By Alex Kurpeski
Over the past decade of professional sports, we have seen the quarterback position evolve in a variety of ways. A position that was once catered to a group of strictly pocket passers has now become so much more, as we have entered an era of mobility that may forever change the way offensive football is played. While there have been some ‘generational’ players that have flopped hard in the NFL following incredible collegiate careers, there have also been some hidden gems that were able to bloom once they landed with a constructive coaching staff in the pros. Basing our analysis on the last decade of QBs drafted into the league (the ones who spent significant time as starters), we have come up with our outlooks for this year’s class of rookie passers based on what recent history has told us.
We have not included the passers from this year’s class who we have deemed to be strictly roster depth picks (James Morgan, Jake Luton, Ben DiNucci, Tommy Stevens, and Nate Stanley) only because we cannot foresee them taking any meaningful snaps anytime soon as projected third-string (or lower) players. While these players are all very talented, their situations are a bit too uncertain for us to project them to produce in the near future.
For context, here are some figures/explanations that we find relevant for this piece:
- A ‘successful’ QB is one who has registered a fantasy relevant campaign (200+ points) or a top-15 fantasy finish (players from 2018-19 draft classes) or has registered three or more top-20 finishes (Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, etc) and/or been a team’s starter for more than five seasons (Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, etc)
- A ‘moderately successful’ QB is a more arbitrary measurement, as these are guys who have had success but have either been held back from consistent success (due to injuries typically) or have flamed out of the league following great starts to their careers (RG3, Mitch Trubisky, Blake Bortles, just to name a few)
- A ‘bust’ is a QB with one of fewer Top-20 finishes, these guys are the easiest to spot (Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, etc)
- There are a few players who we have yet to judge. Drafted between 2016 and 2019, we have yet to pass judgement on them due to their limited experience starting. Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Jarrett Stidham all fall into this purgatorial category.
- QBs who have been traded in their first three seasons have an 87% bust rate, with the only outlier being Brissett
- 90% of QBs taken out of non-power conference programs since 2010 have been ‘successes’ or ‘moderately successful’, with the only exception being 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch
- Out of the rookies who have been ‘redshirted’ as rookies (groomed to start), only Patrick Mahomes has been a ‘success’, while 45% of these players have been outright busts
- 22% of passers who have had a former high level starter as a mentor have been ‘successes’ (Prescott, Mahomes, Jackson, Daniel Jones) while 39% of these players have been busts
- No ‘busts’ have recorded fantasy relevant campaigns in their first season
- 45% of eligible players who have recorded below average turnover rates in college have been busts, while only 31% of players who recorded above average turnover rates have busted
Now that the guidelines have been established, let’ take a look at Tua Tagovailoa’s fantasy potential in 2020 and beyond.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Perhaps the most humble ‘rockstar’ quarterback we have ever seen, Tagovailoa has already taken the NFL by storm without even stepping on the field, as he currently boasts the two highest selling jerseys in the league. Following a dominant run for the Crimson Tide, which saw him throw for 7,442 yards, 87 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions in 32 games for Alabama, Tagovailoa was a close second on most positional rankings to Burrow, although there were some who were said to have preferred Justin Herbert over him.
Tagovailoa was on pace to finish ahead of Burrow in passing efficiency this season, registering a 206.9 mark in 9 games before his season was ended by an injury. Averaging over 11 yards per attempt in his two seasons as the primary starter for the Crimson Tide, the 2018 SEC Offensive Player of the Year was never afraid to push the ball downfield, although he was certainly aided by the excellent cast of playmakers that surrounded him, with two of his receivers (Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy) having been first-round picks in this year’s draft. Yet the name of the game for Tagovailoa will ultimately be efficiency, as this was the trait that most appealed to scouts during the pre-draft process. Here are just a few stats that speak to that element of his game:
- 69.3% completion rate from 2017-19
- Touchdown pass thrown on 12.7% of his throws (roughly a touchdown pass on every 8-9 passes)
- 65.7% of his throws were deemed ‘accurate’ by PFF, a top-five mark in the nation
- 78.8% adjusted completion rate
- Only 6 turnover worthy throws in 2019 (third least in the NCAA)
- Only 10 sacks taken (least of any QB in college football)
- 10.9 YPA, 64.9% completion rate when blitzed
At no point in his collegiate career did Tagovailoa look overwhelmed or fazed, an appealing element for dynasty league owners who would want to avoid using early draft capital on a ‘bust’ at the position. A spry athlete when forced out of the pocket, the added potential of some rushing numbers adds to Tagovailoa’s upside, although his recent brush with injury may have scared him away from doing much of that in the near future.
Speaking of that injury, the dislocated hip suffered by the young signal-caller is something extremely disconcerting for anyone looking to build their dynasty team around him. While he is an unbelievable talent, we have seen injuries derail the careers of numerous promising QBs in recent years, and with something as serious as a hip injury, re-aggravation could occur at any time. In the last decade, there have been five first-round quarterbacks who have suffered serious injuries prior to entering the league (Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford). Each of these players have gone on to suffer at least one season-ending injury during their rookie contracts, an alarming red flag for anyone with stock in Tua Tagovailoa. Moreover, only 36% of passers who have suffered a severe injury in their first two seasons have gone on to have ‘successful’ careers, a worrisome figure especially when taking into consideration the fact that Tagovailoa is going to be playing behind an offensive line 32nd in the league last season.
As far as supporting casts go, Tagovailoa appears to have the worst of any player we will cover in this series, at least on paper. With a pair of replacement level running backs (Jordan Howard and Matt Breida), a questionable receiving core (Devante Parker (who looked decent in 2019), Preston Williams, Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns, Jakeem Grant, and rookie Malcolm Perry), and a middling tight end (Mike Gesicki), it’s hard to imagine the Dolphins offense putting up record-breaking numbers this season. While it should help to have a veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick on the roster as a mentor, it will still be an uphill battle for the young gunslinger.
As a left-handed QB who stands at just over six feet, Tagovailoa is far from conventional from a size/dexterity perspective. While this decade has seen a few ‘undersized’ passers excel at the NFL level (Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield), there have been just as many guys who floundered due to their size issues (Colt McCoy, Johnny Manziel). As far as lefties go, there hasn’t been a notable left-handed starting QB in the league since Tim Tebow (yikes). Blessed with above-average but not elite arm strength, Tagovailoa will have to rely heavily on his mechanics and technique to succeed in the pros, rather than his pure athleticism.
Interestingly enough, Tagovailoa’s closest comparison statistically has been fellow Hawaiian born quarterback Marcus Mariota, who played at the same high school as the 2020 first-round pick. Here’s a side by side comparison of the two players:
- Overall Passing Grade: 91.7
- Average Depth of Target: 9.99
- AIR%: 47.6%
- Adjusted Completion Rate: 76.0%
- Overall Passing Grade: 91.7
- Average Depth of Target: 10.06
- AIR%: 53.5%
- Adjusted Completion Rate: 75.1%
While Tagovailoa will likely lack the rushing upside that a young Mariota once used to supplement his fantasy performances, his ability to sense open receivers appears to be a bit more advanced at this stage in his career. If we assume that these two players will have similar careers, then Tagovailoa may wind up being a bit of a disappointment, as Mariota has only registered three fantasy-relevant campaigns in his career, with no top-ten finishes.
Ceiling: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
A consistent top-10 fantasy scorer who always provides a safe floor and a high ceiling on a weekly basis. A true QB1 to build around in a dynasty league.
Floor: Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina Panthers
A lower end QB for fantasy purposes. Tends to checkdown more often than you would like while generally playing very conservative. Might have the occasional explosion but will mostly disappoint you. Not an ideal guy to spend a premium pick on.
Median: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Right smack in the middle of positional rankings for the QB position. Mixes stinkers with some nice low-end QB1 weeks. Will frustrate some owners with high expectations but will generally satisfy the needs of your dynasty team.