QB Jordan Love Is the Boom-or-Bust Wild Card of the 2020 NFL Draft

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2020

Utah State quarterback Jordan Love during an NCAA football game against San Diego State on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 in San Diego. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. — Jordan Love's favorite NFL quarterback is Patrick Mahomes. And like most of the football world, Love was awe-struck by Mahomes' 27-yard touchdown run and four-touchdown performance against the Titans in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

"It was magic," Love told reporters on Tuesday at the Senior Bowl. "He's just out there making magic happen."

Love made a little magic happen himself as Utah State's starting quarterback over the last two-and-a-half seasons. But surely Love, who is beginning his journey to the NFL draft by participating in Senior Bowl practices this week, wants to avoid any unrealistic expectations by throwing ice water on any comparisons to the Chiefs superstar. Right?

"I like that comparison," Love said. "We've both got strong arms. He obviously makes ridiculous throws off-schedule and stuff like that. It's something that I've tried to model in my game, just trying to make throws like that. And I hope to be on the same platform as him."

We better slow down for a moment. Love has a long way to go before he even approaches Mahomes' platform. But the similarities make Love the most intriguing wild card in this year's quarterback class: a player with All-Pro tools and upside but a knack for some of the worst interception sprees this side of Jameis Winston's blooper reel.

Love, who left high school as a scrawny converted wide receiver and received just one FBS-level scholarship offer, leapt onto the NFL's scouting radar with a 32-touchdown season for 11-2 Utah State in 2018. But Gary Andersen replaced coach Matt Wells after that season, and top receivers like Ron'Quavion Tarver, Jalen Greene and Aaren Vaughns graduated. The Aggies defense also took a step backward. Forced to play catch-up with few weapons to throw to, Love began forcing passes. He threw just 20 touchdowns and a whopping 17 interceptions as Utah State fell to 7-6 last season.

"It was a little bit of a different year for us," Love said. "There were a lot of changes … I didn't play the way I wanted to. There were situations where I was forcing the ball downfield."

A 42-6 October loss to LSU exemplified the frustrations Love faced (and sometimes exacerbated) last season. He started the game well, completing a pair of pinpoint deep passes in the first half against one of the toughest defenses in the nation. But one of his receivers dropped a sure touchdown pass that would have kept the game close, and the further the Aggies fell behind, the more reckless Love became. He finished the game with three interceptions, two of them coming after LSU climbed to a 35-6 lead.

Jordan Love's 17 interceptions (three of which came against LSU) have NFL personnel men questioning the Utah State QB's decision-making on the field.
Jordan Love's 17 interceptions (three of which came against LSU) have NFL personnel men questioning the Utah State QB's decision-making on the field.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The loss was not a catastrophe, but it was a missed opportunity. "I knew LSU was gonna be a big game for me and how I was going to be evaluated," Love said. "I didn't play the way I wanted, obviously. But I bounced back from that, learned a lot from that game and the mistakes I made."

Three interceptions against the eventual national champions might be forgivable. But Love threw three more against BYU a few weeks later and then two more against Wyoming. That isn't the whole picture, of course, and there is a lot to get excited about when watching Love's game film: a gorgeous deep ball, great touch, a quick delivery, impressive footwork, the ability to make plays on the run. And his willingness to take big risks sometimes results in Mahomes-like miracles. But Love crossed the fine line between aggressive and careless a little too often last season.

So while Love said he came to the Senior Bowl to "ball out," he also knows exactly what he needs to show NFL scouts that he can improve upon.

"Decision-making," he said. "I had some poor decisions this year. I want to show them I can read the field and be decisive, especially in an offense that I am not too familiar with."

Love has only gotten a few opportunities to show much of anything in early-week North squad practices that emphasized stretching and individual drills over full-squad work. He displayed his deep accuracy on a few bombs to Liberty receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, and he dropped a dime on a corner route to Ohio State's K.J. Hill in one-on-one, receiver-versus-defender drills. In brief full-squad reps, he mostly dumped short passes to tight ends and running backs, which is certainly better than forcing them to safeties and linebackers.

Love also tried and failed to connect with receivers several times on sideline out-routes, throwing the ball with excellent anticipation long before his targets made their cuts, the ball arriving a split second too early or too late. Not every incomplete pass in practice is a failure. Watch enough Senior Bowl practices and you'll see dozens of future clipboard bearers tossing three-yard passes to tight ends in seven-on-seven drills and getting Gamey McManager had a great day notice from the attending draftniks. Love is demonstrating higher-order skills while working with mostly unfamiliar receivers, a detail NFL evaluators will notice when scrutinizing his film.

Love has also made an impression on other players. Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool said that Love has stepped into a leadership role among a group of quarterbacks and receivers who have been preparing for the draft together since the end of the college season. "He's not afraid to push us to go the extra step, whether that's keeping us grounded or around a little longer to go through some extra reps," Claypool said.

The challenge for Love in the months leading up to April's NFL draft will be proving that he can cut down on the poor decisions without detracting from the daring, go-for-broke style that made him special. "You just have to be able to find the middle of it," Love said, "push the ball down the field and make those big throws but also not force every throw and try to do too much sometimes."

If he can pull off that balancing act, he will likely hear his name called near the top of the first round of the draft. NFL teams have been willing to take big risks on toolsy-but-blunder-prone talent in recent drafts. Josh Allen's production sputtered when his top targets graduated in his final season at Wyoming, but the Bills took a chance on him with the seventh pick in the 2018 draft and are now building a playoff team around him. Winston, the first overall pick in 2015, has somehow gotten more interception-prone since college (and he threw 18 picks in his final college season), but the Buccaneers appear willing to keep working with a quarterback who can also throw for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. And Mahomes threw 25 interceptions in his final two college seasons before becoming the 10th overall pick in 2017.

Love's willingness to gamble on big throws is reminiscent of the boom-or-bust approach Josh Allen arrived to the NFL with when he was drafted by Buffalo in 2018.
Love's willingness to gamble on big throws is reminiscent of the boom-or-bust approach Josh Allen arrived to the NFL with when he was drafted by Buffalo in 2018.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

If Winston or Allen is the downside and the NFL's Sorcerer Supreme is the upside, then Love is a first-round no-brainer. The traits and tape are there. Love just needs to convince the NFL that he can clean up a couple of things. Seventeen of them, to be precise.

"Every interception for me is a learning moment," he said. "Obviously, I had [17] learning moments last season. But they're all just something that you can go back and watch film on and learn from."

            

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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