Tua’s $25 million question: Should he skip this draft and go top 5 in 2021?

When the news emerged Monday morning that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had successful hip surgery, it marked the first step toward the expected start of his professional career.

And it also kicked off the beginning of a draft process that’s going to be among the most scrutinized and complicated in NFL history. Until all of the medical timeline information for recovery becomes clear and insurance nuances are made public, it’s difficult to gauge what’s the best decision for Tagovailoa to make next.

A source told Yahoo Sports that the minimum recovery time for Tagovailoa is six months, which means teams will not see Tagovailoa work out prior to the NFL draft on April 23. And while Alabama team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain has said multiple times that Tagovailoa is expected to make a “full recovery,” there’s still understandable skepticism at the NFL level. Until league executives can see him running and throwing, selecting Tagovailoa looms as a giant risk.

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Tagovailoa’s cloudy professional future has already vaulted him into the status of the 2020 draft’s most divisive and discussed player. Think about the din of the discussions around Tim Tebow, Josh Rosen or Lamar Jackson, throw in the uncertainty of the sport’s highest-profile injury in recent seasons, and months of narratives will unfold. Also, consider that the injury stands to cost Tagovailoa as much as $25 million, which means the specter of his hip injury could well trickle down to the college game. Coaches, administrators and agents are asking: Is this the caliber of injury and amount of lost money that could prompt elite players to find alternative paths to the NFL?

Hailed as the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in 2020 prior to the season, Tagovailoa is now the biggest enigma in football. He has had three surgeries in the past two seasons, and when teams are picking in April they won’t have empirical evidence of his post-surgery reality.

“It’s very difficult, you don’t know what you’re drafting,” said a veteran NFL executive. “I see him maybe going toward the end of the first round.”

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) is carted off the field after getting injured in the first half against Mississippi State on Saturday. (AP)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) is carted off the field after getting injured in the first half against Mississippi State on Saturday. (AP)

Here’s the essential issue for Tagovailoa: Can a team risk a top-five pick on a player with lingering medical issues on a body part with scary injury precedents? So much is going to hinge on what Tagovailoa’s medical reports say, but even the sunniest recovery forecasts are going to be accompanied by a leap of faith. The deadline to initially declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 20, which is essentially two months away.

The conventional option would be to get a feel for what his reality is this season and enter the draft as he was expected. It’s generally expected he’d go in the first round, as there’s a pervasive desperation around the NFL for competent quarterback play.

“It’s complex and unfortunate,” said an NFL executive. “But the later you are picked [in the first round], you may be better off. Look at Lamar Jackson. But it’s still a tough call.” 

That option could come with a significant financial loss, depending on how far he slips. The more creative option that could emerge is Tagovailoa waiting to enter the 2021 NFL draft in order to prove he’s healthy. This could save the nearly $20 million gap that exists between a high first-round pick and a late first-round pick.  

Here’s the rough math using cautious hypotheticals: Opinions varied in the scouting world on Tagovailoa, but it was unlikely that a quarterback of his talent and production would have slipped past the No. 5 spot in the draft. If the injury pushes him to No. 25, that’s a difference of more than $17 million in salary, including more than $12 million in signing bonuses.

According to salary data from the 2019 draft, the total value for the contract of the No. 5 player in the draft is $29.2 million, and the signing bonus is $19.2 million. The No. 25 pick checked in at $11.8 million in total value and $6.6 million in bonuses. (The difference between pick No. 1 and No. 32 is $25 million.)

Tagovailoa playing again at Alabama is extremely unlikely. He also had an ankle surgery this season and last year, so there’d be no point in further risk. Also, he’s started 24 games, won a national title and thrown for 87 touchdowns. There’s plenty of film to showcase his talent.

But there’s a pathway for Tagovailoa to return to Alabama to rehab at the world class facilities there and build himself back to the best version of himself. After his surgery on Monday, Alabama said in the release that he’s headed back to Tuscaloosa to rehab. Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia, is a backup quarterback for the Tide, and their family moved to Alabama from Hawaii.

Is it worth 20 spots in the draft to be able to prove to NFL teams that his hip is healthy enough for him to run, change direction and throw in the same way that he did before the injury? If so, that would be a swing of tens of millions of dollars and would have to be considered an option.

“I think that’s the smarter play,” former NFL executive Mike Lombardi said of Tagovailoa either sitting or returning to Alabama.

One unknown variable in Tagovailoa’s decision is the extent and parameters of his insurance policy. Every player’s policy is different, and certain factors could end up guiding his decision, including whether Tagovailoa has total disability insurance or total disability and loss of value. While Alabama can’t comment on individual insurance because of privacy laws, there is a system in place at the school where high-level draft prospects receive insurance coverage through the athletic department’s student-assistance fund.

Alabama lineman Alex Leatherwood (70) checks on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) after he was injured in the first half on Saturday. (AP)
Alabama lineman Alex Leatherwood (70) checks on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) after he was injured in the first half on Saturday. (AP)

If Tagovailoa enters this year’s draft, NFL scouts and executives would be working off incomplete information. Yahoo Sports reached out to a handful of scouts, and the phrase “waiting game” came up multiple times in regards to injury information. Teams will be able to examine Tagovailoa at the NFL scouting combine and again in April, but that may not be enough until he can run and throw.

“He’s not a big man,” Lombardi said of the 6-foot-1, 218-pound quarterback. “Little men get hurt. Let’s be honest, here.”

There are other factors hurting his evaluation – no workout, no 40-yard-dash time and executives won’t be able to see him in other combine drills. Plus, the significant injury history that had already branded him as fragile before the hip injury.

NFL teams vary in how they handle injured prospects. Some teams had Cowboys star linebacker Jaylon Smith off their board after a devastating knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame. The Cowboys gambled with a second-round pick and waited as he was inactive during the entire 2016 season. The pick turned out to be a jackpot as Smith has emerged as a franchise cornerstone after his redshirt NFL year. Rams tailback Todd Gurley was picked No. 10 in the draft in the wake of an ACL tear his final year at Georgia.

The scope of how much money Tagovailoa could lose has the potential to reframe the question of whether elite talents destined to be top-five picks become more judicious about playing their final season of college football. Will this be an inflection point that makes elite players reconsider their path to the NFL? “It could,” said an industry source. “Is Tua Tagovailoa worth more in August than he is today? He really could only have hurt himself by playing.”

Do elite players skipping their junior seasons become the next logical step from players skipping bowl games? Or do they leave school after a month of solid play their junior year? Or perhaps a player the caliber of Tagovailoa who has an injury like his high-ankle sprain simply packs it in during October and starts preparing for the draft.

As for skipping an entire season, the execution would be tricky. If a player decided to pull out of college after the final game of their sophomore year, they could basically go about 18 months without playing organized football. (Assuming they skipped spring practice and summer camp). “I don’t think so,” Lombardi said about players potentially sitting out seasons. “The one thing about football, you’ve got to play.”

There’s no one better positioned to view this question than John Bosa, the father of former Ohio State stars Nick and Joey Bosa. Both played for three seasons before becoming top-three NFL picks and were elite recruits who were viewed at that value after their sophomore years. John Bosa recalled seeing Smith’s gruesome injury live when Ohio State played Notre Dame in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. That was also Joey Bosa’s last career game. When Joey Bosa got thrown out of the game for targeting, John Bosa admits now that the prevailing emotion was relief.

“People were like, ‘Oh my God? Are you upset?’ I have to say that I was slightly relieved,” John Bosa said in a phone interview Monday. “In a warped way, there was a sadness that his career ended that way. I tried to look on the bright side and say, ‘It’s on to draft preparation.’”

His younger son, Nick Bosa, hurt his abdominal muscle in the third game of his junior year in 2018 and left school to rehab after it was clear he wouldn’t be able to return at 100 percent. John Bosa said that Nick’s decision came down to multiple factors, most crucially the doctor telling him that playing at less than 100 percent would expose his son to a higher risk of injury of other body parts. “The decision was kind of made for us,” John Bosa said. (Nick Bosa still went No. 2 overall in the NFL draft.)

After having two sons go through high-stakes final seasons where they had inevitable draft riches ahead of them, John Bosa still doesn’t see elite players skipping their junior season. (It’s an NFL rule that essentially keeps players in college for three seasons – technically three years out of high school – that was upheld by a federal court in 2004.)

“I don’t see a kid not playing an entire year,” John Bosa said. “Here’s a perfect example. Nick played an unbelievable game against USC his sophomore year. But he was 10 times better after spring ball and fall camp going into his junior year. There’s an importance in practice and repetition and really perfecting your craft at any position. You’d have to be a pretty amazing freak to be ready and sit out a third year.”

There is, of course, a current college sophomore who has already faced questions about skipping next season. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick in 2021, told The Athletic in March he has no interest in other avenues to the NFL.

“Other sports, like basketball, they can leave after a year,” he told The Athletic. “I think it’s just good we have to stay three years at least and we get to make a lot of friends and experience a lot of good things. So I definitely love being in college.”

Will Tagovailoa’s injury and potential loss of monetary value change that for other top prospects? That’s just one of the aftershocks from his scary injury reverberating through the football world.

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