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Tua Tagovailoa serves as latest reminder that drafting a QB early is overrated

The Rams went the “pro QB” route instead of the much riskier draft route

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Los Angeles Rams v Miami Dolphins Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Let’s pretend for a moment that instead of trading for Matthew Stafford last week, the Los Angeles Rams somehow ended up with the number five pick in the 2020 draft and selected Tua Tagovailoa* instead. Given the obvious desire by Sean McVay to replace Jared Goff prior to his four-year extension kicking in, that hypothetical scenario is not such a stretch even if it would have caused an immediate stir in the press and the imaginary locker room that awaited both of them. Or just Tua.

*Yes, I also would have preferred Justin Herbert, both now and then, but I’m making a point here.

During my time evaluating Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa in 2020, I never saw him as worthy of a first round pick. But I’m going to set the reasons aside because it doesn’t really matter what I thought of him as a prospect — because I am likely to be wrong on any number of predictions anyway and I was by far in the minority on my Tua opinions. And Tua was well liked enough by the Miami Dolphins — a franchise that many fans and media members have rallied around for having a “smart” 2020 offseason — for them to use the number five pick in the draft on him.

CBS Sports compared Tua to Russell Wilson and Dave Richard praised Miami for “taking a chance” because that’s commendable for some reason.

Dave Richard: Props for the Dolphins for taking the chance on Tua Tagovailoa — and not having to trade up to get him.

NFL.com’s Chad Reuter gave the Dolphins an “A” for their entire first round (they picked Tua, tackle Austin Jackson, and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene with their three picks) and insisted that teams “will regret not moving up to get him.” Reuter compared taking Tua to making up for not signing Drew Brees in 2006.

That’s how good of a move that Chad Reuter claimed it to be. Mark Maske of The Washington Post said the same thing.

Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News also compared Tua to Wilson. SB Nation’s Dan Kadar basically said that Tua was a better prospect than Herbert and Joe Burrow, if only he was healthy. ESPN’s Mel Kiper said that Tua was “an elite talent” and that the pick was “outstanding.” SI’s Andy Benoit said that Tua was “a perfect outcome” for the Dolphins. Luke Easterling of Draft Wire said that Tua “has Hall of Fame potential.”

PFF, a site that for some reason is still given credibility with people continuing to cite their “grades” as some sort of proof of something, wrote that Tua was a better prospect than Herbert “by a mile” and that he is “every bit a franchise quarterback” with an “elite PFF passing grade” in back-to-back seasons.

You think I am cherry-picking pro-Tua rhetoric for the purposes of making a biased argument with the benefit of hindsight? I struggled to find a single writer that didn’t jump at the opportunity to praise the Dolphins for selecting Tua Tagovailoa with the number five pick in the draft. The closest I could come was Nate Davis at USA Today, who gave Miami a “C” grade for their entire class, but like every other writer, his only criticisms of Tua were the injury concerns.

Me? I preferred to talk about his ridiculous supporting cast at Alabama and the fact that he was able to create those insane stats against defenses not ranked in the top-50 nationwide in a sport that has far too great of a talent disparity between the Crimson Tide and nearly every non-Clemson opponent while then often struggling against quality defenses ... catching my breath from that run-on sentence ...

But sure, I’ll take that mountain of injury red flags too.

In an NFL media universe where most are afraid to have opinions that don’t align with the majority, the selection of Tua Tagovailoa with the number five pick was met with overwhelming positivity. Now imagine if the LA Rams had, say, traded a player to the Dolphins in 2020 and much like Miami having Houston’s number three pick this year, were in a position to draft a franchise quarterback with the fifth overall pick.

If the Rams had the number five pick in the 2021 draft, it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t have traded for Matthew Stafford and they instead would have unloaded Jared Goff for whatever they could and then potentially even traded up to two (knowing Les Snead’s tendencies) for a “franchise quarterback” and every fan would have been happy.

Not because the team had won a single game, but because they had won something that appears much more important in April and May than it appears in December and January: the approval of draftniks.

Woo.

Having said all of that about April of 2020, let’s move forward to January of 2021.

Though Tua didn’t become a member of the Rams, he did help LA in one small way last season. In making his first career start at home in Week 8, Tua went 12-of-22 for 93 yards with one touchdown and one lost fumble. The Dolphins did win the game, but Tua helped the Rams get that much closer to being ranked as having the number one pass defense and maybe even gave defensive coordinator Brandon Staley that final tiny push towards becoming head coach of the LA Chargers because of it.

Imagine if Tua had more of a Herbert-like debut. That could have changed the opinion on Staley’s gameplans a little bit. But as we saw in subsequent starts, Tua didn’t have many “Herbert-like” games in his rookie season future.

Miami selected Tua as the quarterback “of the future” but we also know that in the modern era, teams often expect picks that high to be quarterbacks “of the present” too. Burrow started from day one and while Herbert was thrust into action because of the Tyrod Taylor lung incident that should be a legitimate waking nightmare for even those who are least fearful of needles, he was electric from the beginning.

Tua, by contrast, did not beat out 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter. I do not have any issue with this. Tua didn’t get a preseason, he hadn’t played in a real game since the cringe-ury he suffered to his hip, and I’m completely fine with teams sitting first round quarterbacks; if the Packers want to wait three years on Jordan Love, I have no problem with that.

But with the benefit of hindsight, maybe head coach Brian Flores didn’t start Tua earlier because he hadn’t been impressed by Tua yet.

The Dolphins went 3-3 with Fitzpatrick as the starter, then benched him following a 24-0 victory over the New York Jets. I also don’t take issue with Miami benching Fitzpatrick at that time (he ain’t no good) but it screamed as an ownership demand more than a football decision.

It was a football decision when Flores benched Tua during a Week 11 loss to the Denver Broncos. ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe wrote that Tua should mark the date — Nov. 22, 2020 — as motivation to “make sure it never happens again.”

One month later, it happened again. Well, you had a good run. Three starts without being benched between benchings.

Did this give writers pause about whether or not Tua’s issues could extend beyond his extensive injury concerns despite Tua not having a single injury of note during his rookie season? Nope. Instead, he was praised for handling two benchings in a month “like a professional.”

Well, I can’t deny that Tua is a professional quarterback so yes, I suppose he did handle it like a professional. Short of turning in his badge and helmet and turning to a life of podcasting like 99.5% of Americans, anything that Tua did would have been “like a professional.”

But it is hard for many to give up their Tua narratives after only one season.

Those narratives have continued to follow Tua, even as the rumor mill heats up that the Dolphins will give up on him after only nine starts. Even Josh Rosen got 13 starts with the Arizona Cardinals. Similar to how people ignore the fact that Miami — an organization that has become the “franchise that couldn’t” du jour now that the Cleveland Browns are good — gave up a second round pick for Rosen, they’re also completely glossing over the fact that the Dolphins used the number five pick in the draft on a player barely nine months ago and they don’t love him anymore.

Shouldn’t that be the story instead of the narrative that the Dolphins are only entertaining this idea because they lucked into the number three pick in a QB top-heavy draft class?

I’m one of those cheesy “live in the present moment” kind of people so I appreciate those who choose to let the past stay in the past, but I’d also be wary of those who only live for the draft. Not for the outcomes of the draft. Those are the same people who think that Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson (the current top-three quarterbacks for the 2021 draft) have already earned a place among Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson.

Or even among Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen, and Stafford.

“Well, just go get Zach Wilson and you’ll be set at quarterback for the next 20 years. In fact, I’m going to go have a kid right now, so that when that child graduates high school, they’ll be able to watch Wilson play for the Broncos during their college years! Now, just need to go find a life partner...”

No. The only quarterbacks who Lawrence, Fields, and Wilson have earned a place amongst are Lawrence, Fields, and Wilson. And the other quarterbacks entering the NFL in 2021. And maybe, Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa, who is a professional quarterback beyond any reasonable doubt ... but who is not yet assured to become a professional starting quarterback.

If this sounds like flat-out Tua bashing and nothing else, I can’t blame you for that. This is a fairly negative evaluation of him as a prospect and as a professional. But I continue to have no idea if perhaps three years from now, we’ll be talking about Tua in the same breath of how we’re currently talking about Allen. When I watch Tua throw, I do like what I see. Some quarterbacks play poorly early in their careers and then get better. It’s not as encouraging as playing well early in your career, but we are far from a final grade on Tua.

If this sounds like flat-out draft bashing, it’s not that either. Teams should be taking stabs at quarterbacks early in the draft. I have zero issue with the Dolphins drafting Tua, even if I would have preferred Herbert for them or any team. I probably just got lucky anyway.

My main point is that everyone should be aware that not only are first round quarterbacks not a guarantee, but the reason that players like Mahomes and Rodgers and Watson and (I think) Herbert are special is also the reason that you can’t expect there to actually be 3-4 “franchise quarterbacks” in every draft: THEY’RE RARE.

And that’s why I do not care if the Rams traded two first round picks to swap out Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. Matthew Stafford looks a lot more like that prototypical “franchise quarterback” to me than Jared Goff does and I would have been overwhelmingly surprised if they had kept those picks and then selected a high-end heir apparent to Goff in 2022 or 2023.

It was not likely to happen.

Though I love Herbert and am a Burrow believer, the first round of the draft is not usually that kind to its quarterbacks despite how many members of the NFL media pretend that it is or ignore how many of these picks don’t work out. Terrified of letting go of their pre-draft opinions and fearful that it will do harm to their identities and egos, many writers will push a pro-player narrative into the six-foot darkness that is their graves.

Don’t believe me?

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The 2019 draft ended up with three quarterbacks in the top-15:

  • Kyler Murray is one of the most exciting playmakers in the NFL, but still has to prove himself as a passer.
  • Daniel Jones had seven starts in 2020 without a touchdown pass. He had three with one touchdown pass, four with two touchdown passes, and zero with more than two.
  • Dwayne Haskins didn’t make it to year three with Washington and it has been said by then-head coach Jay Gruden that the pick was an ownership move.

The 2018 draft had four quarterbacks in the top-10 and Lamar Jackson sliding into the last pick of the first round:

  • Baker Mayfield’s up-and-down career is currently on the “up” swing. Some Browns fans have still suggested that the team should trade for Watson.
  • Sam Darnold was pictured above because I’m making fun of how bad Sam Darnold has been so far.
  • Josh Allen is good, though the average draftnik ridiculed the Allen pick and gave an “A” to the Arizona Cardinals for this next pick.
  • Josh Rosen went 10th.
  • Jackson is about to have one of the most interesting contract negotiations of recent memory. The Ravens win with him (in the regular season). They score with him. Do they trust him to pass the ball? Do they trust him to be able to pass the ball in three years? Do they think he will stay healthy? Do they think it to the point of $40 million per season?

Mahomes and Watson went 10th and 12th in the 2017 draft. They weren’t respected as highly as Mitchell Trubisky, who went second.

Goff and Carson Wentz, who is probably the next most-likely starter to be traded (but I don’t think he will be), went 1-2 in 2016. Paxton Lynch went 26th. He’s not able to handle anything like a “professional quarterback” these days.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went 1-2 in 2015. It’s a high-price for “franchise backups.”

In 2014, Blake Bortles went third, Johnny Manziel went 22nd, Teddy Bridgewater went 32nd. The only first round quarterback in 2013 was E.J. Manuel. So from 2013-2015, zero of six first round quarterbacks, including three in the top-three, made it to a second contract with the team that picked him.

When it comes to “drafting a franchise quarterback early,” what so many people choose not to care about is the results of previous franchises that picked a quarterback early. They instead choose to live in the fantasy world of “What could be” with the current class. With an idealized version of your favorite prospect on your favorite team.

That is not reality.

And if the Dolphins trade Tua after nine starts only because they want to trade out hope for him to acquire hope for a different quarterback, they could still be left holding the bag. That’s the risk you take with every draft pick. I don’t care about draft quarterbacks. I care about professional quarterbacks.

The Rams opted to use their first round draft picks on a literal professional quarterback. Given that Los Angeles was unlikely to be in a good position over the next two years to take a stab at the next Herbert — or the next Tua — in the draft, I’m perfectly happy with their decision to do that.

How could they have even guaranteed that they wouldn’t be drafting quarterbacks in back-to-back first rounds anyway, a move that has somehow been met with praise instead of pause.