would be much more tempting if he believed he'd be taken among the top 15 picks in April's draft:
"I think that'd be tough to pass up. But there's a lot more to it than that in some aspects. ... This isn't something that I can rush. If I want to play to my full potential, I know I can't just come back and play on it as if it were my ankle. I think a lot that has to go into my decision-making, too, as to whether I stay or leave."
If that's true, then Tagovailoa is a goner. The odds that he'll slip outside the top 15 are next to nonexistent—assuming he checks out physically. The odds he'll drop outside the top 10 aren't much better.
Yes, a dislocated hip is a serious injury. Tagovailoa suffered a nasal fracture on that same play. And the 6'1", 218-pound southpaw has a history of lower body injuries while at Alabama, including an ankle sprain earlier in the 2019 season.
But when he's healthy, man, oh man, can Tagovailoa sling it.
In 2018, he threw for 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns and just six interceptions, and completed 69 percent of his attempts to go with a 199.4 passer rating.
Yes, you read that right.
Tagovailoa's yardage was down in 2019, but he completed 71.4 percent of his passes, averaged 11.3 yards per attempt and chucked 33 touchdowns and just three picks.
As Todd McShay wrote at ESPN.com, Tagovailoa has the best arm talent in the class of 2020—hands down: "Tagovailoa has elite accuracy at all three levels, but particularly when throwing downfield. He has a smooth delivery, fast eyes and good arm strength. And the 6'1", 218-pound lefty also does a great job anticipating and leading his receivers into the ball with high-end touch."
There's a reason so many NFL teams were drooling over Tagovailoa entering the 2019 season. There also happens to be a pair of clubs picking in the top 10 that could present the signal-caller with a best-case scenario as a rookie.
In January 2019, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Miami Dolphins (who are in line for the fifth pick) were eyeing one of the top quarterbacks in this year's class as the centerpiece of a ground-up rebuild. As the team jettisoned veteran talent and hoarded draft picks, and the losses started piling up, the narrative became that Miami was "Tanking for Tua."
The 4-11 Dolphins won too much to land the first overall pick. Tagovailoa got hurt and won't be the top selection anyway. But the pair could still be on a collision course that makes sense for both. The Dolphins still have quite a ways to go in their rebuild but possess the draft capital to take a big step forward in 2020. The team also has a veteran stopgap under center in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has already indicated (per Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk) a desire to play at least one more season and has the option to return to Miami.
The Dolphins could ease Tagovailoa in as the foundation of a core of young talent that could make them competitive again and help keep them there.
If Tagovailoa slips past No. 5 (if healthy he won't), he's not getting past the seventh selection. That's where the Los Angeles Chargers will likely pick after a wildly disappointing 2019 season.
The Chargers are in a much better position to compete in the short term than Miami—this was a 12-win team as recently as 2018. But Philip Rivers is coming off a down season in which he turned the ball over with regularity and posted a passer rating under 90 for only the second time since 2012.
With Rivers' contract set to expire after this season, the Chargers have uncertainty at quarterback for the first time since 2005. But even if Rivers returns on a short-term deal, a plan of succession is required—now.
The upside of L.A.'s miserable year is it affords the team a chance to set that plan in motion. With the passing weapons the Chargers have (Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, et al.), a healthy Tagovailoa would be placed in a good position to succeed.
Adding Tua would provide a huge boost of excitement for a team that desperately needs it as the Chargers prepare to move into SoFi Stadium next year. And the idea that Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes could duel twice per season is enough to give you the vapors.
There's a precedent of an NFL team investing heavily in a quarterback who was coming off a significant injury. In his junior season at Oklahoma in 2009, Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery. Even though Bradford couldn't work out for teams before the 2010 draft, the St. Louis Rams made him the first overall pick.
That won't be the case with Tagovailoa, and Bradford's injury-marred NFL career underscores the risk involved with spending an early pick on a quarterback with an injury history. But the reality is there's risk involved with drafting any quarterback.
There was risk involved when the Chiefs moved up to No. 10 in the 2017 draft to take Mahomes. And when the Buffalo Bills moved up to No. 7 to take Josh Allen in 2018.
Both of those young quarterbacks are leading teams into the playoffs this season.
Coming out of college, neither was as highly regarded as a passer as Tagovailoa is. Assuming he recovers fully from that injury, whichever NFL team takes a shot on him will look back on that fateful Saturday in Mississippi as one of the best things that ever happened to the franchise.