Forecasting the pro careers of Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

April 15th, 2020

Will a franchise in the top three of the 2020 NFL Draft snag Tua Tagovailoa? Is Joe Burrow still a lock as the Cincinnati Bengals’ No. 1 overall pick?

With the draft just one week away (April 23-25), the rumor mill has begun to cloud some of the certainties many of us felt just one month ago.

Burrow is still the quarterback most likely to be selected first, but Tua is predicted to come off the board anywhere from No. 3 (pick owned by the Detroit Lions) to No. 5 (the Miami Dolphins), or fall to the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 6.

Regardless of how the draft unfolds on Thursday, the bigger question is whether Burrow or Tagovailoa will pan out as a pro.

Below we break down each quarterback and predict which highly-touted prospect will experience the better career in the NFL.

The case for Burrow

The former LSU quarterback accomplished what many sportswriters considered the greatest season by a college quarterback in 2019.

In LSU’s new spread offense, implemented by passing game coordinator Joe Brady (now offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers), Burrow threw for 5,672 yards (third most in FBS history), a record 60 touchdown passes, plus he ran for 368 yards and five more scores. His 76.3% completion percentage ranked second to Colt McCoy’s 76.7% rate in 2008, and his 202.0 passer rating beat out Tagovailoa’s 199.4 from 2018 as the best of all time.  

Burrow’s mind-blowing numbers helped him win the 2019 Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in the history of the award. He went on to lead LSU to a College Football Playoff title, as he tossed seven touchdowns in the first half, alone, of the national semifinal and recorded six total TDs in the championship game against Clemson.

Burrow’s NFL Scouting Combine

Burrow didn’t throw at the combine, as his 2019 season spoke for itself, but he did undergo a physical and meet with teams in Indianapolis. One concern for the quarterback was his hand size, which measured in at 9 inches — tied with Ryan Tannehill and Jared Goff for the smallest hand size among first-round QBs since 2008.  

On the plus side, he graded out as a prospective Pro Bowl talent, according to NFL.com’s classification system. His football IQ, poise, timing, and precision bode well for his future in the NFL. However, his weaknesses include below-average arm strength and average release quickness, and there's a question as to whether he can excel in certain offensive schemes.

The case against Burrow

In 2018, Burrow looked far from the player he blossomed into last season. The Ohio State transfer hadn’t started a game in his collegiate career until LSU handed him the job in his first year with the team in 2018. That season, Burrow completed just 57.8% of his passes for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also ran for 399 yards and seven scores in LSU’s ground-based attack.

His jump from 2018 to 2019 is most likely the result of Brady’s state-of-the-art scheme, as opposed to some extraordinary metamorphosis Burrow fueled on his own in the offseason.  

With that in mind, team and scheme fit could be all the more important to Burrow’s career in the NFL. Chances are he’ll hear his name called by the Cincinnati Bengals, a franchise that’s failed to post a winning record since 2015.

In head coach Zac Taylor’s first season in 2019, Cincinnati performed worse than any other team in the league, with a 2-14 record. The Bengals ranked 30th in offensive efficiency, 25th in defensive efficiency, and the passing offense landed at 19th in yards per game (228.2).

In free agency, Cincy focused mostly on defense, but they did franchise tag receiver A.J. Green, who sat out the entire season with an ankle injury. If he’s fully healthy in 2020, he could become Burrow’s most trusted weapon, but at age 31, he might not have much tread left on his tires.

Outside of Green, the Bengals have Tyler Boyd and John Ross III at receiver. Boyd caught a team-high 1,051 yards and 5 TDs, while Ross averaged 18.1 yards per catch but played just eight games due to injury.

The case for Tua

Dual-threat star Tagovailoa became a household name long before Burrow. As a true freshman, Tua came off the bench in the second half of the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship and led the Crimson Tide to a 26-23 overtime win against Georgia.

He earned the starting job in 2018 and put up 3,966 yards and 43 TDs on 69.0% passing. The Crimson Tide went undefeated in the regular season but lost to Clemson, 44-16, in the national championship game that year.

Alabama appeared destined for another College Football Playoff berth in 2019, as Tua started off the year strong, showing greater accuracy and decision-making through the first half of the season.

Though he played just nine games, Tua finished 2019 with a 71.4% completion rate, 2,840 yards, 33 touchdown passes, and was intercepted just three times. He also sat during the fourth quarter of many of the early-season games, once Alabama built a large enough lead.

Tua’s season came to an end in mid-November, when he dislocated his hip late in the second quarter against Mississippi State. Had he played the entire season, many believe he'd be the front-runner as the No. 1 overall draft pick, instead of Burrow. Now, he's a boom-or-bust candidate hoping a team in the top 10 will take a chance on his potential.

Tua’s NFL Scouting Combine

Because of Tua’s hip injury, which required surgery, the young QB didn’t work out at the combine. His main goal was to assure teams that his hip had healed and that he was capable of snapping back into his superstar form. MRIs conducted by medical staff came back clear, though there’s still uncertainty surrounding his recovery status.  

In place of his pro day, which was cancelled by the NFL in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tua released a taped one-hour workout inside a private gym on April 9. On film, Tua looked sharp — and most importantly, healthy — but the workout doesn’t hold a ton of weight, seeing as Tua’s team could have easily edited out any bad footage before sending his tape out to all 32 franchises.

Before Tua’s health came into question, there was no doubt he possessed qualities that made him a glowing NFL prospect. His release, accuracy, footwork, and vision are exceptional, and his leadership and poise have received high praise in the past.

With dual-threat QBs like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray finding fast success in the NFL, many believe Tua could become a difference-maker on offense right away, too. He can throw short and intermediate passes with great accuracy and launch the deep ball, while also avoiding a sack or extending a play with his quick feet.

At Alabama, he got sacked 13 times in 2018 and 10 in 2019, though he did play behind one of the best lines in the country. It'll be interesting to see if a mediocre O-line, say on the Lions or Dolphins, makes a difference in his production at the pro level.

The case against Tua

O-line play is also a concern for Tua's health, should he absorb quite a few hard-hitting tackles from NFL defenses. He's already worked through some major injuries in college, and his durability is the primary question mark. Tua didn't just dislocate his hip last fall. On the same play, he broke his nose and suffered a concussion.

He also had tightrope surgery on his left ankle in December 2018 and the same procedure on his right ankle in October 2019. On top of that, he had surgery on a broken index finger on his left throwing hand last March.

If he couldn't keep his health up in college, it'll be all the more difficult in the NFL.

Will Tua or Burrow experience the better career?

Team fit is a significant factor to any player's success, and Burrow will have his back against the wall at his projected home in Cincinnati. The Bengals are in need of a rebuild, and Burrow will either have to wait on the right pieces to fall in place in Cincy over time or hope for a second chance on another team in the future.

Tua, on the other hand, will likely end up on an offense that's a bit more put together. He also has the upside and talent to become a star, so long as he can stay upright on the field.

There's a reason we knew Tua's name before we knew Burrow's. The stage is set for the Alabama stud to play savior to an offense in search of a boost and create the kind of impact he hoped to demonstrate in his final season in college.

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