This time last year, Tua Tagovailoa of the Alabama Crimson Tide was held in higher regard than any of the quarterbacks in the 2019 class and was thought to be a tank-worthy prospect in 2020. After a dominant, record-shattering 2018 season in Tuscaloosa that featured flashes of passable arm talent, impressive mobility, and an uncanny knack for finding explosive plays, it was no secret why many believed Tank For Tua was the only option for presumptive first-overall pick owners, the Miami Dolphins.
Since then, Tagovailoa has been dethroned as the king of the 2020 class by LSU's Joe Burrow. Not only did Burrow one-up Tagovailoa's 2018 season, but he remained healthy throughout 2019, whereas Tagovailoa suffered an ankle injury before shattering his hip against Mississippi State.
Tagovailoa had lost his place atop the class on film alone. Sprinkle on top the severity of his hip injury -- which shut him down for the year and has held him out of football activities until March 9 -- and there is not much of an argument left for Tagovailoa over Burrow besides the potential he brings because he is a younger prospect.
However, that is not to say Tagovailoa is a significantly worse prospect than he was 12 months ago. Rather, the needle on him has moved down a smidgen, while Burrow erupted in unprecedented fashion. By almost every objective metric and subjective lens, Tagovailoa is still a better and more complete prospect than everyone in this class but Burrow. With that out of the way, let's dive into why Tagovailoa is still a decent bet to become a franchise quarterback.
No Tagovailoa analysis can start anywhere but with his work on glance and slant routes. It would be a fair estimate to say about one-third of Alabama's passing offense was comprised of slant or glance routes off of RPOs or quick play-action. While these tactics are not exclusive to Alabama or Tagovailoa, the Tide were not leaning on those concepts for the heck of it. Tagovailoa was the best quarterback in the country at throwing those particular routes.
In this example, Alabama has three quick routes from which to choose to the right side of the formation for Tagovailoa. The No. 3 receiver (innermost) runs a slow vertical route between the hashes, the No. 2 (middle) books it to the flat, and the No. 1 (outside) cuts inside for a standard-depth slant route. Before the snap, Tagovailoa should have already decided he will pull the ball because the defense shows six defenders in the box to Alabama's five blockers. Post-snap, Tagovailoa is reading the overhang defender who is lined up just outside of the No. 2 receiver. As Tagovailoa is executing the fake, he sees the overhang slide to the flat, which gives the quarterback the green light to fire away at the slant route. Henry Ruggs handled the rest with his world-class speed.
Here is perhaps Alabama's most common variation of their slant/post package. Either a slot receiver or a single receiver in a tight split (in this case, it is a slot receiver) runs a deep slant that cuts sort of flat across the field. It is not a standard slant, nor is it really a post route. It is something in the middle and is often referred to as a glance route. As per usual, Tagovailoa nails this throw right where it needs to be, enabling Devonta Smith to scoot past the rest of the defense.
And finally, Alabama will run a glance route from the outside that is designed to hit further down the field than any of the other variations. Since the intended receiver is not as close to the quarterback by alignment, the throw ends up hitting a bit deeper. Rather than hitting right at the receiver's break point, Tagovailoa gets the ball to his guy a few steps out of the route break as the receiver is heading toward the middle of the field. Again, Tagovailoa finds his man right in between zones and hits him for another solid gain.
Call these plays gimmicky, easy, cheap, whatever -- Tagovailoa dominated by throwing slants and glances of all depths off of RPOs and quick play-action fakes. His timing, accuracy, and confidence throwing those routes can only be contested by Burrow, and even that may not be crediting Tagovailoa enough.
If I were to wager, there is not any quarterback in this class who connected on any particular concept as often as Tagovailoa did on play-action/RPO slant and glance routes. It was as bread-and-butter a concept for any one quarterback as I have ever seen. We have seen plenty of offenses around the league feature these kinds of concepts quite heavily -- most notably the Rams and Eagles in different capacities -- and the same should be true of whichever offense in which Tagovailoa lands.
Those slants and glance concepts are not particularly mentally taxing, though. Quarterbacks do need to be sharp and decisive to make those concepts work consistently, but to say those are the plays that define a franchise quarterback would be a stretch. True flashes of franchise material often come on throws toward the intermediate area. For Tagovailoa, the 11- to 20-yard area over the middle of the field is his playground.
Before the snap, Alabama shows a 3x1 trey (trips with a tight end) formation. Duke responded with a single-high shell that features the free safety (who is just out of the frame over the right hash) shading away from the trey side. The moment Tagovailoa calls for the snap, one of Duke's defensive backs lined up over the trey side bails into a deep-half coverage zone while the other safety, who was over the right hash, widens a bit further to play that half of the field. Tagovailoa recognizes the coverage shift and knows that because the defensive back to the left side is bailing deep, there should be a window of space underneath that safety into which his receiver can run. His intuition proves correct as he finds Jaylen Waddle (17) on a bender over the left hash, fitting the ball in just before Duke's "pole runner" (the linebacker responsible for the deep middle in Tampa-2 coverage) can work over to that side of the field.
This time Alabama is in a more condensed formation with two wide receivers split out to the right. On this play, the slot receiver runs a deep over route while the outside receiver runs a dig route, a combination commonly referred to as cross country dagger, as it works sort of like a traditional dagger concept where the slot receiver will run a seam/post. Right at the snap, Tagovailoa peaks to the left and sees the cornerback to that side creep up to play the run before bailing into a deep-third. Tagovailoa knows that cornerback will drift up in the window into which the deep over is running, which means he needs to move on to the dig coming in behind the deep over. Tagovailoa wastes no time in moving onto the dig route. Once he confirms where the nickel cornerback is sitting in the coverage, Tagovailoa knows he can throw past the nickel into a window that isn't actually there until the ball comes out. Tagovailoa anticipates the window well and rips this pass in to hit Jerry Jeudy square between the hashmarks.
Throwing between the painted numbers like this is Tagovailoa's safe haven. Whether he is throwing seam routes, digs, posts, glances, or any other 11- to 20-yard route between the numbers, Tagovailoa's confidence and instant trigger to that area of the field radiates from the tape. He does a great job week-in, week-out of understanding where the windows will open up and shows zero reservation in firing at them. Granted, Tagovailoa's zealousness over the middle led to a few interceptions hitting linebackers and safeties dead in the chest, but the good far outweighs the bad for him in this department. It is clear that his anticipatory skills to that area of the field are up to snuff.
When operating on-schedule and unfazed, as the previous five clips show, Tagovailoa looks as sharp as anyone in the class. He can zip through his first couple of reads, find the open man, and throw a plenty accurate ball. The glaring hole in Tagovailoa's game, however, is what happens once the pocket closes in on him. Tagovailoa's work from cluttered pockets is shoddy at best, and deeply concerning at worst.
A few factors work against Tagovailoa when operating on muddied pockets. For one, Tagovailoa is not very tall. Tagovailoa measured in at 6-feet flat at the NFL combine, which puts him right around Baker Mayfield territory. Tagovailoa also throws with a fairly low release, which can be fine for taller quarterbacks, but becomes somewhat of an issue for those who do not have that natural height advantage. Additionally, Tagovailoa is not the bravest quarterback when it comes to staring down an incoming pass-rusher and delivering a throw knowing that he is about to get clobbered. Tagovailoa tends to shy away from the contact and short-arm his release, further accentuating his height and low release issues. When paired with arm strength that is more "functional" than "good," it is tough to find many instances on film of Tagovailoa making an impressive throw with bodies around him in the pocket.
Here is an example of Tagovailoa shying away from a defender in the pocket. Jeudy (4) can be thrown open here if Tagovailoa leaves the ball low to keep it away from the high safeties, but Tagovailoa does not drive on the throw. Instead, Tagovailoa pulls his body away from where his arm is going, which saps most of the velocity out of this throw and leads to the ball hitting the dirt well before it gets to Jeudy.
In this instance, there is no "free" pass-rusher headed Tagovailoa's way, but there is a blitzer pushing Alabama's pass-blocking running back deep into the pocket. Rather than make a quick reset to a new location or drive into the throw with the risk of getting hit, Tagovailoa leans back away from his release point and, again, saps most of the velocity and control he could potentially have on this pass. Some quarterbacks have the raw arm talent and core strength to make this work (think Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, even Deshaun Watson), but Tagovailoa does not quite have that kind of arm talent or core strength. His torso just doesn't snap around like that without a perfect base under him. As such, this throw gets away from Tagovailoa and he sails it high and away from his target.
In fairness, Tagovailoa's saving grace when presented with pressure is that he does a fairly good job of escaping the pocket to create clean platforms for himself. Of course, the issue is that not even the most mobile quarterbacks can get away with this every time, which means there will be a certain amount of plays where he must throw from cluttered pockets, but that he can at least salvage some of those plays is encouraging.
Ole Miss got a slot blitzer running completely free at Tagovailoa on this play. In most cases, a blitzing slot is a better athlete than whatever quarterback toward whom he is barrelling. In this case, however, Tagovailoa hits the slot blitzer with a quick slide up in the pocket before slipping out to the left to reset. Freeing himself of immediate pressure, especially from his left side where the slot blitzer was on this play, makes it easier for Tagovailoa to comfortably follow through on his throws the way he wants to.
Figuring out where Tagovailoa lands on the play-under-pressure spectrum depends on how often he can create these chances for himself in the NFL. If he can do so at a similar rate as Deshaun Watson -- which is not entirely out of the question given his quick-twitch style of athleticism -- then he may be fine. If Tagovailoa can only create opportunities at a marginal rate, however -- which may be the case following his hip injury and surgery -- then it is unlikely that he will suddenly develop enough bravado in the pocket to transform this weakness into a strength, or even a net-neutral.
Tagovailoa's place in this class is unique. Whether referencing the hip injury or some of the underlying flaws that cropped up on film, it is fair to say now that Tagovailoa is not as elite of a prospect as many assumed him to be prior to the 2019 season, and that he should not be considered this class' top passer. And yet, Tagovailoa is still a tier above the rest of the class aside from Burrow. Perhaps a patient franchise who will not rush Tagovailoa back into game action can provide the right environment for him to make good on all the potential every analyst saw in him a year ago.