Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert? That is the 2020 NFL Draft's most preeminent question, and this college football season will provide the most important evidence needed to answer it.
Some team -- likely the club with the No. 1 overall pick -- will ponder Tagovailoa vs. Herbert for months during the pre-draft process, and the direction in which that team ultimately goes will be franchise-changing.
Before this indirect battle begins, let's thoroughly examine how these signal-callers stack up as prospects right now.
Below are the five categories on which I grade quarterbacks. They are listed in order of importance, with the most important category at the top.
By now, you, the intelligent football fan, know a quarterback's accuracy shouldn't strictly be measured by completion percentage. If it was, Tagovailoa would be the runaway in this category, as he completed 69% of his throws last season to Herbert's 59.4%.
This most important category is significantly closer than those numbers indicate. Both Tagovailoa and Herbert are solidly accurate at the short to intermediate levels of the field. Tagovailoa has slightly better ball placement -- think hitting a receiver perfectly in stride -- on those throws.
According to Sports Info Solutions, in the 0-to-19-yard range, Tagovailoa had an "on-target percentage" of 79.3%. Herbert's was 79.2%. Those ranked 49th and 54th respectively among 200 qualifying passers last season.
Tagovailoa's downfield accuracy was a clear step ahead of Herbert last season, although the former threw to wide open receivers more frequently on vertical routes. Per SIS, the Alabama star was on target on 64.8% of his throws (23rd place) and made 20 or more yards downfield. Herbert's on-target rate on those deep balls was 55.4% (77th place). In July, Iboth need to fix this season.
Another layer to this is the fact that short-area accuracy and deep-ball accuracy weren't created equal in terms of importance. Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight.com relayed to me that around 95% of passes in the NFL are made under 30 yards in the air. So with Herbert and Tagovailoa nearly identical on short-to-intermediate throws and Tua being better down the field gives the Crimson Tide signal-caller an ever-so-slight advantage in the most vital aspect of playing the quarterback position.
How a quarterback "manages" the pocket is what I've deemed as the position's second-most critical attribute. And there are subcategories within this category you'll see me reference throughout the season and pre-draft process. Pocket drifting is the ability to subtly drift away from pressure within the confines of the pocket. The best quarterbacks on earth thrive here. Pocket patience is the incredibly overlooked skill of waiting in the pocket -- when it's clean -- to scan the field for an open target. That's easy, right? Nope. Very frequently, quarterbacks simply abandon clean pockets after 2-to-3 seconds and either inadvertently run right into pressure that wasn't initially there or scamper toward the sideline, which shortens the play and the area in which they can throw the football. It's bad.
At times, I'll refer to this as pocket presence, I just think pocket patience explains what I'm detailing a little better. Pocket drifting and pocket presence together formulate pocket management, and Tom Brady is the ultimate master of it. He moves away from chaos gracefully and routinely stands in and surveys if he's not under pressure.
As for Tagovailoa and Herbert, both have showcased flashes of outstanding pocket-management skills early in their collegiate careers. They've put a variety of high-level throws on film after stepping up or moving laterally away from an oncoming defender inside the pocket. Also, they've been patient from clean pockets many times. However, both can awkwardly drift into pressure and have had moments in which they abandoned the pocket far too early, dropped their heads, and morphed into running backs when it wasn't necessary. There wasn't a discernible difference in pocket management between these quarterbacks, and if both improve in this area in 2019, they'll be considered significantly above average in this second-most important category.
There aren't any stats to quantify how quickly or how often a quarterback scans through his progressions. But it's a prerequisite to being an advanced passer, and is essentially a must at the NFL level. Neither Tagovailoa nor Herbert are the dreaded "one-read-then-run" signal-callers, but Tua is more apt to get to his second or third read on a pass play and deliver an accurate football.
Occasionally during the pre-draft process, you'll hear/read the terms "half-field reader" or "full-field reader" for quarterback prospects. The latter is what you want your passer to be. It's self-explanatory. Most raw quarterbacks are only given reads on one side of the field because they either don't process quickly enough to move from a read on one side of the field to the other or tend to get antsy as the clock ticks in their head after they receive the snap (see: pocket patience).
Therefore, a full-field reader gives an offensive coordinator a much more expansive playbook and is drastically more difficult for a secondary to defend. Tagovailoa and Herbert are already full-field readers. Tagovailoa gets the edge here because he's faster through those reads and less likely to lock onto the first target in his progression when its simply not open. This is another category in which the two top quarterback prospects are very close and clearly ahead of the pack in their draft class.
This category features a landslide. Herbert's arm is considerably more powerful than Tagovailoa's. While Tua can connect on throws down the field, that's not really where the arm-strength difference is most evident or important. The vast majority of NFL quarterbacks can push the ball around 55 yards down the field. Tagovailoa can do that.
It's the long throws across the field, toward the sideline, or when, at the intermediate level, he attempts to fit the ball through a tight window when his weaker arm appears. I repeatedly refer to Herbert's arm as "live." The ball jumps out of his hand. He has no problem ripping in-breaking routes across the middle, and he routinely drives the football across the field on lengthy throws toward the sideline. Rarely (if ever) is the ball dying as it arrives to its target.
Also, Herbert's rather huge arm allows him to throw on the run with ease -- when he obviously doesn't have his feet set to generate a normal amount of torque with his lower half -- and those throws always have plenty of zip. Herbert's arm the caliber of Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. But he'd be in next-highest arm-strength tier with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, and Carson Wentz.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa has what would be considered an average NFL arm. At times, it's below average. Much of it has to do with. His front foot tends to stride too far outside his intended target, and because he's not a large quarterback who can create tons of momentum with his upper body alone, those throws lack velocity. Occasionally passes toward the sideline are sinking as they arrive. He's a plus athlete, so he's capable of making accurate throws on the run, but his limited arm is obvious in those instances too. His average arm strength is almost assuredly going to be the most glaring ding on Tagovailoa during the pre-draft process.
Herbert is a more towering and athletically imposing athlete than Tagovailoa. However, Tagovailoa is undoubtedly nimble as a scrambler and could, in theory, be effective on designed runs, although his small frame might keep his NFL offensive coordinator from featuring him on many of those on Sundays.
Herbert's long strides and ankle flexibility allow him to move the chains somewhat easily in third-down situations when he's forced out of the pocket. Tagovailoa is more creative as a runner and a tad more elusive. But when he's running for a prolonged period, most defenders catch him rather easily. Herbert has better speed, and is thereby more efficient when getting North-South.
Both Herbert and Tagovailoa are smart scramblers too. They've showcased the wherewithal to slide or step out of bounds before the big hit arrives. This category represents the least-important element of playing the quarterback position. But in the modern NFL, a quarterback's legs can be a useful bonus for offensive coordinators and annoying for defenders.