Tua Tagovailoa's Numbers Cast Concern Over NFL Projection

Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Contextualized Quarterbacking for the 2020 draft class is available to all TDN Premium members. It’s a project I've produced for three years that charts data from the final season of draftable quarterback prospects, particularly focusing on how well they performed in a variety of tough situations: beyond their first read, out of the pocket, from adjusted throwing platforms, with pressure and into tight windows.

Some quarterbacks have been great performers when things get tough. Baker Mayfield is the shining example as a player whose ball placement barely fell off when attacking tight windows or throwing beyond his first read.

Lamar Jackson wasn't that way. He had deficient measures when pressured or when throwing from adjusted platforms but he remains the best passer I've charted out of the pocket by a mile. He was extremely accurate throwing downfield and Baltimore built an offense for him around those ideas.

Other quarterbacks, like Mason Rudolph and Will Grier, didn't experience big drop-offs in their charting when things went wrong but, at a baseline level, weren't accurate enough in college and subsequently have struggled in the NFL.

And then there are quarterbacks who chart extremely well when everything is neat but across the board, their numbers fell to dangerous levels when they were put in difficult contexts. These prospects should scare us. They may be players teams can win with if they don't do anything wrong and maximize their playmakers, but they don't necessarily qualify as players teams win because of.

In 2018, this player was Josh Rosen — it was also Western Kentucky’s Mike White, but we're focusing on quarterbacks who were drafted much higher. Rosen's ball placement number when throwing beyond the line of scrimmage was the best in that class, but he experienced at least a 15% dropoff in ball placement under every single context I use to measure quarterbacks.

  • Beyond first read: -19.9%
  • Out of pocket: -35.5%
  • Adjusted platform: -23.9%
  • Move platform: -37.5%
  • Pressured: -24.8%
  • Into tight window: -15.0%

This is common and expected. It should be harder to distribute to a second read as compared to a first read; that's why teams scheme plays so a quarterback always has their first read open. But for Rosen to have such high scores in terms of accuracy and ball placement and then for those scores put into question by demonstrating how conditional they were on perfect circumstances is the best explanation I have for his busting.

In 2019, it's wasn't as easy to figure out who this player was; the best candidate was Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. Haskins was fine working beyond his first read, and that's always been his quality calling card as a tough draft pick. Everything else gave him massive problems:

  • Beyond first read: -1.1%
  • Out of pocket: -27.8%
  • Adjusted platform: -50.9%
  • Move platform: -40.0%
  • Pressured: -30.0%
  • Into tight window: -27.5%

In 2020, it is Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and it's worse than it was with either Rosen or Haskins.

  • Beyond first read: -48.7%
  • Out of pocket: -63.6%
  • Adjusted platform: -35.2%
  • Move platform: -11.7%
  • Pressured: -22.4%
  • Into tight window: -2.1%

Tagovailoa played a decent part of the 2019 season on a high-ankle sprain — his second in the past two years. He was, at best, banged up. This season was not the best we've seen of Tagovailoa, and it was still pretty doggone good.

It's also important to note Tagovailoa did not suffer from small sample sizes; 20.8% of his attempts went beyond his first read, which is the second-best number in this class, and 14.5% of his attempts went into tight windows, which is second-worst. It’s still well within a reasonable amount of passes from which to draw conclusions, and that was his best category.

With Rosen, Haskins and now Tagovailoa, we have a mold of pocket passer. They win when everything is clean and may even have the ability to react to some stimuli like pressure or progressions. However, across the board, they struggle mightily when things get messy and that throws their NFL projection into question.

With Tagovailoa, there is a mitigating factor that wasn't present with Rosen and Haskins: health. If Tagovailoa can return not just to 2019 form, but to 2018 form, he'll show more springiness in the pocket and tackle-breaking ability in space. His numbers when he's asked to extend the play with his legs will, hopefully, improve.

You could also argue that Tagovailoa’s supporting cast is so superlative that it makes sense that his numbers are worse when he's asked to create for himself but just because it makes sense and can be attributed to his team, doesn't mean it doesn't matter. Tagovailoa will no longer have the same competitive advantage that Alabama's receiving corps afforded him in college. His first read could be open less frequently, throwing windows tighter and pressure more apparent and frequent. If that's the case, his bad numbers under difficult contexts will show up with more frequency.

There is reason to be high on Tagovailoa; just as there was reason to be high on Rosen and Haskins. But one has already lost his starting job and the other seems to be on some sort of thinning ice. With Tagovailoa's injury concerns and his performance in bad contexts, my concern for his evaluation grows by the day. There's a lot more bust potential here then we want to accept, and on the other hand, the ceiling projection is limited by his need for things to be clean.