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Scouts on How Tua Tagovailoa’s Season-Ending Injury Could Impact the 2020 NFL Draft

The Alabama QB was considered to be one of the top picks in April’s draft. Given his season-ending hip injury, suffered on Saturday against Mississippi State, is that still the case?

The biggest news from Saturday’s college football action had serious NFL implications. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, in the conversation for the top pick and top quarterback in the NFL draft, suffered a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture, per The Athletic, that was serious enough that the junior quarterback was transported to a Birmingham hospital by helicopter.

Alabama team doctor Lyle Cain said in a statement Saturday night that the dislocation was immediately reduced at the stadium—a promising sign because easing the hip back into place stops any further bleeding and damage to the bone. Cain also said Tagovailoa is expected to make a full recovery but will miss the remainder of the season, and that further tests would guide the treatment. 

Tagovailoa, the accurate and athletic left-handed passer with good arm strength and consistent decision-making, seemed to be on his way to the top pick in the 2020 NFL draft. With that in mind, The MMQB polled evaluators for their take on Tagovailoa’s injury and what effect it would have on his NFL future. All agreed the severity of this injury will certainly impact his draft status, and raises questions about his long-term durability. “Tank for Tua” may not be the strategy anymore.

Over half of NFL teams have had to resort to their backup quarterback this season, so durability at the quarterback position is extremely important. At 6' 1" and 218 pounds, Tagovailoa isn’t small by any means, but he doesn’t have significant size like Oregon’s 6' 6", 240-pound quarterback Justin Herbert, also at the top of the 2020 draft class.

There’s an old adage in scouting: Big people have to prove they can’t play, and little people have to prove they can. Tagovailoa has proved many times over that he can play, but now his durability is a significant concern. Tagovailoa has had two ankle injuries and surgeries in the past two seasons,“tightrope” procedures for high ankle sprains on both ankles and now a more serious hip injury. One evaluator said he considers the ankle injuries to be separate from the hip injury. “Separate and together at the same time,” he said. “Cumulative and now significant injury. Could separate the ankle stuff, but the potential significance of this takes it to a different level.”

Some scouts wondered whether Tua will return to Alabama for his senior season—the QB has one year of eligibility remaining (it was assumed that he would forego that final year to enter the 2020 draft), and it’s a fair question. The benefit of returning for his senior season would be to prove to NFL evaluators he can come back from this serious injury and return to his previous level of play. The downside, obviously, is risking further injury without getting paid NFL money, and the possibility of failing to play at the same level as he was pre-hip injury, which would certainly lower his stock. If he declares for the 2020 draft, a team can still talk themselves into that best possible outcome for Tagovailoa.

It’s too early to tell how long Tagovailoa will be rehabbing, or when he’ll be cleared to play again, but ultimately, that will be the determining factor on his draft stock.

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“Yes, the injury will be a major factor,” one evaluator said. “It will all be based on the team doctor’s recommendation to the GM. Period.”

There is an argument to made that Tagovailoa shouldn’t have been playing at all in that game, with Alabama leading Mississippi State 35-7 and with the QB still recovering from his latest ankle procedure. Tagovailoa underwent a “tightrope” procedure—a cutting-edge surgery designed to speed up recovery and allow him to return faster—for a high right ankle sprain on October 20. 

Tagovailoa was focused on returning for the Crimson Tide’s game against LSU last week, a decision that Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he largely left up to his quarterback; Tua started, but there were moments of doubt during that game. Now with hindsight 20/20 vision, maybe a quarterback on the verge of earning significant money as a top draft pick should prioritize his long term health for the NFL over the short-term ability to extend his college season.

“If he’s on pace to be back for the start of next season, I think he'll be fine,” another scout said. “And all it takes is one team to take a chance on him... Example: Jaylon Smith.”

Smith, the Cowboys linebacker, suffered a freak knee injury that damaged nerves during Notre Dame’s bowl game just a few months before the 2016 NFL draft. He dropped out of the first round because of the severity of that injury, and spurred a movement among NFL prospects to skip playing in their bowl games to avoid injuries before they are drafted. 49ers rookie Nick Bosa took it even further last season; the defensive end underwent season-ending surgery on a core injury last September and chose to not return to the Buckeyes and instead focus on preparing for the draft.

One scout said he expects Tagovailoa to still be in the discussion for top quarterback in the class, but it will all depend on the medical reports.

Nothing is certain when it comes to Tagovailoa anymore, but there’s one clear result of his injury: Tua’s name will now be used alongside Smith’s as cautionary tales for top draft prospects.

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