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Will Tua Be the NFL’s Next Great Lefty?

It’s been years since the NFL had a left-handed starting quarterback. Why teams won’t worry about his handedness, and how the top QB prospect is getting ready for draft season as his hip recovers. Plus, the small-school sleeper Belichick had an eye on.

Tua Tagovailoa isn’t really lefthanded. He’s right-handed in most tasks—writing, eating, swinging a baseball bat or golf club, opening a can, dialing a phone. But when it comes to throwing a football or shooting a basketball, he is a lefty.

His dad, Galu Tagovailoa, is lefthanded, the only lefty in the family. When his son was young, around five years old, he decided to put the ball in Tua’s left hand so he wouldn’t be the lone lefty in the family anymore. Surprisingly, it stuck.

“It just became fluent and he just grew into it,” Galu Tagovailoa told in 2017. “That’s the crazy part about it. I never thought I could make him adapt to that. As we constantly kept putting the ball on his left hand, eventually he grew into throwing the ball with his left.”

At the time, Galu had no idea his son would play quarterback. If he did, the move wouldn’t have made much sense—lefthanders make up about 10% of the general population, yet there are none among the 107 quarterbacks currently listed on expanded offseason rosters. The last lefthanded QB to be selected in the top 10 was Matt Leinart, who the Cardinals picked 10th overall in 2006. Tim Tebow (2010) was the last lefty selected in the first round. There have been successful lefthanded quarterbacks throughout each era of the NFL—Ken Stabler, Boomer Esiason, Steve Young and Michael Vick—but since Kellen Moore retired after the 2017 season to start coaching, the league has been without a lefty.

“They are probably all pitching baseballs,” said Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, during his combine availability. “I don’t think I have ever had a lefthander.”

Broncos general manager (and former MLB second-round pick) John Elway agreed: “I was just thinking about that question the other day, I was thinking, wow, there’s no left-armed quarterbacks left. Could be because those lefties that can throw heat are pretty coveted in Major League Baseball.”

Tagovailoa will soon give the league the lefty fix it’s been missing.

“I don't think I would be here if I was a righty,” he told the large crowd of reporters clustered at his podium at the NFL scouting combine.

“Why not?” A reporter pressed.

“Well, because I only know I am good with my left hand,” Tagovailoa said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

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In baseball, the number of lefthanded pitchers is actually higher than the roughly 10% representation in the general population—27.2% of pitchers who appeared in a Major League Baseball game were lefthanded—likely due to the advantage lefties have against left-handed hitters. There could be something to the popular theory of many head coaches and general managers at the combine, that the best lefthanded throwers are choosing baseball instead of football. Tua said his dad wanted him to play baseball, but after a year and a half of tee ball playing first base and outfield (he still hit righthanded), it was clear this was not his sport. “I was picking weeds,” he said. “It was too slow for me; I couldn't do it. They put me at first base thinking I would get a lot more action, but it just didn't work for me.”

In football, there are some minor adjustments that come along with lefthanded quarterbacks. Receivers have to get used to the difference in ball spin, coaches might have to switch their offensive tackles if they want to put a player on the quarterback’s blindside, and likewise, defenses might align their best pass rusher to the opposite side. But most scouts I talked to said the difference between a right-handed and lefthanded thrower was negligible, and that it wouldn’t factor into their evaluation of Tagovailoa.

“He throws such a catchable ball that it doesn’t matter,” one scout said. “Now, if it was a Josh Allen or a Jay Cutler it might matter more because that ball would be coming in hard.”

Another scout pointed out that a potential mid-game switch from Tagovailoa to a right-handed quarterback might present a challenge for pass-catcher. As a receiver at Texas, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan experienced that adjustment. He typically caught passes from lefty Chris Simms. “I had a lefthanded quarterback in college, then you'd go to the right-handed quarterback and it would be a little different going back and forth,” he said.

Several head coaches and general managers stressed that just because there haven’t been left-handers at the position recently, it doesn’t mean there is an active bias against them.

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As he continues to recover from last fall’s dislocated hip, Tagovailoa has been training for the mental side of the combine and the pre-draft process with Ken Whisenhunt, the two-time head coach and long-time offensive coordinator, most recently of the Chargers.

“I was aware that Tua was a lefthanded QB playing college football, but I never really paid attention to it,” Whisenhunt says. “Then when I started working with him, I never once thought about the significance of him being a lefthanded quarterback. When I really started looking at tape of him, the thing that really jumped off the tape to me was how well he threw the ball and how accurately he threw the ball. I knew he was lefthanded, but I never consciously said advantage or disadvantage.”

In the leadup to the combine, Whisenhunt spent a lot of time with Tagovailoa at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, where he is training with quarterback coach and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer. Whisenhunt would meet with Tagovailoa daily, and sometimes twice a day, to watch film of NFL offenses and Tagovailoa’s Alabama tape, with the goal of understanding how NFL offenses are different and what would be expected from Tagovailoa at the next level.

Whisenhunt spent time detailing how to run a huddle, knowing that most college quarterbacks get the play call from the sideline with the rest of their teammates. “When we were coaching the Senior Bowl a couple years ago, in the first meeting, you get a room full of 50 guys, and I said, how many of you guys have ever been in a huddle before?” Whisenhunt says. “And out of those guys, only five guys raised their hand and it's like, Holy cow!”

So Whisenhunt treated Tagovailoa like he would any other quarterback prospect he used to meet with at the combine or interview during visits to the team facility when he worked for a team. He went over the different systems of play calling in the NFL, like the digit system and the west coast style. Whisenhunt even spent a good part of a week taking Tagovailoa through a rookie mini-camp install simulation. He taught him a large volume of plays and then tested him to see how much information Tagovailoa could recall. Whisenhunt says he came away impressed.

At the combine last week, Whisenhunt says he ran into many of his old friends from teams across the league, particularly quarterback coaches, who asked him about his work with Tagovailoa and what he thought of him. Whisenhunt wouldn’t specify which teams inquired with him.

“I talked to one or two people who said he did a good job for them [in formal interviews],” he says. “I can tell you from my perspective, the more time you spend with him, the more impressed you'll be with him if you're not already.”

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A Belichick-Blessed Sleeper: A small-school sleeper caught the eye of Twitter last week. Last Monday, while most other head coaches/general managers were arriving in Indianapolis for the start of the NFL scouting combine, Bill Belichick paid a visit to Middle Tennessee State to work out Tyshun Render, an edge defender. The photos of the workout went viral because here was the 67-year-old, six-time Super Bowl champion coach standing in the rain to work out a prospect who is a long shot to even get drafted.

I asked a few scouts who have done reports on Render, and the consensus is he’s probably a priority free agent and is unlikely to get drafted. We’ll keep an eye on if he lands any other private workouts or visits with teams. One scout said that it’s hard to interpret Belichick’s attention to Render, because he could be doing that to mess with people or he could actually be his sleeper for the third through fifth round.

The New Combine: The changes to the combine schedule made for a long week in Indianapolis, for prospects and teams. I asked a few scouts for their review of the switch to primetime window for the on field workouts, and all agreed they are not sold on the late workouts. One said it’s not ideal for the players and he thought it was too late for them to be working out. Another scout said that the new schedule gave the prospects more breaks during the day and fewer early wake-up calls, so he thought the players were actually more rested for the workout.

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