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Tua Tagovailoa, once the NFL draft’s top prospect, enters as its biggest gamble

NFL teams have a big draft-night decision to make about Tua Tagovailoa as he returns from hip surgery. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

There is plenty to ponder about this NFL draft, from the various views expressed about the league conducting its offseason business amid a global pandemic to the practical challenges of getting the decision-makers of all 32 teams connected via phone and video while they adhere to work-from-home guidelines.

But when it comes to football story lines, one issue will tower above all others when the draft begins Thursday night as a remotely conducted, TV-only event: What will happen with Tua Tagovailoa?

The quarterback out of Alabama once was expected to be the ultimate prize of this draft. But that was before Tagovailoa suffered a hip injury that cut short his final college season and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow claimed the Heisman Trophy, all but ensuring he will be the top selection by the Cincinnati Bengals.

That leaves the Miami Dolphins (who have the fifth pick), the Los Angeles Chargers (with the sixth choice) and other quarterback-needy teams to wonder about Tagovailoa. He is a potential franchise quarterback with the biggest injury-related question marks. He and his representatives maintain that all has gone well in his recovery and his surgically repaired hip will be fine for the upcoming season. But with novel coronavirus-related restrictions in place during the lead-up to the draft, teams have been unable to have their medical staffs examine Tagovailoa.

“It is difficult,” said Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. “He is a magnificent talent. So automatically, at that position, he’s a person you covet. Under normal circumstances, you would move heaven and earth to try to get him. So you’re going to do everything you can to get as much information as you can.”

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Polian said he’s certain that any teams interested in Tagovailoa have spoken to the medical staff at Alabama and reviewed all the MRI exams available from his college days and recent recovery. Even so, those teams have not been able to have their own doctors draw their own conclusions based on firsthand medical evaluations.

“To use [team doctors’] parlance, they’re going to say, ‘It’s difficult to be definitive without having our hands on him,’ ” Polian said by phone late last week. “So I’d talk to the owner. You just say, ‘It’s a gamble.’ You can’t phrase it any other way. ‘We don’t have definitive proof on our own. And looking at the injuries [in college], we can’t guarantee he’ll have a long career.' ”

Tagovailoa also suffered ankle and hand injuries at Alabama. Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi said during a recent episode of his podcast, “The GM Shuffle,” that he was aware of at least one team that failed Tagovailoa on its physical.

“That’s got to get around, that at least one team failed the physical on Tua,” Lombardi said. “Others have to be concerned now as well. … It’s not just his hip. … I mean, he’s brittle. You can’t deny it. … Look, I’m not disputing the evaluation. I’m saying that they flunked him on not just the hip [but] on the multitude of injuries. The risk far outweighs the reward.”

Tagovailoa underwent a medical recheck April 2 in Nashville, where he did his pre-draft training under the supervision of former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, and the results were positive, his representatives told media outlets. The recheck reportedly was performed by a team physician for the Tennessee Titans. A week later, Tagovailoa moved around and made throws during a makeshift pro day, video of which was sent to NFL teams.

“The rehab process has been a grind,” Tagovailoa said at the NFL combine in February. “But it’s not something that’s new to me. I’ve dealt with my hand injury and my left ankle and my right ankle. I sort of know what to expect going through this process.”

So now the Dolphins, Chargers and other teams must make their decisions.

“[Tagovailoa’s] injury concern is real and legitimate, so passing on him is not necessarily wrong,” Joe Banner, a former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns executive, wrote last week on Twitter, “but let’s not confuse the more talented player with who may get picked higher.”

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Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert presents an alternative early in the draft for any team that might be wary of taking Tagovailoa. There has been speculation lately that Tagovailoa could suffer a draft-night plummet out of the top 10. There also has been talk that some teams prefer Herbert to Tagovailoa, even without taking the injury issues into account. Not everyone is buying that.

“Let’s be clear,” Banner wrote. “If Herbert gets picked over Tua in my opinion it’s only about injury. To me Tua is much better on tape. Better feel, more accurate and better movement in the pocket.”

Polian recalled that a different Dolphins regime, with Nick Saban as coach, passed up Drew Brees in free agency in 2006, choosing Daunte ­Culpepper instead based on concerns about Brees’s shoulder. Culpepper lasted one forgettable season in Miami, and Saban returned to the college ranks. Brees recovered from his injury to win the Super Bowl and post Hall of Fame-worthy passing numbers with the New Orleans Saints.

“I personally think there’s a separation between Tua and Herbert and a separation between Herbert and the rest of the pack,” Polian said. “If you think it’s close, it would be safer to go with Herbert. But in my opinion, Tua is a pretty outstanding prospect. You have to realize it’s a gamble, and the owner has to be willing to say: ‘I’m willing to gamble. I’m willing to roll the dice.’ Everything is looking up, but you can’t deny that it’s a gamble.”

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