It’s early enough in NFL tanking season to begin to identify which teams will be in the high-end quarterback market next year. Less than a month into the NFL season, the Miami Dolphins have shredded their roster to such bare bones that it’s giving Philadelphia 76ers fans flashbacks.
The start of Miami’s rebuilding process appears to involve a high-end quarterback targeted through the NFL draft. And a quick peek around the league shows that the quarterback-needy Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals could end up competing to join them there. (And perhaps the Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders eventually maneuvering in.)
The early drumbeat of the 2020 NFL quarterback debate revolves around two players – Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. It would be surprising, at this juncture, if both didn’t end up in the top 10 of the NFL draft. There’s still a chance for a handful of other quarterbacks to join them in the first-round conversation: Utah State’s Jordan Love, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, LSU’s Joe Burrow, Colorado’s Steven Montez, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Washington’s Jacob Eason.
But for the next eight months, it’s hard to imagine the high-end debate not revolving around some form of Justin vs. Tua. Yahoo Sports polled nearly a dozen scouts and analysts on the two quarterbacks, and the results were nearly split. Tua’s feel, production and accuracy were brought up and juxtaposed against Herbert’s body prototype, cannon arm and intellect.
Who you like depends on who you ask.
“I like Tua a lot,” said one scout. “He doesn’t have an elite arm, but he’s so damn instinctive. What separates him is the production, instincts and accuracy.”
“I think there’s so much to like about Herbert because of his skill set,” said longtime NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum, now a draft analyst for ESPN. “His ceiling is so high, character is so good. If you are building a quarterback, he really checks every box from a measurables standpoint.”
How close is it? Consider it a coin flip at this point. Those who like Tagovailoa point to his 67.7 percent completion percentage last year, while Herbert finished at just 59.4 percent. (Oregon receivers dropped 52 passes last year, which didn’t help.)
So far this season, both have thrived. Herbert has ripped off a 74.4 percent completion rate and 14 touchdowns with zero interceptions. Tagovailoa has completed 77.7 percent of his passes and has 17 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Where do they differ? From a purely physical standpoint, Herbert has a distinct edge. He’s 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds, a body type that long-time NFL executive Mike Williams compares to Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Allen.
Tagovailoa is 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds with a frame that’s solid but may make NFL executives wince when they think of the pounding that position tends to take.
“If I had to give the edge to one right now, it’d be Herbert because of his build,” said Williams, a former NFL personnel director who worked in front offices for 18 years. “But I could change my mind this afternoon.”
There are, of course, drawbacks to each as well. With Tagovailoa, the first negative point mentioned is that he’s left-handed. There are currently no lefty quarterbacks in the NFL.
Drafting a left-handed quarterback involves a directional reversal of how an offense would work, which is much more complicated in reality than many would perceive. (The last lefty in the NFL was Kellen Moore, now Dallas’ offensive coordinator, and the last lefty touchdown pass was from Dez Bryant on a trick play.)
From there, the other big knock on Tagovailoa comes from him wheezing through the end of last season, as he struggled in the SEC title game against Georgia (10-for-25 passing) and threw two interceptions in the national title game, including a horrific pick-six. (He was 24-of-27 against Oklahoma in the CFP semifinals, so it wasn’t a total dud.)
One NFL scout was quick to point out that Tagovailoa’s injured ankle shouldn’t be discounted when his late-season performance from last year is assessed. But Williams added: “When the big games have come so far, he hasn’t performed as well. There’s still time for him to make up for that or prove people wrong on that point.”
Herbert, conversely, hasn’t had as many big stages. Oregon went 9-4 last season, including an unsightly 7-6 bowl victory against Michigan State. The Ducks also gave away their opening game to Auburn this season, although Herbert was 28-of-37 passing for 242 yards. Herbert lacks an alpha personality, though coaches have been complimentary with his evolution as a leader.
Mechanically, Herbert isn’t particularly fluid. “He’s a little bit long with the delivery,” Williams said. “He doesn’t have an especially quick delivery, but to offset that I think his motion is really efficient.”
Who is the best bet to unseat one of those two at the top of the draft? That would be Utah State’s Love, who has become a darling of the scouting community. Love is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt junior, and his frame still has plenty of room to fill out. He threw 32 touchdowns and six interceptions last season and has completed 68 percent of his passes this season. Love had no other FBS scholarship offers when Matt Wells’ staff offered him at Utah State. He didn’t get any after, either.
Another player gathering buzz is Fromm, who is considered a tick under NFL prototypes at 6-foot-2, but is a solidly built 220 pounds. Tannenbaum compares him to former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington.
“He’s super efficient,” said Blake Anderson, the Arkansas State coach who faced Fromm earlier this year. “He’s big enough, he’s not a 6-foot-5 dude, but he’s put together and a good-looking athlete. He’s just so calm and poised and can make all the throws, and while he doesn’t move a whole lot, he does it in a way that keeps him available to throw for a long, long time.”
Many of the intangibles also impressed Anderson, who saw Fromm telling players to tighten their splits or widen them out, moving them off the line and keeping the entire offense in sync. “You could tell he’s in complete control of what’s going on,” he said.
The buzz from Fromm has been tempered some because scouts really haven’t started to dig in to him until this season because he’s a true junior. There’s a good chance he stays for a fourth year, as he’s a local kid who clearly relishes playing college football. Burrow has been a rocket ship this season, completing a mind-bending 80.6 percent of his passes and has 17 touchdowns. Montez may have the draft’s biggest arm, and both Hurts and Eason have the potential to soar if they continue their hot starts after transferring.
But for now, the debate starts with Tua vs. Justin. The next few months will give a talented field a chance to join them.
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