The list of quarterback prospects who reasonably project as immediate NFL starters in the 2020 class is, at most, three players deep with Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert. Almost every prospect beyond them has a glaring flaw or limitation that holds them back from being a legitimate NFL starter. Jalen Hurts is not a sharp enough processor; Jake Fromm has pedestrian arm strength; Jacob Eason may be the most inexplicably inconsistent quarterback prospect I have ever graded; and the list goes on.
Utah State’s Jordan Love stands out as the “best of the rest” in this class. An uber-talented redshirt junior declaration, Love is in a sort of limbo where he has more potential than most of the class, yet struggles with consistency and decision-making in a way that bars him from being included in the “immediate starter” tier of prospects in this class. Every coach wants a quarterback with Love’s raw talent, but most of them will not want to wait a few years for him to become a real quarterback. Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock shared the same dynamic in last year’s class and fell to the second round after months of speculation that he may be a top-10 pick.
For all his warts and inconsistencies, Love’s blend of arm talent and swift, smooth release puts him in a rare category. Love’s arm is only marginally less powerful than the likes of Herbert and Eason, but he has a flexible upper body and incredible core strength, both of which enable him to control the ball through a consistent release point no matter the platform. While comparisons to Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson fall short for a long list of reasons, it is easy to understand how someone can arrive at those comparisons after watching a handful of Love’s best throws from awkward platforms.
By the time Love finishes his dropback, Colorado State has three free pass-rushers through the middle and to his right. Love takes a step to his left while assessing what’s left of the pocket, but quickly realizes there is nowhere to go. The ball has to be out within the next half-second or he must accept the sack. Just before Love goes to throw, he takes a hop step that resets his feet from being parallel with the line of scrimmage to a staggered stance in which his right foot is back and his left foot is slightly out in front and open to the left. Though a subtle adjustment, the movement frees up Love’s hips and upper body, giving him the range of motion to bring his arm through comfortably. Fifty yards later, Love’s pass drops right into the basket for his wide receiver.
One of the best measures for a quarterback’s arm strength and flexibility is how well they can throw when rolling to their non-throwing hand. When rolling to their dominant hand, most quarterbacks find it easy to collect themselves and throw comfortably because they are sort of throwing with the momentum of their body. When rolling away from their dominant hand, however, a quarterback is fighting against the momentum of their body. In turn, the best quarterbacks at throwing while moving to their non-throwing hand tend to make it work by dissociating their lower body from their upper body right before the throw.
In both of these clips, Love makes a similar adjustment to the one he made in the first example against Colorado State. Love swings his feet around to a staggered position in which his back foot “replaces” the midpoint of his body and his front foot is open just slightly forward and to the left. In both instances, Love removes one of his feet from the ground entirely upon going through his throwing motion. Love is able to pivot around the single foot left in the ground (back foot in the first clip, front foot in the second clip) and his hips can come around freely. When coupled with his incredible core strength, Love has no issue pushing the ball out from a stable release point despite falling away from the throw.
Those are the kinds of throws that make coaches believe a player is worth developing. Love’s arm talent and ease of motion regardless of platform are not really teachable. They are innate traits that some quarterbacks have but most do not.
Love presents a massive project for whichever quarterback coach and offensive coordinator inherits him, though. As even the player’s most brazen supporters will admit, Love does not have a good sense for how to read the field and make proper decisions — at least not consistently. While Love’s issues with field vision and decision-making became clear through his 17 interceptions in 2019, many of those same issues were evident in his 2018 film in which his raw stats were significantly better, including in his “breakout” game against Michigan State in the 2018 opener. Love’s performance against BYU in 2019 was the clearest example of how far he still has to go to be a consistent processor.
Here BYU is in its standard Cover-3 with eight defenders in coverage. Three defensive backs (typically the outside cornerbacks and a deep safety) each play one-third of the deep portion of the field, while five defenders play underneath. On this play, Utah State has just one receiver to the right side of the formation with the running back serving as a potential second threat. BYU, on the other hand, has three defenders to that side: a cornerback playing a deep-third, a defensive back playing the outside flat area, and a linebacker playing the hook/curl area over the hash. Since the running back does not immediately go into a route and the solo receiver runs vertically down the sideline, neither BYU’s flat nor hook/curl defender have anywhere to be. Both defenders are free to watch Love’s eyes. Love does not seem to consider what either defender could be doing in this situation and throws a crossing route over the right hash that either defender could have intercepted.
Again, Love fails to consider what BYU’s underneath defenders should be doing on this play. Similar to the previous clip, Utah State’s running back checks for potential blitzers before becoming a checkdown option, meaning he is not an immediate pass-catching threat for BYU’s defenders to account for. BYU’s hook/curl defender over the right hash is free to match Utah State’s tight end up the seam. Love begins his progression by looking left before coming back to his right (perhaps only to bait the safety away from the right hash), but does not think about BYU’s underneath coverage before letting it rip right into a waiting linebacker’s hands.
This BYU game, in particular, was frustrating because it is not as if Love was getting caught on uncommon or tricky coverages. BYU was in base Cover-3 or Cover-3 Cloud for almost the entire game. Love should have gotten up to speed in a few drives, but it never felt like he settled in during that game.
This time, Love does get caught with something slightly out of the ordinary. Wake Forest comes out in a two-high safety look. Just before the snap, though, Wake Forest’s boundary safety walks over to “cap” Utah State’s slot receiver while their apex defender lurks around the box well inside of the slot receiver. In many instances, this indicates the slot or apex defender is blitzing, which is exactly what happens here as Wake Forest rotates into a zone blitz (three deep defenders, three underneath). Love sees the blitz and assumes the hash area will be open, but does not take inventory of where Wake Forest’s middle linebacker can be. Since there is already a defender over Utah State’s tight end and the running back is needed in pass protection, there is nowhere for the middle linebacker to be but playing over the middle of the offensive formation.
In other instances, Love does not know where he needs to be looking first. On the following play, for example, Boise State is in a one-high safety shell with a bit of a fluid 3-4 front. It may be tough to decipher who exactly is rushing from where with moving fronts, but that is no excuse for the miscalculation Love ends up making.
Utah State has one receiver to the right side and Love motions the back away to the trips set just before the snap. There is only one possible immediate receiving threat to the offense’s right side. As the running back motions over, Boise State shifts their linebacker corps over a few feet, but maintains the same general structure. Boise State’s apex defender to the right, who is responsible for the flat area in this coverage, is free to look for work around the lone receiver because the running back vacated the backfield. Love should know that the defender either has to blitz or can occupy the window for the slant route. For whatever reason, Love opens to the right and stares right at the defender. Love freezes upon realizing the slant route is no longer open, which gets him sacked by Boise State EDGE Curtis Weaver (99) shortly thereafter.
Getting Love up to speed is going to take more than one offseason. It would be optimistic to assume a Mountain West quarterback who regularly made the same mistakes in college, versus generally basic coverages, will suddenly be able to process quickly and consistently enough at the pro level. Even the sharpest, most pro-ready rookies tend to look overwhelmed more often than not and Love is nowhere near that level of readiness.
The best case for Love is landing in a spot such as Indianapolis or Tampa Bay in which he can sit for a season behind a quality veteran. Teams with flimsier veteran situations or in need of an immediate starter should be wary about taking on Love, at least in the first round. It will take the right mix of patience, good coaching, and a dash of luck in order for Love to fulfill his potential. Love’s ceiling may be as enticing as any, but for now, he does not look like a starting quarterback, and teams should realistically expect him to be at least a year away from turning the corner.