NFL draft: Why Tua Tagovailoa's admission of uncertainty was a smart move

Eric Edholm

At some time in the next 47 days, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa will make an official decision on whether to enter the 2020 NFL draft. That’s the deadline for underclassmen to declare, although the junior quarterback has several intriguing options on the table for his next move.

It was clear what Tagovailoa’s recent media junket, speaking to local and national writers on Tuesday, was intended to do: lure a promise.

The general message Tagovailoa gave to multiple outlets was that he doesn’t yet know, amid questions about his health, what his immediate NFL plans are. And that might indeed be true. But Tagovailoa seemed to tip his hand. He certainly knows what he’d like to see happen.

“If I leave, the risk is do I still go in the first round, or do I even make [it] to the second round?" Tagovailoa said. “These guys don’t even know if I can play with the hip injury yet, too.”

Why show so much candor, especially for a player who typically keeps things close to the vest? Well, Tagovailoa is going fishing.

It’s a smart move with no real downside. He’s in essence letting NFL teams know that they need to reciprocate the love — and ideally as soon as possible — for him to come out now. And when we say teams, it’s fair to say we mean the ones likely to pick high (certainly the top 10, but let’s say in the first half of Round 1) in next spring’s draft.

Bottom line: He wants a team (or better yet, three or four teams) to tell his inner circle that yes, health willing, they’d draft him high in April.

By admitting he doesn't know what his NFL plans are, Tua Tagovailoa is now putting the onus on the teams to show their love for him. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By admitting he doesn't know what his NFL plans are, Tua Tagovailoa is now putting the onus on the teams to show their love for him. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The support Tagovailoa is getting from the school also helps. Alabama folks more than once have repeated the phrase “expected to make a full recovery” since his hip surgery. That’s their hope, and it might very well be their belief. Even as NFL team medical staffs are not going to take the school’s word for it without their own thorough examinations, public persuasion is a power tool, and the “Tank for Tua” folks haven’t packed up and moved onto the next Johnny-come-lately passer.

There’s still a reverence for Tagovailoa. It’s a movement that feels alive and well to this day. In fact, there might be a quotient of Dolphins fans who even have reached the conclusion that head coach Brian Flores might be too good at his job now, winning enough games down the stretch to push them past the draft slot where they think a healthy Tagovailoa might go.

Don’t overlook what the people who buy season tickets and merchandise think, either. Talent is always the bottom line in scouts’ and general managers’ minds, but some team owners have a way of influencing franchise-shifting draft picks in a way that cannot be dismissed.

The naturally quiet Tagovailoa didn’t need to come out and do any media this week. He easily could have kept hidden under the Tuscaloosa umbrella until much farther down the road. But this was a planned strategy, doing it now. This was a proactive decision to talk. And it has a very smart purpose.

Could Tua Tagovailoa receive a draft ‘promise?’

You might think draft promises are more of an NBA thing, but Tagovailoa certainly is a unique test case here. He was the presumptive, overwhelming favorite to be picked first entering the college season, and that’s no longer the case following his season-ending hip injury.

His dislocated hip is such that we won’t know his real health status for months at the earliest. That’s well after the deadline to declare. NFL decision makers might not get a clear picture of his prognosis until the NFL scouting combine medical recheck in early April.

But there is strong belief in Tagovailoa’s talent, toughness, equanimity and mental makeup to make him well-liked in scouting circles. He’s by no means considered a safe pick, as the hip and ankle injuries that have sullied Tagovailoa’s past two seasons are concerns that must be answered before a team can feel good about using a high pick on him.

Let’s stick with the Dolphins a minute here. One reason we pegged them Tagovailoa in the No. 4 slot in our latest mock draft has less to do with inside information — the Dolphins don’t yet know who they’re taking — and more to do with need, opportunity and the draft landscape at-large.

The QB options for the Dolphins suddenly look more limited than imagined even a few weeks ago. LSU’s Joe Burrow might be gone by the time Miami picks. Oregon’s Justin Herbert hasn’t done enough to eliminate some of the Ryan Tannehill comparisons, and in no place will that fear resonate more than on South Beach.

Additionally, Utah State’s Jordan Love, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Washington’s Jacob Eason have not elevated their play enough this season to make them reasonable and cozy alternatives. Sure, the Dolphins have three first-round picks, two more in the second and one near the top of Round 3. Their issue isn’t draft capital; it’s finding conviction on a prospect they believe can lead the franchise for the next five-plus years. One or all of those QBs might turn out to be great players. But a healthy Tua trumps all of them.

There’s still a working theory that even for all their picks, the Dolphins could bypass taking a QB high in 2020 and (insert any verb here that isn’t “tank”) for what could end up being the bigger prize, with either Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. If Miami is skittish about Tagovailoa’s outlook, it makes some sense.

That’s a tough sell for Flores to try to win with Ryan Fitzpatrick or some other veteran fodder next year following a losing record in his first season. You can’t undercut your franchise’s eighth head coach in 13 years by asking him to make do with flotsam and jetsam at the sport’s most crucial position. It’s not fair to him, nor is it to the fans who have suffered through zero playoff victories since January of 2000.

If feels like the Dolphins and a handful of other teams want Tagovailoa to declare in 2020 so they can start doing their deeper work on him. And it feels like Tagovailoa is waiting for some kind of assurance from multiple teams that they’ll take him in order for him to rubber stamp his decision. Expect this staring contest to go on for roughly the next six or seven weeks.

It’s hard to see the Dolphins giving Tagovailoa a hard promise with their first pick. But there could be a not-so-subtle hint to the Tua camp that they have whatever resources they need to get him if the medical issues check out well.

Tua Tagovailoa health won't fully be known until April at the soonest, but he's trying to take matters into his own hands. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa health won't fully be known until April at the soonest, but he's trying to take matters into his own hands. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

How the other 2020 QB prospects affect Tua

Tagovailoa likely won’t be the first QB domino in this class. We’ve heard word that Fromm and Love are oscillating over their decision for this upcoming cycle. Love especially has a tough call following his 17-TD, 16-INT campaign: does he come out, stay at Utah State or grad-transfer elsewhere? All options have their merits.

One ace in Love’s hand is that he’s believed to be on track to graduate this month, which would make him eligible for the Senior Bowl. And if he comes out, there’s approximately a 100 percent chance that Love would receive an invitation to Mobile, Alabama. Scouts remain infatuated with Love’s raw skills and sky-high potential, despite the poor results in 2019.

Even if Love declares, we don’t yet know how teams in that first half of Round 1 — Tua Town, let’s call it — will view him. Weighing a healthy but flawed Love against a medically unclear but higher-floor prospect in Tagovailoa would be the type of agonizing decision that earns general managers the big dollars … or ultimately costs them their jobs. GMs, unlike head coaches, seldom get that second shot if they’re fired.

Tagovailoa is making his opening chess gambit, hoping to draw out information from the right NFL teams. It’s a smart move by a player who has calculated most of his steps carefully. If he hears what he wants, he can declare soon — and it’s easy to see why this would be the preferred option.

Assuming he ends up declaring early, Tagovailoa is going to be the story from now until April 23, when the 2020 draft kicks off. His comments this week have started the ball rolling on him trying to leverage a little control on where he hopes to be picked.

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