Tua Tagovailoa’s junior season wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Alabama’s superstar quarterback was chasing more individual glory and another national championship when he was crushed under the weight of two Mississippi State defenders on Nov. 16. The worst fears were realized hours later, when it was announced Tagovailoa would miss the season’s remainder with a dislocated hip.
Alabama fell to Auburn in a thriller last week, ending any hopes of getting the chance to avenge last year’s loss to Clemson in the national title game. But just because Tagovailoa’s season is over doesn’t mean he’s done fighting for a second national championship.
The junior told ESPN this week that he’s yet to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft, sparking widespread debate about a choice that should be obvious.
Tagovailoa is certainly the best quarterback, if not best player, in the illustrious history of Crimson Tide football.
He led Alabama to a stunning second-half comeback in the 2017 national championship game after coming off the bench, and exceeded outlandish hype the following season by winning the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, and finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting to Kyler Murray.
Tagovailoa was on pace to break the many single-season records set last year when he went down, too, throwing for 2,840 yards, 33 touchdowns, and three interceptions while completing 71.4% of his passes in just nine games.
NFL evaluators were tantalized by the ability he showed as a freshman on college football’s brightest stage, and became convinced of his franchise-changing potential not even midway through his first season as a starter.
Tagovailoa, despite LSU counterpart Joe Burrow’s remarkable play as a senior, was the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the draft before getting injured – a status he’d held for more than a year.
The uncertainty prompted by his injury pushes Tagovailoa below Burrow in the quarterback pecking order for April’s draft, and perhaps Oregon’s Justin Herbert. But NFL teams are increasingly wary of missing out on football’s next great signal-caller, and after his surgery team doctors said his prognosis for a full recovery is “excellent.”
In his interview with ESPN , Tagovailoa expressed doubt about the NFL’s confidence in the likelihood he’s able to return from injury full-strength.
“If I leave, the risk is, do I still go in the first round or do I even make it to the second round?” he told Kirk Herbstreit. “These guys don’t even know if I can play with the hip injury yet.”
A decade ago, Tagovailoa’s injury might have caused him to take a major slide in the draft. But NFL teams possess patience and foresight they didn’t back then, as today’s players come back from serious injuries more quickly and better prepared for the rigors of football than ever before.
Crucially, if his rehabilitation process goes according to plan, Tagovailoa will resume regular athletic activity in February, and be back on the field by spring. He’ll likely miss the scouting combine, but was unlikely to participate anyway, and could very well be healthy enough for a throwing session at Alabama’s pre-draft Pro Day.
The real risk for Tagovailoa? Not entering the draft, but going back to Tuscaloosa. As fluid as he believes his status could be right now, just imagine the flux of his draft stock if he gets off to a slow start as a senior, or worse, suffers another major injury.
Tagovailoa’s decision should be obvious. He has very little to gain by returning to Alabama, and very much to lose. His college career didn’t end the way anyone wanted, but unfortunately for Tagovailoa, that hardly means the prudent decision is to extend it.