It feels like an eternity ago, and from a distant time and space, but it wasn't all that long ago that Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow were preparing to play the biggest game of the NCAA regular season.
That game took place only a few months ago, though the mere concept of nearly 100,000 people crammed together watching a major sporting spectacle feels like something out of a movie in this current climate. And, if I recall correctly, the only argument anyone wanted to consider at the time as it pertained to college quarterbacks and the draft was a simple one: Tua or Burrow. Who ya got?
It was something being debated within NFL team facilities and among scouts as they sat in press boxes with binoculars pressed against their face. This was it. Which would you take with the first overall pick if you had it? Which would you let fall to the second pick? It was a two-prospect discussion, and for good reason. Justin Herbert would get drafted in the first round based on his size and strength and measurables -- but he wasn't even in this conversation based on the merits of his college performances relative to these two. Jordan Love generated some buzz with his 2018 campaign, but was regressing -- not entirely due to only himself -- in 2019.
Based on football alone, and what these young men had put on game film, it wasn't even close as to whom were the best draftable QBs in the country. And, as we prepared for "The NFL Today" that week, with the huge LSU-Alabama game on our airwaves that weekend, I reached out to a quarter of the teams in the league -- clubs not expected to be in the QB market and with no skin in this game -- to find out which QB the evaluators and decisions makers preferred.
All answered in relatively the same way. All preferred Tua based on his years of production and potential highest-end projectability. All said they would take him over Burrow if they were looking to go QB with the first overall pick. That's where smart execs were on the issue at that time.
Of course, Tua suffered a season-ending hip injury that required surgery and continues to hang over him even as his workout film reveals a body clearly well on the mend. And Burrow went on to have a breakout season for the ages, looking not just like a one-year wonder surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast and play-caller, but as someone very much worthy of being seen as a franchise QB.
Yet now, in a draft cycle unlike any other with teams not able to visit with or study with or work out any prospects in the land -- at a time when pro days were cut off and private visits shut down, when the tape should be ruling all else when it comes to evaluating prospects -- I am supposed to believe droves of teams now prefer Herbert over Tua? And maybe in some extreme cases even Jordan Love?
Now, after the Dolphins are years into an arduous rebuild process that was constructed with the primary intent of securing one of the top two quarterbacks in the 2020 draft, I am supposed to believe that they'd just as soon trade down to land another QB as they would be to trade up for Tua? Now, with Tua clearly able to move around free and easy, and with the medicals looking as good as can be expected, I'm supposed to believe that the football world is totally freaking out over a surgery -- yet surgeries are interwoven into the fabric of this contact sport and are a way of life in football?
Tua's stock is tanking now, suddenly, in the weeks before the draft at a time when literally nothing is happening in football anywhere except for some FaceTime conversations between teams and players? Seems a little contrived to me. Seems like the work of football men with oodles of time of their hands with the entire world virtually shutdown by COVID-19. Seems like an awful lot of smoke coming out of nowhere.
Sure, the circumstances with teams not being able to have their doctors give Tagovailoa a full battery of tests are not ideal for him. I get that. But I also have a hard time believing highly-respected surgeons would lie about his condition knowing the stakes are this high, and it's obvious he has already been cleared for throwing drills. And, in this of all years -- where there is not a GM in the league who believes there will be a single spring practice or mini camp and probably a delayed start to training camp -- Tua isn't missing a thing in terms of on-field work even if he couldn't yet fully partake in OTAs.
It seems a little contrived to me. If there is a consensus among multiple execs that now Herbert is a better QB prospect with less risk than Tua, I'd love to hear them make that argument. There's no way that can be backed by the tape. One guy faced the best competition on the planet every week and slayed virtually every dragon he faced. The other simply did not. It's not even really close, and I would be far more worried about why Herbert didn't dominate the Pac-12 and what that portends in the future than I would about Tagovailoa's health.
And I suspect, that when all is said and done, Tua is still gone by the fifth pick and is indeed one of the top two quarterbacks selected. I suspect that many doth protest too much, amid the jostling to get in position to land a top QB next week.
The draft's top specialist?
Even amid a pandemic there will be specialists involved in this draft. Brace yourself for that eventuality. Kickers (and punters) are people, too.
The prospect I have heard the most buzz about in that regard is Texas A&M punter Braden Mann. He won the Ray Guy award and is a prized punting prospect who special teams coaches are excited about. He clearly has a draftable grade on many boards and someone prizing field position is going to grab him next week. The only question is how high.
Mann recently circulated a video to teams showing his exploits kicking field goals as well, boosting his value as a quality emergency kicker. The tape shows him kicking three straight field goals from the 57 and six in a row from the 50. Not bad at all. I'm not suggesting someone is going to use a second-round pick on him or anything extreme like that -- ahem, Bucs -- but I'll be interested to see if he lands in the middle rounds.
Buzz building for tackle
I still keep coming back to a scenario where there are six offensive tackles selected in the first round. And, as I chronicled on Monday, there are six names I have heard the most about and who I suspect get their names called in Friday.
However, in the last few days I have picked up more about teams also being high on Ezra Cleveland. His workout film is pretty eye-popping and the metrics for the Boise State prospect are off the charts. I get the sense some teams are loath to say much about him in the media because they don't want to see him included in top five lists, but there is certainly a possibility he's among this run on tackles in the first round, as I do expect them to comprise about 20 percent of the first round.