Dougherty: Big league or big risk? Breaking down Jordan Love's game
GREEN BAY - Jordan Love looks, moves and throws like a big-league quarterback.
But the reason he still was on the draft board for the Green Bay Packers to trade up in this year’s draft and select at No. 26 overall is that his play, at least measured statistically and by won-loss record at Utah State, declined from his sophomore to his junior season.
That made him one of the more difficult prospects for NFL scouts to get a handle on for this year’s draft.
Is Love the player who put up an 11-2 record and 110.7 NFL rating in 2018? Was his dip to a 7-6 record and 82.8 rating last season more a matter of circumstance — he’d lost his top four receivers, his leading rusher and four of five starters on the offensive line from the previous season, and also had a new coaching staff — or did 2019 reveal flaws that suggest he won’t succeed in the NFL?
We know general manager Brian Gutekunst’s answer based on his actions. But it’s a question scouts and coaches in the league were still wrestling with after the draft. One longtime, high-ranking scout for another NFL team — a scout who liked Love as a mid-to-late first-round prospect — might have summed up the ambivalence best when he described what he saw after watching all of Love’s games the last two seasons.
“What I liked, he’s a big guy, he’s got a good arm, he’s accurate, he can throw the deep ball, he’s got touch,” the scout said. "... (But with the best quarterback prospects), as long as they’re on the field their team had a chance to win. I didn’t necessarily get that feeling from Love. Some of that is they didn’t have a good team this year, I get that.
“But (Brett) Favre beat Florida State without a good team around him (at Southern Mississippi). I’m not saying this guy’s got to be Favre to be a good pick, but just as an example. There are games where (another quarterback might be) off accuracy-wise, but his team still had a chance to win because of him. I didn’t always get that feeling from Love. I got it more from him (in 2018). This year they were one of those teams where if they got down 10 to 14 points it was like, that’s it.”
In order to get a more in-depth read on Love’s mix of physical and intangible qualities that polarized NFL evaluators, I contacted four scouts and two NFL offensive assistants who all studied Love for their opinions.
Five will remain anonymous and the other was Marc Ross, an ESPN analyst and former New York Giants vice president of player personnel, who was a Love proponent before the draft and rated him as a top-10 worthy pick and the second-best quarterback in this year’s class, behind only Joe Burrow.
Two of the scouts didn’t consider Love a good prospect, one of the coaches was lukewarm on him, and the two others (a scout and a coach) liked Love as a later first-round pick. Here are the highlights of their takes on Love.
Along with the characterization that Love is raw, this trait brought unanimity among the six evaluators. Love has a strong arm by NFL standards, and he can make all the throws.
“He probably has the second-best arm talent of the class behind (Oregon’s Just Herbert, the No. 6 pick overall),” one of the assistant coaches said. “Probably ahead of Burrow as far as velocity and being able to drive the ball deep along the sidelines. He’s pretty accurate. His mechanics are good — he’s a little bit long with his draw and the release, but it’s not bad at all. He definitely can spin it.”
Said the other coach: “His arm is so talented. He can zip it, he can touch it, he anticipates, he can throw at different trajectories.”
The big red flag is Love’s 17 interceptions last season, up from six the year before. Pro Football Focus put a “buyer beware” label on him before the draft and determined that last season Love threw seven interceptions over the middle of the field that were entirely his fault. There are multiple highlights of him throwing the ball directly to a linebacker.
For one of the scouts, the interceptions were a deal breaker.
“Overrated,” the scout said. “He can’t see it. I don’t think he has any understanding of the position.”
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Said the other scout who was a Love skeptic: “You don’t know which guy he is. I thought he was a third-round pick with the way he played this year. (He went first round) because he’s 6-5 or whatever and has a strong arm. If that’s what it takes to play quarterback, I guess so.”
But a scout who gives Love a 50-50 shot at panning out was only moderately concerned with the interceptions last season.
“He made some bad throws on some (interceptions), some drops on some. He forced some,” the scout said. “Some of that can be coached out of him. The ones where he’s chucking it right to the defense, those are a little unnerving. (It’s) something you look at and explore. The things he was coached to do are going to be totally different in a pro offense. I think it’s a concern, I don’t think it’s a killer.”
Athleticism and playmaking
Love has prototypical NFL size (6-3¾, 224 pounds), big hands (10½ inches, second biggest among the 17 quarterbacks at the scouting combine) and ran a 4.74-second 40. There are several highlights online of Love escaping the pocket and making good throws on the run.
“I think he’s got a really high ceiling,” one of the coaches said. “I think he can be anywhere from 8 to 15 of 32 starters, and if he’s tough enough and has more leadership skills than I know about, maybe he can make it all the way (to the top). He’s certainly physically talented.”
But a scout who liked Love didn’t see as much playmaking outside the pocket as he’d hoped.
“What I didn’t like is he’s not an improvisational guy," the scout said. "He’s not Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers making plays off schedule. He’s not bad (at that), but it’s not a strength.”
Play speed and instincts
A make-or-break trait in the NFL is whether a quarterback can play fast enough, which also is described as processing speed. Favre played fast. Rodgers does, as do Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Tom Brady has slow feet but plays as fast as any quarterback ever reading defenses and getting the ball out.
One of the coaches finished the scouting process unsure whether Love can play fast enough.
“The big thing with him is whether he can process it quickly,” one of the coaches said. “I wasn’t real impressed with him (talking to him at the Senior Bowl) with his knowledge of what they were trying to do that week. Just kind of a blahhh.”
But the other coach said Love’s play speed gives him a better chance than Herbert, another big quarterback oozing with arm talent.
“People talk about Herbert being physically talented, but Herbert has no instincts, he has no feel for the game, no anticipation,” the coach said. “Those guys don’t go anywhere. This guy has all these things, and he’s got physical skills as good or better than Herbert. That’s why this guy has a much bigger upside than Herbert.”
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Ross, who said he watched the video of all of Love’s games last season, thought a glaring lack of talent around Love as compared to 2018 disguised Love’s play speed.
“He had to process this stuff being under siege all the time,” Ross said. “Joe Burrow and Tua (Tagovailoa), they can think quick because they don’t have any pressure on them. It’s really a layup. You know you’re going to get blocking, you know you’re going to have two or three open receivers in every pattern. Whereas with Jordan it was always, there’s going to be some pressure, probably not going to have somebody open, and he still had to do this and carry the offense. He had to create his own shot on every play. So yes, I do think he has those traits.”
The LSU game
Early last October, Love and Utah State were blown off the field (42-6) by eventual national champion LSU, and statistically Love had a terrible game. He completed only 15 of 30 passes for 130 yards and threw three interceptions.
That was a potential red flag because when NFL teams evaluate prospects who don’t play at the highest level of Division I, they put extra stock in their performances against a team from a power conference. Gutekunst attended that game.
LSU had 14 players selected in this year’s draft, including five in the first round.
“They were so overmatched,” one of the scouts said of Love and Utah State in that game. “It started out a certain way and they were never able to get out of it.”
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But Ross thought Love played much better than his stats suggest on a day when Utah State gained only 28 yards rushing on 21 carries. One of Love’s interceptions came on an underthrown pass into the end zone, but he also had two deep balls dropped by teammates, as was a potential big play on a scramble throw.
“(Love) made two unbelievable plays where he got out of trouble and threw dimes to guys and they flat-out dropped the ball on what could have been two touchdowns,” Ross said. “That’s really the game you have to look at No. 1. It was the freshman team against the state-champion varsity at the same school, it wasn’t even close in talent. He still played well.”
Twenty-five picks went before Love was taken, so plenty of quarterback-needy teams passed on him. That includes two teams that at least on paper were in the market for a quarterback of the future (New England at No. 23 and New Orleans at No. 24). So there are plenty of doubts about Love around the league.
But Gutekunst and LaFleur clearly are closer in thinking to Ross, who was as bullish on Love as anyone in the NFL scouting community.
“I think he can be a Pro Bowl type,” Ross said of Love’s ceiling, “a guy you can go in every year (thinking), ‘We can go to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl with this guy.’ A top-10 type quarterback in the league.”
Will Love prove them right?