It is happening again. Fifteen years after the Packers drafted a young, promising quarterback late in the first round to replace their soon-to-be 36-year-old QB, a new front office did the same thing on Thursday night. Green Bay used the no. 26 pick to take Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. The Packers made the move with dreams that he’ll eventually take over the mantle from Aaron Rodgers much like Rodgers did with Brett Favre more than a decade ago.
Love is not Aaron Rodgers—let’s get that out of the way first. Whereas Rodgers was a top QB prospect who fell into the Green Bay’s lap for unclear reasons (perhaps because he held the ball too high while in the pocket or sported one of the most ill-advised soul patches in history), Love is a much bigger risk. In Love, the Packers are getting one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft—and they traded up from pick no. 30 to pick no. 26 to land him. While Love comes to the Packers with prototypical size, a rocket arm, and plenty of big-time highlights on his tape, he is also riddled with red flags, including a tendency to throw hideous interceptions and the odd distinction of being a quarterback who actually got worse in his final year of college.
Love started to generate first-round draft hype as a redshirt sophomore, when he threw for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns, and six interceptions, and led the Aggies to an 11-2 record. In 2019, Love tossed a whopping 17 interceptions compared to just 20 touchdowns, and dropped more than a yard off his yards per attempt (from 8.6 to 7.2). He threw for fewer total yards despite attempting more passes, and his completion percentage dropped by more than 2 percentage points. The Aggies went 7-6, and Love’s draft stock trended down.
At times Love seems a bit like Jake Locker, the former Washington quarterback whom the Titans drafted eighth in 2011. Locker could have left the Huskies in 2010 and been in contention to be the no. 1 pick, but he stayed. And though that decision didn’t hurt him much in terms of draft position, it certainly didn’t help. In his last year at Washington, Locker’s production declined in nearly every statistical category. He completed fewer of his passes (55.4 percent completion, down from 58.4), threw for fewer yards (2,265 compared to 2,800), tossed fewer touchdowns (17, down from 21), averaged fewer yards per attempt (6.8, down from 7.1), and posted a lower passer rating (124.2, down from 130.1). It was strange—college quarterbacks are young, and typically get better nearly every season. For a player to get worse in their final year before entering the draft is bizarre, and they become more difficult to evaluate.
This of course doesn’t mean Love is the next Locker. While it’s rare to find QBs who declined in their final college season, there is one such passer who stands out: Dan Marino. The Hall of Famer posted 2,876 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions as a junior at Pittsburgh in 1981, but then as a senior that line dropped to 2,432 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 23 picks. As a result, Marino fell to 27th in the 1983 NFL draft, one selection behind where the Packers just took Love. Barely a year later, Marino posted what is arguably the most statistically impressive season by a quarterback in NFL history.
That comparison doesn’t mean Love is the next Marino, either, but it puts into focus the question that will follow Love into the pros: Which Love is the real Love?
Love deserves to have last season’s stat line put in context. Utah State lost four starters on the offensive line between 2018 and 2019, and changed head coaches after Matt Wells left to helm Texas Tech. Love’s receivers dropped 5.3 percent of his passes, per PFF, which is higher than other top passing prospects like Joe Burrow (3.6 percent), Tua Tagovailoa (4.8 percent), and Jalen Hurts (1.8 percent)—though not nearly has high as Justin Herbert (7.4 percent). Some of those drops were heartbreakers, too, robbing Love and the Aggies of would-be touchdowns on perfect throws.
Love’s play pops on the tape. He is effortless as a passer, even when he’s making plays out of structure. He attacks downfield and can use his rocket arm to make throws that other quarterbacks simply can’t attempt. When you see an off-balance flick of the wrist from Love, his mediocre stats melt away:
Thread on Jordan Love pic.twitter.com/g35W5iICLY— NFL Film Review (@NFLFilmReview) April 12, 2020
Many of Love’s off-platform throws seem almost reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes, and it’s easy to see why he was still considered a first-round talent after such a down year in 2019. But Love’s mistakes pop off the tape, too. A lot of his interceptions came on passes that went almost directly to linebackers lurking on underneath routes:
Jordan Love was playing well until this interception, thrown directly to a defender. Even if it got past 34, there was another defender about to undercut it. pic.twitter.com/B3ECgvQb7c— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) November 3, 2019
He has general accuracy issues, too:
The one stat that would terrify me if I'm considering draft Justin Herbert or Jordan Love is this...— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) April 13, 2020
% of uncatchably off-target throws targeting when an OPEN receiver 5-18 yards downfield in 2019:
The Packers have some time to try to sort out all of Love’s issues. Rodgers’s contract runs through 2023, and because of his massive deal, the soonest the Packers could move on from their future Hall of Fame quarterback is 2022. That means Love will likely sit on the bench and learn the ropes for at least two seasons, similar to how Rodgers sat behind Favre for the first three years of his career.
But just like Favre’s ultimate parting with the Packers, a divorce with Rodgers could get ugly. Just hours before the first round began, Rodgers hinted that he hoped the Packers would select a “skill position” player. Somehow I don’t think a quarterback is what he had in mind.
Aaron Rodgers on @PatMcAfeeShow: "We haven't picked a skill player in the first round in 15 years, so that would be kind of cool."— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) April 24, 2020
Rodgers says whoever the pick is, he'll track down his phone number and welcome him to the team tonight -- if the Packers don't trade out.
In March, Rodgers told ESPN Milwaukee that he had “a ton of years left playing at a high level,” and that “I’ve always felt like it doesn’t matter who you bring in, they’re not going to be able to beat me out anytime soon.” And while he concluded by saying he “wouldn’t have a problem” with the Packers drafting a quarterback, does that really sound like someone who wouldn’t have a problem?
Rodgers hasn’t reached the level of world-destroying MVP contender since at least 2016, if not more like 2014. Last season he finished around average—or just below—in nearly every advanced stat, and many traditional ones, too. He was once the best quarterback in the league—now he’s ceded that ground to players like Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson. Rodgers might still be a top-10 passer, but it’s not premature for the Packers to begin thinking about life after him.
Still, drafting Love was a hell of a way to crack that nut. The All-Mountain West honorable mention was already one of the biggest gambles in this draft, regardless of which team drafted him. With the Packers, that gamble has even higher stakes. The only question now is whether history will repeat itself.