NFL draft: Why a healthy Tua Tagovailoa matters so much to ... the Lions?

At the end of the 2019 regular season, some Detroit Lions fans bemoaned the fact that in landing the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, they likely would miss out on Ohio State’s supremely talented pass rusher, Chase Young.

That might be true but the Lions might stand to benefit in a different way altogether — and it has to do with the health of one of the draft’s most fascinating quarterbacks.

No, we don’t really believe the Lions will take Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa at No. 3. Maybe. But it’s unlikely.

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That kind of conjecture and speculation will be dispensed by the Lions through back channels (if they’re smart), and surely some media folks will gobble it up and regurgitate it for their consumers. It’s already a hot topic on Detroit sports-talk radio.

It might, however, not be real. Could the Lions take that route when their general manager and head coach were put on notice for the 2020 season?

But the Lions could leverage a healthy Tua as a way of maximizing the value of that third overall pick. And it could be a smart way toward boosting the roster’s talent in a crucial season in Detroit.

How Tua Tagovailoa can help the Lions

So far, the feeling around the Alabama program has been pretty darned positive about Tagovailoa’s outlook, health-wise. That’s not shocking, and ultimately it’s not that important.

NFL medical staffs will make up their own minds on that matter. And 32 different sets of doctors could have 32 different takes on how high a level of risk Tagovailoa will carry in the NFL.

The biggest fear, of course, is that Tagovailoa is a threat to suffer another hip dislocation. Once you suffer that injury once, recurrence is more common. Take Dennis Pitta, the former Baltimore Ravens tight end who rushed back to action after his first hip displacement, which eventually forced him to retire.

If Tua Tagovailoa receives positive medical feedback, it could help a lot of teams, including the Detroit Lions. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
If Tua Tagovailoa receives positive medical feedback, it could help a lot of teams, including the Detroit Lions. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Despite this being a fairly rare football injury, there is a good chance Tagovailoa can have a career largely unaffected by it and resume football activity relatively soon. Pretty soon, he’ll do some light jogging, and many high-performance athletes resume normal activity around 3-4 months post-injury.

So if it’s mostly all clear on Tagovailoa’s medical reports — the bulk of which we’ll find out at the NFL scouting combine in late February through the combine re-check in mid-April — we could suddenly be talking about Tua the football player and not Tua the patient.

If that happens, Tagovailoa becomes a hot commodity again. This is the player who accumulated an 87-11 TD-INT ratio and averaged nearly 11 yards per attempt in his three seasons with the Crimson Tide. He led a historic championship comeback as a freshman, rescuing Bama in the title game. He reached the title game as a sophomore with one of the best college QB seasons prior to injuring his ankle. And Tagovailoa was on a similar path this season before the hip.

The sooner Tagovailoa is up and resuming more strenuous activity, the better it is for Detroit.

Which teams could trade up?

That’s a quarterback who could be attractive to a few teams not named the Lions. Some of them are picking pretty high, too.

The Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers pick fifth through seventh; all three could be a possibility. After that, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Las Vegas Raiders, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t be ruled out as possibilities.

The Dolphins have three first-round picks and two seconds (plus a whole lot more). The Jaguars and Raiders each have multiple firsts. The Colts pick four times in the top 75. Let the bidding begin.

Head coach Matt Patricia should talk up Tagovailoa — and for that matter, Oregon QB Justin Herbert — for the entire Senior Bowl week. Let it be known to the rest of the NFL that if you want a quarterback, the draft starts at three.

What the Lions need from a draft trade

The Lions would love to slide back as short a distance from No. 3 as possible, which could allow them to land an elite defender or perhaps an offensive playmaker or blocker. That would be ideal.

The Dolphins have the best package of picks and the highest choice at No. 5 to satisfy their needs. They also pick at No. 18 overall and have a third first-rounder that will land somewhere between pick Nos. 25-32 (depending on when the Houston Texans’ playoff run ends). If you’re a Lions fan, you’re hoping the Texans lose this weekend — and that Tua to Miami is kismet.

The Lions would likely take a package of No. 5, the late first-rounder and the No. 39 overall pick in Round 2. Would Miami do that? Maybe. The closest draft-trade comp we have for such a deal is when the Indianapolis Colts slid back from No. 3 to 6 and accepted three second-round picks from the New York Jets (two in 2018 and one in 2019), who drafted Sam Darnold.

The Sam Darnold trade from the 2018 draft is a reminder that teams will pay premiums for quarterbacks. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Sam Darnold trade from the 2018 draft is a reminder that teams will pay premiums for quarterbacks. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I am not a huge fan of the old Jimmy Johnson trade-value charts and find them to be antiquated now with all the league changes that have happened since its heyday in the 1990s. A more accurate trade chart is the one produced by Chase Stuart a few years back, which reflects a more modern value that corresponds with the league rules under this current CBA.

According to the Stuart trade chart, the No. 3 pick is worth 27.6 points and No. 6 is worth 23.2 points. That net loss of 4.4 points was more than recouped by the Colts, who also secured Nos. 37 (11.6) and 49 (9.8). Even accounting for depreciation of the 2019 second-rounder in that it was an asset that couldn’t be cashed in until a year later, the Colts ended up with the 34th pick that year, which carried a value of 12.1 points last year.

It was a heist by the Colts. Quarterback trades tend to get markup-price treatment. You want one? Gotta pay up.

Now let’s add up our mock trade scenario with the Dolphins and Lions. Sliding from three (27.6) to five (24.3) would be a net loss of 3.3 points. And let’s say the Texans lose this weekend and that pick becomes No. 27 overall, which carries a Stuart value of 13.6 points. Throwing in the late first- and early second-round picks (No. 39 equals 11.3 points) would be steep for Miami. It’s about as steep a price the Jets paid to move up for Darnold.

Assuming the Lions don’t want any of the Dolphins’ 2021 assets — remember, Detroit is in win-now mode — maybe the Lions could talk Miami into the third pick for Nos. 5, 39 and 56. That would be a net Stuart total of 17 points. Still an overpay, but more doable. Perhaps Miami’s fifth, 27th and 70th picks (their third-rounder) for Detroit’s third and 99th picks, which would give the Lions a 12.5-point Stuart edge, would get it done.

Listening to the season-ending news conference held by Lions GM Bob Quinn, I got the clear impression that they want more draft assets. Maybe it’s the Dolphins, maybe it’s another team. If someone is willing to move up and overpay for a QB, the Lions need to listen.

Is Tua an option in Detroit?

In an alternate universe, Tagovailoa might be exactly the type of quarterback the Lions could covet. And Matthew Stafford, coming off a second straight season with a back procedure, could be viewed as a fragile player right now.

He was having a very strong season prior to getting hurt and is likely to resume normal activity soon. All signs point to him being the Lions’ starting quarterback this coming season.

Could the Lions draft a QB later? Absolutely. Coaching the Senior Bowl will allow them to get a first-hand, up-close look at three or four upperclassmen passers, which should help that process immensely.

The last thing they want to have happen in a make-or-break season for the coaching and scouting staffs is to have Stafford get hurt again and have to turn to the likes of undrafted David Blough (commendably as he played for short stretches) or castoff Jeff Driskel.

The Lions were 3-4-1 in games Stafford started, 0-8 in non-Stafford games. Even if “QB wins” are not a statistic with much merit, it’s clear what Stafford meant to the team.

Matthew Stafford's two back surgeries are a concern for the Detroit Lions, but taking a QB high in Round 1 isn't likely. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford's two back surgeries are a concern for the Detroit Lions, but taking a QB high in Round 1 isn't likely. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Lions lost eight one-score games this past season. Detroit’s point differential in the first three quarters of games this season was minus-20. In fourth quarters alone, it was minus-62. Patricia has to know his team could fake it for only so long. It needs an influx of depth and talent.

So while Tagovailoa might be a fascinating and tempting option, and the Lions must consider the future of Stafford and his health, it’s not the most likely path the Lions would take.

Maybe years from now, we’ll look back and rue the day the Lions passed on Tagovailoa. It’s possible. And desperate teams seldom make for smart teams, which certainly gives us pause. The desire to get better immediately could also lead the Lions to drafting more ready-made prospects with lower ceilings long term. That would be an unfortunate development if the team brass is too stuck in a self-preservation mentality.

Let’s dream, shall we, of a haul that could include, say, Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah in Round 1, plus an interior defensive lineman, a wide receiver and an edge rusher with their next three picks? All three of those positions just so happen to boast decent to very good depth on the first two days of the draft. Those four picks could net three first-year starters in 2020.

That would be a tempting haul. Now all the Lions need is for Tagovailoa to get healthy ... or, you know, for the Washington Redskins to pass on Young. Hey, stranger things have happened.

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