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Alabama QBs in the NFL: Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa lead next era of Tide’s pro signal-callers


Two of the most scrutinized young quarterbacks in the NFL will face off in Week 1 on Sunday when the Dolphins travel to take on the Patriots in Gillette Stadium: Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and New England’s Mac Jones, both from the University of Alabama.

They represent an unprecedented breakthrough in the NFL for the Crimson Tide in that they’re the first quarterbacks taken in the first round of consecutive drafts; they’re also the program’s first first-round selections since Richard Todd was drafted sixth overall in 1976. Apart from Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler — Super Bowl winners and Hall of Famers all — Alabama has otherwise had middling to poor quarterback play in the NFL, from Jeff Rutledge and Mike Shula to Brodie Croyle and AJ McCarron.

Not that Tagovailoa and Jones haven’t faced significant criticism early in their respective careers.

Tagovailoa’s rookie season, while serviceable, was overshadowed by members of his own draft class in Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, the latter of whom put together one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in NFL history. The Dolphins didn’t help Tagovailoa’s case by pulling him from games in 2020 for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a better grasp of Miami’s playbook. And it certainly didn’t help that Tagovailoa had no offseason to speak of with the COVID-19 pandemic, all while recovering from a catastrophic hip injury.

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Jones faced similar criticism in that much of it compared him to his 2021 NFL Draft counterparts: Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 overall selection), Zach Wilson (No. 2), Trey Lance (No. 3) and Justin Fields (No. 11). While many analysts recognized Jones’ cerebral approach, good pocket presence and smart decision making, many felt his athletic ceiling was lower than the quarterbacks taken ahead of him. Many also questioned whether his college success was a result of the talent he had at his disposal (four other offensive players from Alabama — DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Najee Harris and Alex Leatherwood — joined Jones in the first round of the draft).

Regardless, both Tagovailoa and Jones find themselves in good positions in 2021: The Dolphins have reworked the offensive playbook to better suit Tagovailoa’s strengths while getting him significantly more skilled-position weapons to work with in Year 2. And Jones already seems like a perfect fit in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system.

Whether they can reverse the trend of subpar quarterback play in the NFL by Alabama quarterbacks remains to be seen. Not including Jalen Hurts — who finished his college career at Oklahoma — Tagovailoa and Jones are the first quarterbacks selected from the Capstone since the Bengals took McCarron in 2014. They will be the first to have significant playing time since Todd finished his 10-year NFL stint in 1985 with a 48-59-1 career record.

Alabama QBs in the NFL

Reflects players drafted players

Year Name Round (Pick) Record Career passing
1936 Riley Smith 1 (2)
1945 Jim McWhorter 18 (181)
1948 Harry Gilmer 1 (1) 0-10 3,786 yards, 23 TDs, 45 INTs
1956 Bart Starr 17 (200) 94-57-6 24,718 yards, 152 TDs, 138 INTs
1962 Pat Trammell 24 (187)*
1965 Joe Namath 1 (1)* 62-63-4 27,663 yards, 173 TDs, 220 INTs
1966 Steve Sloan 11 (156) 0-1 134 yards, 0 TDs, 4 INTs
1968 Ken Stabler 2 (52) 96-49-1 27,938 yards, 194 TDs, 222 INTs
1971 Scott Hunter 6 (140) 21-18-3 4,756 yards, 23 TDs, 38 INTs
1976 Richard Todd 1 (6) 48-59-1 20,610 yards, 124 TDs, 161 INTs
1979 Jeff Rutledge 9 (246) 2-7-1 3,628 yards, 16 TDs, 29 INTs
1987 Mike Shula 12 (313) 0-0
1995 Jay Barker 5 (160) 0-0
2006 Brodie Croyle 3 (85) 0-10 1,669 yards, 8 TDs, 9 INTs
2011 Greg McElroy 8 (208) 0-1 214 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
2014 AJ McCarron 5 (164) 2-2 1,173 yards, 6 TDS, 3 INTs
2020 Tua Tagovailoa 1 (5) 6-3 1,814 yards, 11 TDs, 5 INTs
2020 Jalen Hurts 2 (53) 1-3 1,064 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs
2021 Mac Jones 1 (15)

*Denotes AFL draft selection

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A total of 19 Crimson Tide quarterbacks, Tagovailoa and Jones included, have been drafted in the NFL. Only four (Starr, Stabler, Scott Hunter and Todd) have hit the 4,000-yard passing benchmark. Only four (Starr, Stabler, Hunter and Tagovailoa) have a winning record.

None of the three quarterbacks who preceded Tagovailoa in the NFL draft (McCarron, Greg McElroy and Brodie Croyle) started more than 10 games in their career. Only McCarron — a career backup — has a .500 record and more touchdowns (six) than interceptions (three). The two NFL draft selections before them, Jay Barker and Mike Shula, started zero games and logged zero stats for their careers.

Rutledge, a ninth-round pick in 1979, started 10 games over his 13-season career, passing for 3,628 yards and 16 touchdowns to 29 interceptions. He went 2-7-1 in his starts but did win Super Bowls 21 and 26 as backup for the Giants and Redskins, respectively.

Todd has the most mileage of former Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL outside the big three, passing for 20,610 yards and 124 touchdowns to 161 interceptions. He started seven seasons for the Jets, but ultimately couldn’t cut it as a starter in New York, finishing with a winning record in only three seasons. He finished his career in New Orleans, going 6-8 in his lone season as a starter there. Coincidentally, he took over for Namath and Stabler with the Jets and Saints, respectively.

Hunter similarly failed to succeed Starr when the Packers selected him in the sixth round of the 1971 NFL Draft. Though he led the team to its last division title before Brett Favre took over, he was unable to be the difference-maker Starr was for Green Bay.

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Each of the quarterbacks directly preceding Tagovailoa and Jones have something in common: They ran offenses that prioritized the run over the passing game.

But Sunday’s starters are the first Alabama quarterbacks taken in the draft since Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban changed his offensive philosophy to become more open, more up-tempo and higher-scoring. They are, to date, the greatest stewards of that system at Alabama, resulting in numerous records and accolades.

Tagovailoa enjoyed a 69.3 career completion percentage at Alabama, throwing for 7,442 yards and 87 touchdowns to 11 interceptions; he also has the NCAA record for career efficiency rating, at 199.4. Jones’ career numbers don’t match Tagovailoa’s, but his 2020 campaign — his lone as a starter — is among not only the best in Alabama history, but also college football history. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns to four interceptions, enjoying a 203.1 passer rating.

Will their college success follow them to the NFL? Only time will tell. But it’s clear Tagovailoa and Jones are set up for more passing success than any of their predecessors. It’s only fitting, then, that the next era of Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL start the 2021 season against each other.


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