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Can Jordan Love succeed for where so many other non-top-10 QBs have failed?

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The list of quarterbacks picked in the range where Green Bay took Jordan Love is perilously small. But the “why” matters. Why did those players fail and is Love likely to fail where they did? We dug in to find out.

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Utah State v Wake Forest
Jordan Love could be Paxton Lynch, he could be Lamar Jackson or something in between. The question is why will he succeed or fail?
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Taking a quarterback in the NFL is a paradox. It’s the most valuable position, but also the hardest to evaluate. They bust at the highest rate of any position, but not taking one early tends to lead to worse outcomes. Pro Football Focus found a starting caliber quarterback comes from a top-3 pick 56.4% of the time, a number that falls to 36.3% for the second round based on historical draft data. Recent history shows the bust rate outside of the top-10 to be monstrously high, a warning sign for Jordan Love with the Green Bay Packers. But why did those players fail? Was it talent? Situation? A combination?

In order to determine the likelihood Love follows in a long line of quarterbacks who have failed after going in a similar range of picks, we examined each player going back to 2010 to figure out why they failed and if Love stands to risk failing in a similar way.

Only three quarterbacks went between 10 and 20 since 2010— E.J. Manuel (16th) 2013, Christian Ponder (12th) 2011, Deshaun Watson (12th) 2017 — so the difference between those numbers is mostly irrelevant, but it’s still worth noting those players exist, particularly in the case of Watson. He’s really, very good. But given this number, let's look only at players taken after 20 but before 50.

This tends to be the “boom-or-bust” range, where teams want to get a quarterback, but understand they’re not getting the proverbial cream of the crop.

Too Soon to Tell

Drew Lock (42nd) 2019

Lock is noteworthy here if for no other reason than the Packers reportedly had interest in him last year and there were pre-draft comparisons between Love and Lock (which I swear isn’t a Kanye song even if it sounds like one).

Full-on disasters

Paxton Lynch (26th) 2016

Tim Tebow (25th) 2010

Jimmy Clausen (48th) 2010

Johnny Manziel (22nd) 2014

Brandon Weeden (22nd) 2012

Geno Smith (39th) 2013

Some of these are more easily explained than others, but a few right off the bat can be discarded. Tebow never belonged in this group, was a clear reach when it happened, and most understood going into the draft, he was what teams would convince themselves is a “winner” type, not an actual NFL passer. He proved the latter. Love is not, and I can’t believe I have to say this, Tim Tebow.

Manziel fell in the draft because of his size and maturity questions. Ultimately he attituded his way out of the league, not because he couldn’t play, but because he couldn’t keep his life together. That was a concern coming out of Texas A&M, not some dirty little secret. Clausen’s story follows a similar trajectory. His immaturity, petulance, and laziness (as Greg Cosell is fond of saying, the intangibles always translate into tangibles on the field), were legend long before he got to the NFL, though he’s famously one of Mel Kiper’s all-time bad calls.

That’s not Love either.

Weeden can likewise be dismissed mostly out of hand as a 28-year-old first-round pick, the oldest ever taken. If you’re 27 in college, you should be doing the Joe Burrow, and while Weeden was great, his age suggested he had already reached something approximating his ceiling. In short, Weeden is an all-time outlier. Love doesn’t turn 28 until 2026 and by then would be on his second contract.

There are some potentially worrying comparisons with Lynch and Love, including the boom-or-bust nature of their physical talents and the jump in competition. On the other hand, Lynch showed bigger red flag flaws playing in a preposterously simple offense, struggling to make throws off-platform, and playing a frenetic style from in the pocket. He often looked like a college beer leaguer who happened to be a Chiefs fan and watched a ton of Patrick Mahomes.

Smith offers some similarly troublesome corollaries. He was seen as a talented project coming out of West Virginia, someone with the accuracy, rhythm, and fluidity to be a legitimately good NFL quarterback. That said, Smith never possessed the physical tools or improvisational ability Love showed at Utah State, thriving instead of Dana Holgerson’s point-and-shoot offense. For a project, Smith never had the arm talent or out-of-structure talent Love possesses.

Still, his path is a potential model for failure: Love never cleans up some of the footwork and decision-making or progresses as a processor. The physical tools part can’t be eliminated from the discussion however. Smith was always going to be a player who needed to be a rhythm passer with good scheme and players around him. He didn’t have the talent to create beyond it. That’s the differentiator for Love, something Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst mentioned extensively about Love.

“I think his ability to create second chances when things break down is one of the things that drew us to him,” Gutekunst said after the draft, while LaFleur mentioned at the combine that improvisational ability, to create when the play doesn’t work initially, would be a foundational piece to any quarterback they’d like in the draft.

Good enough for now but not quite good enough

Andy Dalton (35th) 2011

Colin Kaepernick (36th) 2011

There is certainly a world in which Love’s career follows the Dalton trajectory. When the setting around Dalton put him in a position to succeed, he delivered. His best team could have been a Super Bowl contender if Dalton doesn’t get hurt. With quality weapons around him, the Bengals were a perennial playoff team for a nice stretch. On the other hand, his accuracy, particularly deep down the field, perpetually held him back, as did his propensity to turn the ball over at inopportune times.

Love shares those traits at present even if plenty of other factors might be different.

There’s a similar case for a Kaepernick path: Love comes in for Rodgers, ignites the team, makes some plays that are difficult to account for, but after a year or two, never fully develops a drop-back passing game worth fearing, and can’t become a legitimate franchise quarterback worthy of his physical tools.

The case for Love works with these two examples in tandem. Kaepernick was a playmaker who never made the leap as a progression passer, while Dalton was a pocket thrower who could play traffic cop with guys around him. Love possesses that raw playmaking talent that Dalton lacked to elevate his surroundings, while flashing more upside as a passer from the pocket than Kaepernick, though Kaep’s arm talent remains underrated.

It’s worth noting that while neither of these quarterbacks proved to be reliable long-term options for their teams, each engineered some successful seasons and playoff trips, including a Super Bowl run from Kaepernick. Though a Dalton-level quarterback would be disappointing if that’s all Love could muster, I’d guess most Packers fans would accept a team who could consistently get to postseason play.

Capable starter or better

Teddy Bridgewater (32nd) 2014

Derek Carr (36th) 2014

Lamar Jackson (32nd) 2018

Clearly this will be the goal with Love, to make him a capable starter, someone who is a top-15 type quarterback with the potential to be an MVP guy like Lamar Jackson. Comparing any quarterback to Jackson who doesn’t run like he can would be unfair however. Love could be a very good quarterback, but if he does, it likely won’t be the way Jackson beats teams, using his incredible running talent to keep defenses off-balance.

Bridgewater excelled at Louisville with his precision and rhythm, then earned All-Rookie honors before a Pro Bowl bid in 2015. A devastating leg injury so severe there were some questions if he’d live held back his development, but he plays smart, decisive football. It’s hard to see his game as an analog for something Jordan Love can be. It’s just not how Love wins. While it’s possible Love could someday become as reliable and consistent as Bridgewater, his game, much like the current Green Bay quarterback, may never rely solely on hitting his back foot and firing.

It would be easy to forget Carr at Fresno State chucking the ball all over the yard to Davante Adams, thriving as a downfield thrower. For whatever reason, the loss of Michael Crabtree and injuries with Amari Cooper stunted his development, setting him back and turning him into a kind of Checkdown Charlie. Still, he was sneaky good last year for the Raiders and Jon Gruden, and like Bridgewater has a Pro Bowl under his belt as well, leading a somewhat surprising 12-4 Oakland team to the postseason.

Ironically, if Love learned to check it down a little more, he might have been considered a better prospect coming out of Utah State, but most coaches would rather have a player they have to reign in than ramp up.

What we keep coming back to is a trait the Packers fell in love with (no pun intended): Love’s ability to work off script. If Love can become a reliable quarterback from the pocket, reading defenses and finding the right player, his ceiling may just be higher than anyone on this list because of his arm talent and second-reaction capability. There are paths to mediocrity or failure to be sure. We’ve seen the road map laid out.

Gutekunst and LaFleur are banking on his work ethic allowing him to maximize his talents in ways other, similarly talented players couldn’t, and becoming a player other second-tier prospects couldn’t reach precisely because they lacked the kind of tools Love possesses. It’s still up to him to reach that potential. By nearly unanimous accounts, Love landed in the perfect place for him, giving him time to iron out the wrinkles in his game. Now it will be his job to make those improvements and his coaches to help him maximize his estimable tools. He has a unique blend of talent, work ethic, and situational advantages to succeed where others have failed.