I didn’t want to like Jordan Love. The Utah State product is this NFL draft’s boom-or-bust quarterback, the latest in a line of ultra-talented yet flawed prospects who act as Rorschach tests for the draft community. Guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Drew Lock, Paxton Lynch, and Jake Locker have all fit that bill in past years—and as that list shows, these big swings are decidedly hit-and-miss.
The NFL’s love affair (sorry) with high-ceiling prospects is a tale as old as time. Teams that fall for tantalizing quarterbacks are akin to your one friend who’s constantly dating the wrong people. This one’s different, they say. Scouts ignore shortcomings in decision-making and accuracy as they fixate on traits like size, arm strength, and speed. As someone who’s been duped by physically gifted quarterbacks before, I was hoping to be kinder to myself when it came to Love. I wanted to conclude that he wasn’t worth the risk. Then I turned on the tape.
Love was a hot name in draft circles heading into the 2019 season. As a sophomore in 2018, he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and tossed 32 touchdowns. That production, combined with his physical prowess, created some buzz around him as a potential first-round pick. But whatever good will Love had built up with analysts dissipated as last season progressed. To put it simply: He couldn’t stop throwing the ball to the other team. He threw three interceptions during Utah State’s season opener against Wake Forest—and things didn’t get much better from there. He finished the season with five multi-interception games, including three picks apiece against LSU and BYU. In all, Love threw 17 interceptions last season, with three of them getting returned for touchdowns.
For even the staunchest of Love supporters, it became difficult to reconcile the QB he was as a junior with the guy he’d been the previous year. As teams finalize their reports on Love in the next few weeks, the multimillion-dollar debate will be which aspects of his game will stick in the NFL—the intoxicating ability that leads to jaw-dropping plays, or the baffling decisions that leave scouts scratching their heads?
Love’s strengths are obvious from the moment you flip on his film. He certainly looks the part of an NFL starter. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Love has the prototypical frame that traditionalists prefer. And he’s also got a livewire arm to go with it. Like a lot of big quarterbacks, Love can rifle throws outside the numbers. Sometimes it’s hard to process how fast the ball gets to the receiver. The tape looks like it’s sped up.
Those missiles to the opposite hash are impressive, but they also tend to be overvalued by amateur scouts (like me). It’s easy to be tempted by the heavy artillery, but there’s a difference between having arm strength and arm talent. Mahomes isn’t the league’s top QB because he can throw a football 60 mph. His greatness lies in the way he feathers throws to each level of the field from virtually any platform. In that regard, I can see why some people have compared Love to the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Even when Love has limited room or time in the pocket, he still pulls off ridiculous throws to every level. He can put the ball on a receiver 50 yards away with a simple flick of his wrist. That ability to conjure huge plays on the move or late in downs gives Love a chance to create a scoring drive in an instant.
Unlike some other gifted-yet-faulty prospects, accuracy isn’t Love’s primary flaw. A majority of his throws are on-target and show deft touch, even when he’s on the move and the degree of difficulty starts to rise. Before studying him, I expected Love’s college tape to look more like Josh Allen’s—full of scattershot throws from a QB who needed to recalibrate his rocket-like arm. But in the five games from last season that I studied, there was only a handful of egregious misses. He completed only 31.8 percent of his deep throws last season, but the quality of Utah State’s receivers drag that number down a bit. Against LSU, one of Love’s receivers dropped a missile down the middle of the field for a would-be touchdown. Another huge gain vanished on a bobbled deep ball against Colorado State. Even on plays that wouldn’t technically go down as drops, Love’s receiving corps rarely created chunk gains. Love routinely gave his guys a chance on 50-50 balls down the field, but many of those were misplayed or misjudged. Executives and coaches who are bullish on Love will look at those throws, picture a professional wideout on the other end, and imagine all the chunk plays waiting to happen. Even Mahomes occasionally needs help from a player like Tyreek Hill, who led the league in contested catch rate in 2018 despite his 5-foot-10 frame. More important than laser-like accuracy down the field is the ambition to push the ball vertically and the ability to consistently give receivers a chance. Love has both.
Some evaluators around the league have probably talked themselves into this rosy view of Love’s untapped potential. But I’m sure plenty of others have looked at the same tape and formed an opposite view. Because while Love may be throwing to NFL-caliber receivers this fall, he’ll also be facing NFL-caliber defensive backs. And if he continues to play like he did last season, they’re going to eat him alive.
Context is always paramount when considering interceptions. Tipped passes, miscommunications, and desperation heaves often make a season total appear worse than it actually was. Love had a couple of meaningless arm punts late in lopsided games, and his bowl-game pick against Kent State came after a brutal hit knocked the ball loose from his receiver. But after watching all 17 of Love’s interceptions from 2019, I can confidently say that he got his money’s worth. And that is worrisome.
Love’s gaudy interception total didn’t stem from one particular deficiency. When you throw a pick on 3.5 percent of your throws, they tend to happen a lot of different ways. Most troubling was his tendency to miss—or ignore—underneath defenders. A staggering number of Love’s turnovers came on throws that went directly to a linebacker parked in the middle of the field. To understand the duality of Love as a prospect, take a look at these two throws against BYU. The first one came on third-and-7 with the Aggies just inside BYU territory. After initially looking at his receiver running up the seam in a four-verticals concept, Love pulls back and rifles a late hole shot down the right sideline. It’s the sort of throw that most quarterbacks couldn’t even fathom.
Then, two plays later, Love does this.
Process that throw however you need to. My reaction was a combination of confusion and dismay. In a span of three plays, Love showed why he’s arguably the most polarizing prospect in this draft.
That play shows that Love occasionally struggles to layer throws between defenders in the middle of the field, but the decision itself is far more concerning. He trusts his arm more than he should, and it gets him into hot water way too often. He does a decent job looking off safeties, but he has a bad habit of staring down receivers outside the numbers and uncorking a late throw anyway. In a league full of lurking sharks like Marcus Peters, Tyrann Mathieu, and other masters of deception, Love will be a turnover machine if his eye discipline and decision-making don’t improve.
Love defenders will explain away his mental lapses by pointing to all the turnover in the Utah State program. Last season was head coach Gary Andersen’s first with the team since 2012, and Love was forced to navigate a new offense while throwing to an unfamiliar group of receivers. At the same time, though, Love’s detractors will wonder why a borderline first-round pick couldn’t transcend the circumstances around him.
That’s the challenge drafters face as they formulate their conclusions about Love this month. Quarterback-needy GMs have to decide what elements of Love’s potential are real, and which are an illusion. The downsides exhibited by Love’s disappointing 2019 season are hard to ignore. But so is his ceiling. No matter the consensus, don’t be surprised if a team rolls the dice on Love in the top 10. Franchises have taken bigger chances on quarterbacks with far less promise.