Would You Rather: Should Tua Tagovailoa Declare?

Photo: © John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This is the biggest NFL draft declaration decision in quite some time.

It may feel like something we say every year now that more underclassmen are entering the pool than ever before; that there is elite, generational talent in this year’s group; that next year’s class is even better. But Tua Tagovailoa's decision will be the biggest declaration we’ve had in years.

Justin Herbert held last year's claim after he was projected a first-round selection but chose to return to school — and is now in exactly the same position. Herbert's reasoning — to play with his brother, to push for the Pac-12 Championship and College Football Playoff, to finish his degree — was perfectly justified. But here, Tagovailoa's decision carries more weight.

Tagovailoa is not considering returning for a shot at the national championship — he has played in two, won one. He is not returning to play with his brother — he has already done that, and his brother sits behind him on the quarterback depth chart. Tagovailoa’s suddenly complex declaration decision is the result of injury, a devastating injury both in severity and in timing. 

He dislocated his hip in what was his final drive against Mississippi State. Alabama was facing the unranked Bulldogs in early November, and many questioned Tagovailoa’s participation in from the start. He was already gimpy from a high-ankle sprain sustained a few weeks prior.

Despite the most recent, and again most devasting injury, Tagovailoa is expected to make a full recovery.

That’s good news.

Tagovailoa will not resume athletic activity for another few months, and he will not begin throwing until the spring.

Even if Tagovailoa was able to go through the rigmarole of the draft process, teams would still have reason to be concerned. He has endured two high ankle sprains in back-to-back seasons and, with the most recent setback, now carries the label of injury prone. An injury-prone starting quarterback is an expensive backup QB, and an inconsistent offense at the NFL level: How much are teams willing to invest in that player?

That question is the one most prominently on Tagovailoa’s mind. As he told the Tuscaloosa News earlier this week:

That risk of declaring would be how far do I drop in the draft. To me, it’s 50-50 between going in the first round and possibly going in the second round. If I go somewhere from first (overall) to around 24th, the money will be set. But let’s say — and I am just picking a number — that I go to the 31st pick. That would be about 9 million dollars. That’s a lot of money, an amount of money I’ve never had before, but it’s not high first-round money and you can never make that money up. They say you can (make it up) on your next contract but money lost is money lost to me.

Money lost is money lost indeed — and if Tagovailoa can reasonably expect a full recovery and a dominant 2020 season as the senior quarterback of the Crimson Tide, then he could return to school and go in the top half of the first round, even with Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State QB Justin Fields reaching eligibility and potentially declaring. That gamble, however, gives the NFL another year to see the state of his health. What if he gets injured again? Will his stock depreciate even further than it would be now, when teams can talk themselves into the chance that he bounces back from the hip dislocation without any long-term setbacks?

So returning as well could be money lost, relative to his 2020 NFL Draft position. And what is his 2020 NFL Draft position? That’s relatively unknown. A scout told SI’s Kalyn Kahler that he’d still be in the conversation for the first quarterback in the class if his medical reports check out okay. Unhealthy players in the draft tend to fall, but they rarely fall beyond the top few picks of the second round: Washington CB Sidney Jones tore his Achilles during his Pro Day and fell to 43 overall; Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith went at 34 despite shredding his knee during his bowl game. Those players survived a terrible plummet because one team was willing to take the risk — and they weren’t even quarterbacks!

Since the rookie wage scale was installed in 2011, the cheap rookie quarterback has become the greatest competitive advantage in the sport — so much so that the Ravens traded up into the first round to select Lamar Jackson in 2018, ensuring that they would grab his fifth-year option in the event that he proved a successful NFL QB. How prescient that decision looks now.

Barring a medical result that essentially condemns Tagovailoa’s long-term future, every single team with an aging veteran quarterback will consider taking Tagovailoa in the first round — and, as we know, it only takes one team willing to roll those dice for a player to be selected in the first round. Not every team must be willing to take the risk. So even if the Chargers pass, and then the Titans pass, and then the Colts pass, perhaps the Saints don’t.

Is that a guarantee that Tagovailoa will go in the top 24 or so picks that he detailed in the quote he gave? Not necessarily. But Tagovailoa is more likely to go in the first round than he is not, and returning to school puts that potential back up into the air if he ends up unhealthy. Another year of physical, punishing play for no money seems like an unnecessary risk for a player that undoubtedly warrants an early first-round selection on the merit of his talents. 

Tagovailoa will take the next month slow, staring down the January 20th deadline as he garners as much medical and NFL feedback as possible to make accurate projections regarding how healthy he can get, and where he will go if he achieves those levels of health. But if everything remains as is, I would expect Tagovailoa to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft, and while he may not go as high as he could have, some edge-seeking team will snag him on a discount before he slips beyond the first round.

And in 10 years, we could be looking back on it as the greatest pick made in quite some time.