NFL draft's mystery QB: Is he Patrick Mahomes or a one-year wonder?

MOBILE, Ala. – With straight faces and no hyperbole, evaluators and analysts have compared Utah State quarterback Jordan Love to both of the quarterbacks playing in the Super Bowl this year. Others in the scouting universe project him as a high-risk prospect whose production fails to match his reputation.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay has wondered if Love could end up as a second-round steal like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s also mentioned Love’s outsized arm talent and inconsistent production as being similar to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes when he entered the NFL draft three years ago.

At Senior Bowl practices this week, there’s no bigger mystery prospect than Love. He’s been projected as high as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. It also wouldn’t be shocking if he slipped to the third round. Among NFL evaluators, Love looms as the draft’s most divisive prospect, an enigma decoded with consistent disparity.

“He could make himself a lot of money this week,” an NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “He could sneak into the end of the first round this week. But if you told me he slipped out of the second round, I wouldn’t be surprised either.”

Utah State Aggies QB Jordan Love (10) rolls out to pass during the Frisco Bowl on Dec.20, 2019. (George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Utah State Aggies QB Jordan Love (10) rolls out to pass during the Frisco Bowl on Dec.20, 2019. (George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Those intrigued by Love mention his arm talent, ideal frame (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and a prolific 2018 season where he threw 32 touchdowns. Those skeptical of Love point to his lack of competition, the precipitous drop in production in 2019 and him nearly tripling his interception total (six in 2018, 17 in 2019). Love wasn’t even the best Mountain West Conference quarterback with the last name Love, as San Jose State’s Josh Love won the league’s offensive player of the year. Hawaii’s Cole McDonald finished second-team All-MWC while Love was honorable mention.

Can the Mountain West’s third-best quarterback be a first-round pick?

“Are you betting on the talent?” asked another NFL scout about Love. “It’s like an NBA evaluator looking at upside. The body of work this year wasn’t great. But he had a great [redshirt] sophomore year. It’s like the NBA looking at an underclassman. You see the body and the great arm strength.”

Everyone can agree that no quarterback has a greater potential variance — more to gain or lose — with his performance at the Senior Bowl. And Love quickly acknowledged that here on Monday. Love answered countless questions about his interceptions, gently reminding reporters of Utah State’s skill-position attrition — “We lost a lot of dudes” — and a coaching change that impacted the overall potency of the offense.

“I definitely think this is an important week for me just to go out there and ball out and show people what I can do,” Love said.

Love’s early performances in Mobile have been met with strong reviews. He’s showcased the big arm, but also balanced that with polish and poise. (He also showed much more ease and charisma in interviews compared to the quieter and introverted Justin Herbert.)

Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm opined after practice on Wednesday that Love would more likely be selected in the top 15 than slip out of the first round. “There are times when you think there aren’t a dozen QBs in the NFL who are more gifted throwers,” Edholm wrote. “And there are plenty more when he’s not pretty at all.”

Heading into the 2019 season, a steady buzz had accumulated around Love after he’d torched the Mountain West for 3,567 yards as a redshirt sophomore. That quieted when he dropped in nearly every major statistical category this past season — completion percentage (64.0 to 61.9), yards per attempt (8.6 to 7.2) and touchdown passes (32 to 20). When Gary Andersen took over at Utah State this season, he planned to run a similar offense to the one Love thrived in under Matt Wells. Something didn’t translate.

Love had opportunities to transfer to a blue blood in 2019, as LSU and Oregon were linked to his potential services. Instead, he declared for the draft. “I feel like I'm ready for the NFL,” he said. “This is what I've been working for my whole life.”

Love got discovered in Bakersfield, California, by two coaches with a strong pedigree in finding and developing quarterbacks. Both former Utah State head coach Matt Wells and former Aggies offensive coordinator Josh Heupel have strong backgrounds in offensive football. It speaks to both their evaluation skills and conviction to operate outside groupthink to identify, offer and take Love when no other FBS school offered.

“He had great arm strength and threw it well on the run and had pretty good poise,” Wells said in a phone interview this week. “He was tall and athletic, but really skinny.”

Wells credits strength coach Dave Scholz for helping Love blossom from a 175-pound two-star to a 225-pound NFL prospect. (No one can take credit for the extra inch he grew in Logan to get to 6-foot-4.)

Utah State QB Jordan Love (10) looks to pass during the first half of the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 20, 2019. (AP)
Utah State QB Jordan Love (10) looks to pass during the first half of the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 20, 2019. (AP)

With a redshirt year, 50 extra pounds and some experience, Love blossomed under former Utah State offensive coordinator David Yost in 2017 and 2018. “He has a big arm,” Yost said in a phone interview. “The ball jumps off his hand and spins tight. It looks like an NFL throw. When you go to an NFL camp, it looks different. There’s no throw Jordan can’t make at a high level.”

Yost and Wells both complimented Love’s work ethic and passion for the game. He’d put in the work without making a production about it, as he’d gather a dozen skill-position guys to watch film on a Saturday night after a game. Or he’d hole up in the running back room late at night to watch film on a random weeknight because he didn’t like how practice went. “He’ll just go do it [without saying anything],” Yost said, “which is part of what it takes to be a quarterback.”

In interviews at the Senior Bowl, Love referenced how his adolescence was indelibly shaped by his father’s death by suicide. Jordan was 14 when his father, Orbin Love, was found dead. He’s openly spoken about the tragedy throughout his career, as he told The Salt Lake Tribune that it was “the hardest day of my life.”

“In my life, I've faced some pretty different, some pretty hard adversity, off the field, without football,” Love said at the Senior Bowl this week. “So things like that in my life have really let me see the big picture, that this stuff's easy. It's football. It's fun, there are some tough days but at the end of the day it's fun.”

Both Orbin and Jordan’s mother, Anna, worked in law enforcement. Orbin worked for the Bakersfield Police Department, and Anna for the California Highway Patrol. Wells went out of his way to compliment Anna for her positive influence on Jordan, which he saw for the three seasons he coached Love.

“He’s very mature, and it speaks to Anna and how she raised him throughout high school,” Wells said. “She was really tough and strict. There was a lot of discipline in that house, and a lot of love.”

The talent and work ethic have Love poised to make the leap to the NFL. This week, ultimately, can determine the trajectory of his journey through the league.

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