DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins fans have spent the 2019 NFL season dreaming of Tua Tagovailoa, the talented Alabama quarterback who many had projected as the No. 1 overall pick for much of the season, but one devastating dislocated and fractured hip injury has thrown that hope into flux.
Tagovailoa's season-ending hip injury has significant influence on the Dolphins' pursuit of a franchise quarterback. Is the Tua dream over for Miami or does this somehow make it even more obtainable?
With the Dolphins (2-8) spending most of this year collecting three first-round selections and a projected 14 total picks, the 2020 NFL draft might be the single most important event in Miami's extreme rebuild.
And now there's debate whether Tagovailoa will declare early for the draft by the Jan. 20 deadline or return for his senior season at Alabama.
Medical impact from Tua's injury
Tagovailoa, 21, underwent surgery on Monday to repair a dislocated right hip and posterior wall fracture. Dr. Lyle Cain, Alabama's orthopedic surgeon, said afterward Tagovailoa's injury prognosis is "excellent," and that he's expected to make a full recovery. It's a serious and rare injury on the sports spectrum, but there is some early optimism.
"It's a freak-type injury. It's what we call a high-energy injury, meaning you're more likely to see something like this in motor vehicle accidents," ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. "It's painful. It's traumatic. The best news is the specialist who operated on Tagovailoa and sees these things far more often than most orthopedic surgeons doesn't anticipate any long-term consequences, and thinks that he has an excellent chance at a full recovery once the fracture heals."
Cain told ESPN football analyst Laura Rutledge that Tagovailoa will be on a partial weight bearing plan for six weeks to let the fracture heal, and then in three months he can resume athletic training and by the spring he can begin throwing again. But there are months of rehab ahead in order to get back to full health.
Bell says much of Tagovailoa's recovery after the fracture heals will center on healing the trauma to the soft tissue caused by the injury, restoring strength to the muscle around the hip joint and increasing the range of motion after initially restricting it as the fracture heals.
"You want to restore normal strength and function but also prevent against a future occurrence," Bell said. "It's much harder to dislocate the hip. So unlike the shoulder, you don't really worry about it repeating as much. So you let the fracture heal properly first, then progress from there."
Despite many connecting Tagovailoa's injury to Bo Jackson's career-ending hip injury, Bell says "the specific natures of their injuries are quite different and there's not much to compare there. At the time of Bo's injury, the severity was not fully appreciated. It was hard to know how much trauma happened inside his joint. He continued to be up and about on it, and there was more damage done," Bell said.
"Anytime you have trauma to the hip, including a dislocation or subluxation, it's natural to worry about the blood flow because those arteries are so critical to the health of the hip. In Tua's case, he got the injury recognized quickly, reduced quickly and got a top specialist working on it. Early management really drives a lot of the prognosis. He's had everything in his favor the best it could be at this point to have a full recovery."
Durability question marks were real for Tagovailoa even before the hip injury. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Tagovailoa had a tightrope surgery on each of his ankles and a right knee injury that have hampered him over the past two seasons.
"Injury history is a big part of how teams will evaluate him. But teams also look at how players recover from those situations. What's your functional return -- can you come back to prior performance," Bell said. "You could look at others who had devastating college injuries that clouded their draft prospects like Willis McGahee and Frank Gore who excelled in their NFL careers despite that."
Acho: Tua should return to Alabama
Emmanuel Acho says Tua Tagovailoa's best move is to return to Alabama for his senior season, get healthy and maybe become a top-3 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Working against the Dolphins
If Tagovailoa declares for the 2020 draft, but the Dolphins deem him too risky to bet their franchise on him, they could trim their quarterback options with their likely top-five selection to Burrow and Herbert. Miami is still a strong contender to draft a quarterback in the first round because going through another "tank-like" season is unlikely.
The Cincinnati Bengals (0-10) remain Miami's biggest threat to the No. 1 overall pick. If the Bengals deem Burrow to be a franchise-changing quarterback to replace Andy Dalton, the Dolphins' eye-opening war chest of picks won't be enough to convince them to trade back.
If the Bengals draft Burrow, the Dolphins will have a choice among Herbert, an injured Tagovailoa or settling for Georgia's Jake Fromm, Washington's Jacob Eason, Utah State's Jordan Love or Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts with any of their three first-round picks.
This is a Dolphins team that has failed to right the quarterback position since Dan Marino retired in 2000. They have to nail this one, not settle for a player who could just have a decent Ryan Tannehill-like career in Miami.
In the Dolphins' favor
The Dolphins, per ESPN's Football Power Index, are projected to have the No. 3, No. 17 (via Pittsburgh) and No. 24 (via Houston) picks in the 2020 draft, making them the only team with three first-round picks. That draft flexibility gives Miami an ability to take more risks on draft weekend.
Concern over about Tagovailoa's hip injury could make him available in the middle or back end of the first round, and the Dolphins might fall into an opportunity where they could select him with one of their other two first-round picks.
This flexibility could allow Miami to select an elite talent at another position of need such as edge rusher (hello, Ohio State's Chase Young) or offensive tackle (hello, Georgia's Andrew Thomas or Iowa's Tristan Wirfs) or, in a radical move, select another quarterback with their top selection -- a double-dipping move at the position like the Dallas Cowboys did in 1989 with Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh (first-round supplemental draft selection).
So yes, the Tua dream lives on, and depending on how his pre-draft medicals go, it could be more realistic than ever.
This Dolphins franchise has a plethora of needs, so if they could address one of them with a top-five pick, and still get their quarterback of the future -- even if they play it safe with Tagovailoa slowly rehabbing during the 2020 season -- it could end up being a blessing in disguise. Heck, if they deem Tagovailoa will be healthy long-term, taking him with their top selection still might be a win.
Tagovailoa's elite accuracy, playmaking ability, anticipation, ability to read defenses and propensity to lead his team in big moments make him a rare and desirable quarterback prospect.
The best hope is that Tagovailoa returns to full health, and he has a long NFL career. He was tantalizing to watch at Alabama, and it is easy to see him becoming one of the next great young NFL quarterbacks.
It's also very early in the process with medical evaluations to be performed, a January draft decision by Tagovailoa to be made and the play of other top quarterbacks to happen the rest of this season.
But early observations show the Dolphins' pursuit for a franchise quarterback will be affected by Tagovailoa's injury, and it's not quite clear yet how it will work out for Miami.