Nick Saban took the podium at 11:05 a.m. CT, five minutes past the scheduled start of Tua Tagovailoa’s highly-anticipated press conference. Tagovailoa’s decision was broadcasted live on ESPN, and the presser was a full house, as reporters crowded into Alabama’s football center. Saban looked somber and sounded sentimental as he described Tagovailoa’s impact on the Alabama football program.
“He has had great accomplishments on the field,” Saban said. “But you probably don’t understand the contribution he has made off the field.”
Then Tagovailoa walked up to the podium in a loud black-and-white printed shirt and confirmed Saban’s set-up: After thanking God, he announced that he is entering the NFL draft.
Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated hip on Nov. 16 in Alabama’s win over Mississippi State, which put his draft decision in jeopardy. After polling a group of NFL scouts and agents, there wasn’t any consensus on what Tagovailoa would do, or even what he should do, simply because there is no precedent for his circumstances. One scout I spoke to leaned towards him to come out, but another predicted he’d stay because Tagovailoa loved playing for Alabama so much and last week the feeling was that he wanted to return for one more season, and still another recommended he should stay because he may fail a combine physical.
And even the fact that Tagovailoa announced in advance the date for his press conference was peculiar (typically, an underclassman declares his intent to enter the NFL draft with a simple statement posted to social media). Some scouts thought that meant he would return. Underclassmen receivers Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith had not officially declared at the time, and some scouts speculated they might return in a pact with their quarterback to take care of unfinished business. (Update: Ruggs has declared for the draft, while Smith will stay at Alabama for another season.)
Tagovailoa, who suffered his hip injury seven weeks ago, went to New York last week for a medical check-up, which likely influenced his decision to declare. The quarterback stressed that the three-month and four-month mark will be important benchmarks for his progress. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the doctor opinions in those New York visits were all positive.
In an ESPN interview shortly after Tagovailoa announced his decision, Saban said that Alabama took Tagovailoa to see, “some of the hip people involved with NFL teams,” to get a better timeline of his injury and how it would impact his draft status, and that was an important factor in his decision. By that, Saban is likely referring to hip specialists who work closely with NFL teams and players. They would have the experience to inform Tagovailoa on his prospects in the NFL, based on work they’ve done with NFL players.
Tagovailoa said that he also sought feedback from, “too many” NFL general managers, who told him that they look at his hip injury as they would a knee injury, and the biggest question now before the draft is how to feel certain Tagovailoa will be the same player he was prior to the injury.
The quarterback workout at the combine takes place on Feb. 27, which would put Tagovailoa at the 14-15 week mark, past that three-month benchmark and just before the four-month point. It seems like that date might be pushing it, but after the combine, there’s plenty of time for Tagovailoa’s rehab to progress to the point where he might be able to physically workout for teams and hold a pro day. The quarterback stressed that he doesn’t have the answer to that yet, but he did say he is optimistic that he will be able to play this upcoming season.
This was a smart decision. Tagovailoa has been set on this path to the NFL for years, and it would be difficult to reverse that course, even with his season-ending injury. The risk of injury in playing another college season is too great, and there’s no guarantee he will be able to replicate the same level of play after his injury.
It’s hard to get a read on how NFL teams will evaluate him, because most teams will rely on what the team doctor’s report says. If those medical reports remain positive, Tagovailoa will likely still be a first-round draft pick in 2020. And he’ll likely still be picked in the top half of the first round, because of his impressive three-year career at Alabama. But what if his injury does impact his play? The first NFL contract is the only contract that is a sure thing, so it’s smarter for Tagovailoa to trust that an NFL team will feel good about his prognosis without having any in-game evidence, than to risk playing at a lower level at Alabama next season.
At the end of his announcement, Tagovailoa was asked how he felt. “I don’t know how I feel right now,” he said. “I am content with the decision that I’ve made. It’s more so what’s next.”
What’s next will be the most fascinating draft topic of the year.
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