First Look: Tua Tagovailoa is worthy of the No. 1 overall hype

The 2020 NFL Draft class could feature some of the best quarterback talent we’ve seen in several years. Many evaluators have already tabbed Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert as potential No. 1 overall picks, and it’s still entirely possible that a new contender emerges during the 2019 season, much like Kyler Murray did last year.

While it’s still incredibly early, I’m ready to plant my flag and declare Tagovailoa as the clear QB1 favorite and odds-on No. 1 overall pick in 2020.

Allow me to explain my reasoning:

ARM TALENT

Tagovailoa’s case for being the No. 1 overall pick begins with an assessment of his arm talent.

Can he make all of the required NFL throws? Does he display consistent throwing accuracy, especially to the short and intermediate areas of the field?

The answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.

Tagovailoa displays good throwing accuracy to every level of the field. He’s relatively accurate on the move (more so rolling to his left), off-platform and with pressure in his face. He excels in the quick game and his deep throw touch, accuracy and ball placement are legitimately as good as I’ve ever seen.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarterback throw a higher percentage of catchable deep passes or hit receivers perfectly in stride on down-the-field throws more often than Tagovailoa did over a full season in 2018. His instinctual feel for how much velocity is required to make each pass is truly remarkable.

Here are a few examples:

Tagovailoa is one of the most accurate passers I’ve studied in the last seven draft classes. He’s not quite as accurate overall as Baker Mayfield was in college, but he consistently throws a catchable ball, leads receivers to yards after the catch and fits the ball into tight windows.

Against Tennessee last year, Tagovailoa showcased a number of desirable pro quarterback traits. When I think back on that game, one red zone play in particular stands out as a masterful display of both his arm talent and mental processing capabilities.

In a 2nd-and-9 situation with the ball on its own 11-yard line, Tennessee’s defense runs Cover 6 (safeties and LCB drop into deep thirds; uneven cornerback alignment pre-snap). Alabama calls a smash concept on the left side of the formation with two slants on the backside. It’s a basic high-low read.

Tight end Hale Hentges is the high read on the corner route and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle is the low read on the hitch route. Running back Josh Jacobs is the checkdown option in the left flat. If the defense runs a zone concept as the pre-snap look suggested and the RCB stays in the flat, then there’s a good chance Hentges will be open in the back corner of the end zone because he has outside leverage on the free safety.

As he’s taking his drop, Tagovailoa attempts to hold the free safety with his gaze to open up the corner route. When he sets his feet and gets ready to make the throw, the cornerback who was aligned over Waddle pre-snap bails on the underneath assignment and runs back to pick up the tight end. Tagovailoa then looks to Waddle, his second read, for the short completion, but a linebacker jumps directly into the throwing window on his way to pick up Jacobs in the flat. Tagovailoa looks to Jacobs, but the linebacker has already moved to take that route away. Tagovailoa looks back to Waddle, but the right defensive end has obscured his throwing window. Tagovailoa then rolls left in hopes of finding a window to Waddle, but the defensive end moves with him, forcing him to look over to Jerry Jeudy on the backside read.

From the far hash, Tagovailoa makes an anticipatory throw into a tiny window at the opposite side of the end zone.

The previous play is impressive on so many levels. Tagovailoa executes a full-field read of five progressions, he has the arm strength to hit a closing window from the far hash, he has the anticipation to throw Jeudy open and he has the accuracy to place the ball perfectly into a tiny window from a significant distance.

Tagovailoa showed a similar ability to hit tight-window throws throughout the season.

Tagovailoa has also proven that he has the natural accuracy to deliver off-platform throws when the situation calls for it.

Accuracy, poise and toughness in the face of pressure are critical factors for sustained NFL success at the quarterback position. In a relatively small sample size, Tagovailoa has impressed in all three areas. He’s unafraid to stand in the pocket and take a hit, and he rarely allows pressure to affect his mechanics.

Many of Tagovailoa’s detractors cite limited arm strength as one of his biggest weaknesses. I agree to an extent, but I also think the concerns are a little overblown.

Tagovailoa’s arm strength is adequate for the NFL level, but I wouldn’t call it prototypical. His velocity tends to be pretty good when he’s able to fully step into his throws; however, when he’s unable to drive the ball with his lower half, as in the following play vs. Georgia, his velocity can become problematic.

POCKET PRESENCE

One of Tagovailoa’s best qualities is his pocket mobility. The Alabama quarterback does a wonderful job of navigating the pocket to avoid pressure and find available throwing windows. He’ll sidestep a rusher while keeping his eyes downfield or climb the pocket to extend a play if he senses edge pressure and has room to step up.

Tagovailoa’s mechanics are very sound overall and he rarely allows pressure to compromise his throwing technique. He does a great job of staying in a ‘ready to throw’ position by re-setting his feet whenever he’s forced to move off his initial spot in the pocket.

His over-the-shoulder release gets the ball out efficiently and his balanced footwork allows him to consistently drive the ball with velocity and accuracy.

MOBILITY

Tagovailoa is a true dual-threat quarterback. He’s quick and elusive with pretty good top-end speed (I think his 40 time will be somewhere around 4.65-4.70). He can be utilized on designed runs and he’s pretty dangerous as a scrambler.

Tagovailoa is excellent at escaping the pocket and buying time to throw with his legs.

MENTAL PROCESSING

Tagovailoa shows good field vision and decision-making for the most part. His 43:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year backs up this claim. Tagovailoa has shown that he’s capable of reading the entire field, and he’s also shown a lot of promise with pre- and post-snap decision-making.

The star Crimson Tide quarterback does a good job of recognizing blitz and making the necessary adjustment (throwing hot or changing the protection). He’s also very good at identifying where his favorable matchups will be before the ball is snapped.

In the following play vs. Arkansas, Tagovailoa makes a full-field read before checking down to running back Damien Harris.

In the following play vs. Missouri, Tagovailoa cycles through four progressions before launching a perfect deep ball to Jerry Jeudy.

For a young quarterback, Tagovailoa displays impressive eye discipline and manipulation skills.

Like any prospect, Tagovailoa has his flaws. Against tougher defenses like Georgia and Clemson last year, he was admittedly less-than-stellar. In those two games combined, he threw four of his six interceptions for the entire year. In fairness to Tagovailoa, he was dealing with knee and ankle injuries at the time, so that could have affected his accuracy and velocity some, but it still doesn’t excuse some of poor decisions he made in the SEC and National Championship games.

On the first interception vs. Georgia, Tagovailoa throws an interception vs. a Cover 2 look. Based on the pre-snap alignment and initial post-snap movement of the safeties, he is correct to suspect that Jeudy will be open in the middle of the field. The issue is, the window he believes is there actually isn’t because it’s a disguised coverage and he doesn’t account for the backside robber.

On the first interception vs. Clemson, Tagovailoa appears to anticipate man coverage, but it turns out to be zone coverage instead. The right outside cornerback sits in the flat zone and jumps the out route for an easy pick-six.

On the second interception vs. Clemson, Tagovailoa looks like he’s expecting Jeudy to break open down the field. It’s hard to say for certain what Tua’s thought process was on the play, but if I had to guess, I’d say he was probably expecting Mullen to sit on the underneath route that Irv Smith was running.

Judging by Tagovailoa’s struggles in both the SEC and National Championship games, I’d say his post-snap coverage recognition is still developing.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Tagovailoa’s 2018 film was highly impressive for a true sophomore one-year starter. If the Alabama quarterback had been eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft, I think he would have contended for the No. 1 overall pick. Tagovailoa’s body type and skill set remind me quite a bit of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, although the Alabama quarterback appears to be a more disciplined pocket passer and his arm strength and top-end speed don’t quite measure up to the six-time Pro Bowler’s.

It’s easy to envision Tagovailoa as a future top-10 NFL quarterback and perennial Pro Bowl selection with a few years to adjust to the elevated competition level. I’m very eager to see what he can do now that he has a full year of starting experience and hopefully, a fully healthy season throughout 2019. Tagovailoa is on the cusp of elite prospect status, but he needs to perform better against top competition to earn that distinction.

PRESEASON GRADE: 1ST ROUND – Instant starter; top-15 player at position/Pro Bowl potential

GAMES WATCHED (14): Louisville, Arkansas StateOle Miss, Texas A&M, Louisiana-Lafayette, ArkansasMissouriTennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, The Citadel, Auburn, Georgia, Clemson (2018)

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