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Chargers mock draft: Concerns with Tua Tagovailoa go way beyond his hip

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Alabama Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Saturday I posted this potential top-5 mock, in which a couple of blockbuster trades ended up with the Miami Dolphins selecting Chase Young and the Indianapolis Colts moving up for Justin Herbert, while Joe Burrow, Jeff Okudah, and Isaiah Simmons were the other three players I assigned to teams in the top five.

That left the LA Chargers on the board at pick six with plenty of intriguing options left. Now I’ll briefly look at a few of those options, focusing today on the best available quarterback per most resources.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

If the Chargers select Tagovailoa, my first assignment will be remembering that Tagovailoa is spelled without consecutive vowels that are “a” and that the middle word in there is “vail.” And that’s how I’ll remember to spell Tagovailoa. Then there’s the prospect side of things, I guess.

It was literally “Tank for Tua” season last year and yet a scary hip injury has made many prospect evaluators/mock draft makers step back and think, “Yeah okay, but how good is he really?” Because Tua without an injury is one thing, but with an injury people start weighing just how transcendent he really was during his one and a half seasons as the Tide’s starter.

No offense to Tua — because I’m not a college football expert, a scout, a talent evaluator, or anything like that really. I’m a guy who reads box scores, anecdotes, and uses history to try and build a profile that gives me some idea of what may happen in the future — but I think that when you put Tua next to Joe Burrow, you quite clearly have guys on two different levels. At least, for now. Maybe in five years we’ll say it was insane that Burrow went over Tua (if he actually does) but I have a few concerns with Tua’s college production and I do wonder how much his size could be hindrance, even in today’s NFL.

Tua’s first game with more than 12 attempts was of course that national championship game against Georgia during the 2017 season. He was 14-of-24 for 166 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. I won’t look too deeply into the numbers because of the context (national championship game, great opponent, first extensive action) but it’s interesting that this probably is Tua’s premier moment for his resume, at least as far as the fans go.

Eight games into his sophomore season, Tua completed 70.4% of his passes, 13.6 yards per attempt for 25 touchdowns and no interceptions plus two rushing touchdowns. Legitimately unreal. Opponents:

  • Louisville, finished 2-10, ranked 128th out of 130 in scoring defense
  • Arkansas State, 8-5, 54th
  • Ole Miss, 5-7, 114th
  • Texas A&M, 9-4, 47th
  • Louisiana, 7-7, 105th
  • Arkansas, 2-10, 108th
  • Missouri, 8-5, 50th
  • Tennessee, 5-7, 109th

Alabama played an eight-game schedule in which every opponent was embarrassingly outmatched at every position, not just quarterback. But also at quarterback. Tua is very good.

In the next game, the Crimson Tide did beat LSU 29-0, but Tua was just 25-of-42 for 295 yards, two touchdowns, and his first interception of the season. LSU finished 10-3 and ranked 26th in scoring defense.

The next week, Alabama beat Mississippi State 24-0. But Mississippi State finished second in scoring defense. Tua was 14-of-21 for 164 yards, one touchdown, one interception.

In that two-week stretch, Tua completed just 62% of his passes, 7.3 yards per attempt, and had two interceptions. Terrible numbers? No. But strength of opponent clearly matters and Tua’s 25/0 came against a schedule that didn’t include any teams like LSU and Mississippi State.

The following week he torched The Citadel. Throw the numbers out.

In maybe his actual best game, Tua went 25-of-32 for 324 yards and five touchdowns against Auburn (8-5, 14th in scoring defense) with another score on the ground. Alabama was 12-0 and headed to the SEC Championship game after that.

In that game against Georgia, Tua went 10-of-25 for 165 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions. So, maybe his worst game. But Georgia was 11-3, 15th in scoring defense. And yet Alabama won 35-28 after trailing 28-14 late in the third quarter. Alabama made it 28-21 on a 51-yard pass by Tua, but it was Jalen Hurts who scored the final two touchdowns to give the Crimson Tide the 35-28 win.

In the College Football Playoffs, Tua took the “OK” out of Oklahoma: 24-of-27, 318, four touchdowns. Oklahoma was 101st in scoring defense.

Then in the championship it was time for Clemson, an undefeated team, a great defense (1st in scoring defense), and a college program that is arguably stronger than even Alabama’s now. The Crimson Tide led 16-14 early in the second quarter. They lost 44-16 at the end of the fourth. And Tua was 22-of-34 for 295 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

During Tua’s one full season as a college starter, he completed 69% of his passes for 11.2 yards per attempt, 43 touchdowns, and six interceptions.

However ...

Against defenses that ranked in the top-40 of points allowed (a rudimentary way to evaluate maybe, but challenge me that they’re not the best defenses he faced and we’ll discuss it), Tua did this:

96-of-154, 62.3%, 1,242 yards, 8 Y/A, 11 touchdowns, six interceptions.

And he destroyed Auburn. His game against the Tigers represents almost half of his touchdowns in those five games. It bumped his completion percentage significantly. It was a great game vs a strong defense; Joe Burrow faced Auburn that year and went 15-of-34 for 249 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions. Even Burrow was under 50% completions. Jake Fromm went 13-of-20 for 193 yards, two touchdowns, one pick.

So while there is the Auburn game and his national championship game appearance the year before, and those can’t be forgotten, the rest of his resume is kind of ... “Huh...”

Tua returned in 2019 and started the season on another unbelievable (more believable at this point, right?) start: 23 TD, 0 INT after five games.

And those opponents:

  • Duke, 5-7, 77th
  • New Mexico State, 2-10, 129th
  • South Carolina, 4-8, 53rd
  • Southern Miss, 7-6, 55th
  • Ole Miss, 4-8, 59th

The first ranked opponent that Alabama faced was Texas A&M in Week 6 and Tua went 21-of-34, 293 yards, four touchdowns, one interception. Those numbers are pretty productive, but a clear downturn vs a defense ranked 38th by season’s end.

The next week vs Tennessee (8-5, 29th), Tua went 11-of-12 for 155 yards, no touchdowns, one interception. He was efficient in everything except scoring and protecting the football and then he left with an injured ankle.

Tua missed the next game (Arkansas) and backup Mac Jones went 18-of-22 for 235 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions. Arkansas’ defense ranked 124th.

Tagovailoa returned the next week vs LSU, the big time matchup between 1 and 2 for everything that mattered at the moment. The game was in Alabama. LSU’s defense ranked 32nd in points allowed. They were better than that. And Tua’s numbers were pretty good considering: 21-of-40, 418 yards, four touchdowns, one interception. But the Tide trailed 16-7 early and then 33-13 at halftime. Playing from behind for the entire game, Tua came out with three second half touchdowns, including an 85-yarder to Devonta Smith with only 81 seconds left.

LSU won 46-41. We talk a lot about running backs gaining additional yardage when their teams are leading. We talk less about quarterbacks gaining additional yardage when their teams are trailing.

Seven days later, Tua went 14-of-18 for 256 yards and two touchdowns vs Mississippi State. The Bulldogs defense was much worse than they were in 2018: 74th in points allowed. The biggest impact their defense had in college football was the sack and injury delivered to Tagovailoa midway through the game.

And that is Tua Tagovailoa’s college resume in box scores. It is also worth noting that two weeks after his injury. Alabama scored 45 points against Auburn, one of the best defenses in the country, and Mac Jones had 335 yards and four touchdowns. Alabama lost the game 48-45, but given his previous performances against defenses at the caliber of Auburn, I’m not sure I would have expected Tua to do better than 66% comp, 8.6 Y/A, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.

In the Citrus Bowl against Michigan (25th in scoring defense), Jones had 327 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, and Alabama won easily.

As a junior, Tua’s final overall passing statistics again looked great. He actually managed to raise his completion percentage (71.4%), Y/A (11.3), and his TD/INT ratio (33/3). Tua finished second in Heisman voting in 2018 and improved, yet his injury cost him any opportunity to challenge Burrow for the award this time. But again, I don’t think there was any real competition between Burrow and Tagovailoa as to who the best player in college football was.

I don’t have the time to go over Burrow’s resume, but it’s been pretty well popularized by now. LSU played an incredibly tough schedule and Burrow went insane on all of them, including Alabama and Clemson.

That’s not what you’re getting in the college career of Tua Tagovailoa, who was as productive as any QB in college history against bad opponents and bad defenses (something that the Crimson Tide have become quite accustomed to facing) and he was perfectly adequate against great-to-good defenses. And really he didn’t face very many great defenses.

He probably had more great receivers than he faced great defenses.

Alabama’s receivers in the 2017 national championship included first rounder Calvin Ridley, plus Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Devonta Smith.

The receivers in 2018-2019 include Jeudy and Ruggs, both of whom are expected to be drafted in the first round this year. Smith could also get into the first round and may possess some qualities that are even better than Jeudy and Ruggs. He also had Jaylen Waddle, who may very well be a first round receiver in 2021.

The tight end in 2018 was Irv Smith, Jr., who some rated as the best tight end in 2018. He went 50th overall to the Vikings. Tackle Jonah Williams was the 11th overall pick. Center Ross Pierschbacher started the most games for any position player in Alabama history and was a fifth round pick. His running backs in 2018 were Josh Jacobs (first round pick) and Damien Harris (third rounder).

Among others to add are tackle Jedrick Wills, who could be a top-10 pick this April, running back Najee Harris, who could go on day two, and guard Deonte Brown, another potential first rounder this year.

You get it, Alabama is talented. Immensely. And that’s not something we can ignore, we have to factor it in with Tua just like we do with Burrow. However, maybe it’s that constant stream of talent going into Alabama that is part of the reason they can be so successful and yet produce not a single QB of significance into the NFL since before the Seahawks and Buccaneers were pro organizations.

The last Alabama QB to be drafted in the first two rounds was Richard Todd (6th overall) in 1976. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Crimson Tide didn’t produce a single QB who was active for an NFL game. In the 2000s they had Brodie Croyle and in this past decade, Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron.

No exaggeration, the best QB the Crimson Tide has produced in the last 45 years is arguably A.J. McCarron.

But it only takes one, right? Patrick Mahomes played at Texas Tech. Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois. Why not Alabama?

Well, you will hear a lot about Tua’s size as well. He is listed at 6’1 and 218 until this combine says otherwise. From 2011-2019, I found 14 QBs who went to the combine and measured between 6’ and 6’1, between 210 lbs and 225 lbs. Of those 14, seven were undrafted. So 50% didn’t get picked, including J.T. Barrett, Trevone Boykin, Jordan Lynch, and you guessed it, Easton Stick.

Maybe you didn’t guess it. Easton Stick, the Chargers’ big winner at backup that everyone wants to see even more of, measured at 6’1, 224, ran a 4.62, and had a 33” vertical. In a number of ways, Stick may actually be the best athlete of these 14 players, but he was not even selected a fifth round pick.

Of the seven who were picked, five went in the sixth or seventh round: Gardner Minshew (!), Tyrod Taylor (Chargers!), Brandon Allen, Tajh Boyd, and Logan Woodside.

Then there was Cody Kessler, a third round pick of the Browns in 2016. And finally, the other QB who was 6’1, 215 lbs, ran only a 4.84, had only a 29” vertical, and was fairly average in his measurements, was Baker Mayfield.

It’s not a very impressive list.

That being said, people will spend a lot of this year pointing to players like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson and also pointing out that they had large hands, just as Tua does. Tua’s hands are still smaller than Wilson, Brees, and Brett Favre, but are larger than average. How much that actually matters? We may never know. Then there’s the other thing about his hands ...

He uses the left one to throw. His dad even kind of forced him to do it because Tua is a natural right-hander. How many left handed QBs are in the NFL today?

Zero. Unless you count Kellen Moore. He’s the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys now.

Oh also, Tua doesn’t run. At all. Maybe Alabama didn’t ask him to and maybe he can be unleashed in some way with the right NFL offense, but Tua had 23 carries for 17 yards last season. He had 107 carries for 340 yards in his college career. His predecessor at Alabama, Jalen Hurts, ran for 855 yards in 2017. Hurts nearly ran for more yards than Tua in 2018 too despite playing in only a small percentage of the offensive snaps. So it was clearly not something that Nick Saban was opposed to with the right personnel.

Tua was not that personnel.

I started this article thinking that of course there would be a solid argument for Tua Tagovailoa as a “franchise QB” pick, but I am preparing to write a conclusion that will sound more like an epitaph for the “Tank for Tua” world we once lived in.

Tua Tagovailoa produced elite stats during his ~1.5 seasons for the Alabama Crimson Tide, ranking 1st all-time in career passer efficiency rating at 199.4. It’s not even close. Kyler Murray is second at 181.3, Justin Fields is third at 180.7, Sam Bradford is fourth at 175.6, and Mayfield is fifth at 175.4. Then you’ve got Dwayne Haskins at 174.

But those numbers were heavily inflated by Alabama’s soft schedule and during the first eight games of 2018 and the first five of 2019, Tua produced a combined 48 touchdowns and zero interceptions. In the rest of his career, he had 39 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Against good defenses he was rarely great, often okay, and sometimes bad.

Tua also produced all of these statistics with one guaranteed first round receiver, another four who are likely to go between the first and second round, a second round tight end, a first round running back, a third round running back, another day two running back, and multiple offensive lineman who will go in the first round, including probably at least two who go in the top-11.

He is also not of ideal size. While it is easy to point out the exceptions like Wilson and Brees, it is much easier to point out every other undersized QB, including Mayfield and Kyler Murray. It’s not that Mayfield and Murray can’t succeed (I personally still believe Murray could be the story of the 2020 season), it’s only that they haven’t succeeded yet and I’m not going to start believing that the game has changed to that extent yet. Russell Wilson is one of the most impressive, exceptional, and confounding athletes in American sports history. He was supposed to be phased out so many times and they could never get rid of him.

Wilson went in the third round and at this point you really have to wonder what separates the profile that put Wilson in the third but has Tua in the top-5. During Wilson’s one season at Wisconsin — after three really good years at NC State — he completed 72.8% of his passes for 10.3 Y/A, 33 touchdowns, four interceptions. His offensive line was very good. His receivers were Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis. His running backs were Monte Ball and James White. He could run. He never got hurt. He did great against Ohio State. He did great against Michigan State — a top-10 defense — in the Big 10 Championship.

If you want to compare Tua to Wilson that’s fine, but you have to really compare them and go beyond just their height.

I don’t think Tua necessarily needs to overcome his size, but it’s something we must address. I don’t think Tua can’t overcome his injury, but he still has to do that. I don’t think Tua can’t be successful at the NFL level just because he was surrounded by great players, but the NFL is nothing but great players. His receivers will be NFL caliber. So will the corners who cover them. So will the pass rushers coming for him. So are the coaches game planning to make his life so hard that he contemplates a position switch. I don’t think that just because Tua was awesome against weak competition and just okay in most of his other games means that he can’t be awesome in the pros, but you won’t win believers if you weigh Citadel the same as LSU.

And he was a hell of a lot better against Citadel.

And I also don’t think that I can see everything from my vantage point of looking at box scores, competition, anecdotes, rosters, height charts, and history. Surely there are things on tape that make some scouts and coaches salivate over his potential and a future where if it all goes right, he’s a top-10 starter in the league.

However, at pick six, aren’t there a lot of guys who also make you salivate but in addition to that, are ideally sized? And highly productive against every level of competition? And not coming off of a major injury? And still playing at a premium position, even if it’s not quarterback?

In my opinion, the LA Chargers need a lot of help and it goes well beyond QB. Using the sixth overall pick on a QB pretty much always means you’re taking a greater risk that you’ll come away with nothing in the draft, with a higher value ceiling should it hit. Should the Chargers take that risk with Tua? “No Tanks.”

T-A-G-O-V-A-I-L-O-A

Turns out I learned to spell it correctly anyway.