The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tua Tagovailoa and Jordan Love are risky draft picks. Passing on them would be riskier.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is headed to the Miami Dolphins. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Comment

Green Bay General Manager Brian Gutekunst operates with the philosophy he inherited from Ron Wolf, the patriarch of the modern Packers and a mentor for so many NFL personnel executives. Gutekunst always looks for quarterbacks, even when he has one such as Aaron Rodgers. The approach is how the Packers drafted Rodgers in the first place — they had Brett Favre but still used a 2005 first-round pick on a rare talent at the most important position in sports.

“There’s just so few of them that are truly difference-makers,” Gutekunst said last summer. “If you think one has a chance, you better not think twice about it.”

Those words from training camp last year became prophetic Thursday night, for the Packers especially and for the entire NFL generally. Gutekunst had a chance to acquire a difference-making quarterback, and he didn’t think twice about making the biggest splash of the NFL draft’s first round, about dropping a boulder in a pond.

The Packers traded up to take Utah State’s Jordan Love with the 26th pick, opting against adding immediate help to a roster that last season went 13-3 and reached the NFC championship game. Instead, they took a player who could be Rodgers’s heir apparent. Favre was 35 when the Packers drafted Rodgers. Rodgers is 36.

If it works, if Love can mold his athletic gifts into quarterbacking excellence, the Packers will have ensured three quarterbacks — Favre to Rodgers to Love — could carry their franchise for about four decades. If it backfires, the Packers will have risked alienating an all-time quarterback while losing a significant chance to upgrade his supporting cast as he reaches the end of his prime.

Just a small risk.

But it is one worth taking. Gutekunst is right: Teams are far too risk-averse and not creative enough in their thinking when it comes to quarterback. It’s easier to spot something wrong with a quarterback than to see a surefire star, and missing on one can cost a general manager his job. It’s how Patrick Mahomes lasted until the 10th pick in 2017 and Lamar Jackson waited until the final pick of the first round in 2018. Even though there is now a glut of quarterbacks, so much that Cam Newton and Andy Dalton remain without starting jobs, teams always should take one with the highest ceiling, even when it means high risk.

Winners and losers from the first round of the NFL draft

The Miami Dolphins did just that Thursday when they used the fifth pick on Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the passing prodigy who dislocated and fractured his hip in November. The injury would have presented significant uncertainty in a normal year, and that only grew given the constraints of this draft process.

Even without the injury, Tagovailoa was not as much of an automatic prospect as media and fans believed. Plenty of NFL evaluators loved Tagovailoa and saw him as a franchise quarterback, and Alabama Coach Nick Saban touted him as a franchise savior at every opportunity. But not everyone was sold. One well-connected NFL scouting figure said fans would be surprised by how many teams favored Oregon’s Justin Herbert — ultimately selected sixth by the Los Angeles Chargers, who have veteran passer Tyrod Taylor on the roster — over Tagovailoa, even disregarding the injury.

While Tagovailoa’s college production seems unassailable, some NFL evaluators viewed it with skepticism. He played with an NFL-caliber receiving corps, top-shelf running backs and five offensive linemen likely to play in the NFL. He rarely threw into the small windows that NFL defenses will demand, and when asked to do so against top competition, he frequently threw into coverage.

Still, the Dolphins were smart to bet on Tagovailoa’s upside. Saban spoke in reverential terms about the way Tagovailoa processes plays, how quickly he discerns coverage and releases throws.

Tagovailoa may be unusually prone to injury. Even before his major hip injury, he suffered several serious ailments. He lacked a knack for avoiding big hits and protecting himself. It’s the impulse — or lack thereof — that makes Russell Wilson durable and turned Robert Griffin III into a backup.

But then, every player who enters the NFL is an injury risk. Andrew Luck had no significant injury history, prototypical size and uncommon strength coming out of Stanford in 2012. He was as low-risk as a quarterback prospect could be. He was in the NFL for seven years, several shortened or marred by injury, before he retired at 29 because he could no longer stomach the constant rehabbing.

So, yes, the Dolphins are taking a risk on Tagovailoa. But wouldn’t it be worse to risk passing on the next Drew Brees? If Tagovailoa can’t get healthy, the Dolphins can try again with another quarterback. The downside is less punitive than the upside is beneficial.

That’s what makes the Packers’ bold move for Love so inspired. From an evaluation standpoint, Love is the opposite of Tagovailoa. He lacks polish and hasn’t shown an advanced feel for reading defenses. But he stands 6-foot-4 and can make throws other quarterbacks cannot. And scouts upgrade him because of the cast around him at Utah State — he will be the only quarterback drafted this year who gets to make throws into bigger windows in the NFL than he did in college. If Love is really a “poor man’s Mahomes,” a label frequently affixed to him, the Packers will look like visionaries.

The Packers are preparing for life after Rodgers, but picking Love isn’t necessarily a sign they don’t believe in him. Rodgers is signed through 2023, but the most advantageous asset a franchise can have is a quarterback on his rookie deal. If Rodgers maintains his level, he or Love could become a valuable trade asset.

From September: For NFL teams, the most valuable asset isn’t a great QB. It’s a young, cheap one.

“I was hired under Ron Wolf,” Gutekunst said last summer. “I learned early on, for quarterbacks, it’s such an important part of this game. You’re always looking for guys who you think can play. You’re always trying to acquire them, even if you have an Aaron Rodgers. When I first started, it was Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks. Before that when [Favre] was there, it was Mark Brunell. That’s the way I came into the league and was trained. Even if you have a guy like [Rodgers] and you have guys behind him who can really play, you’re probably going to trade those guys and get something for them, like we did with Matt and Aaron Brooks. We’re always on the lookout for those guys. Whenever there’s an available quarterback we think can play, we’ll try to acquire them.”

Acquiring Love carried an additional cost for the Packers, not only in the draft capital they used to trade up but in losing the chance to pick the best wide receiver available for Rodgers. But nothing would sting worse than missing out on a transcendent quarterback. It must have been tempting for the Kansas City Chiefs, who were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, to consider what their roster would have looked like around quarterback Alex Smith if they added an elite draft pick in 2017. They instead traded up and took Mahomes, and now they have a Super Bowl title to show for it.

The chance Love is anything close to Mahomes is vanishingly small. But given the reward if he is, it’s a chance worth taking.

Loading...