Jordan Love's NFL draft prospects illustrate the mystery of drafting a quarterback

Jordan Love's 2020 NFL draft profile (0:55)

Check out highlights from former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, a first-round prospect in this year's NFL draft. (0:55)

IT'S THAT TIME again. Every year, just ahead of the NFL draft, is the time to be told just how damned hard it is to learn to play quarterback in the NFL.

You know why it's hard, right? For starters, it's hard because NFL offensive concepts are so mind-bendingly difficult to grasp, and just when you, well-meaning but untrained, think you might understand just a little bit, here comes Coach Omniscient to remind you that the sooner you forget all that juvenile no-huddle, spread-offense garbage they taught you in college -- college, that vile word, spit at you like venom -- the better off we'll all be, because in this league there are grown men -- you, by insinuation: not grown -- coming at you trying to feed their family by knocking your head into the turf, and they're doing it at such a high rate of speed and with such force that it's like finding yourself standing in the middle of a highway, and on top of that, you've got to go through your progressions and ignore all that grown-man business taking place right under your nose and throw your receiver into his break -- not as he's breaking, college boy, and definitely not after -- while threading the ball into the slimmest of slim windows, so slim it's invisible to the untrained eye.

It's exhausting just to think about it.

Walking straight toward the bright lights, maybe squinting a bit as he adjusts to the glare, is Utah State's Jordan Love, the 21-year-old wild card of this year's draft, the evaluators' toughest test. He might be this year's Patrick Mahomes; he might never start an NFL game. He might be taken in the first 10 picks of the draft (possibly joining three other quarterbacks: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert); he might -- as he himself suggests -- have to wait until the third round.

He arrives, like so many before him and so many to follow, with many questions:

Does his quiet confidence fit within the proscribed metrics of NFL alpha-ness? Can his background in a small-playbook, no-huddle college offense at a faraway school in a second-tier conference translate to the ponderous demands of the NFL? Will the lack of exposure to the decision-makers in the run-up to the draft -- no pro day, just one team visit (Miami), a scramble to simply find an open field to throw on in Southern California after the COVID-19 shutdown -- work for him or against him?

"The hardest thing to evaluate is the heart and the head," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who has coached quarterbacks who could occupy an entire wing of the Hall of Fame. "I call it grit" -- always with the grit -- "and it shows whether they have leadership skills, whether guys follow them and whether they can make guys believe in them. That's the hardest part. You can see everything else."

The quarterback is the most important player on the field and probably the most important figure in American team sports. A great one can lift a team to the highest heights, and a bad one can consign it to a decade of aggravation. Teams invest a remarkable amount of capital, brainpower and sweat equity into finding, nurturing and pampering a good one. But on draft night, after all the evaluations of mental acuity and arm talent and grit, how much of the decision remains a guess?

Arians shrugs and answers quickly, as if citing a scientific study. "Thirty percent," he says. "And that's if you've really done all the work and you get lucky."

LOVE IS CURRENTLY in the process of attempting to pare down the unknowns to that magical -- and apparently definitive -- 30%. There are no physical or medical questions; at the combine, he measured 6-foot-3 6/8 (nothing as imprecise as ¾, obviously) and 224 pounds with a best-in-class hand size of 10 4/8 (not ½, obviously). Those numbers occasioned the following headline: "Jordan Love is the big winner as quarterbacks weigh in and get measured," which occasioned the following quizzical response from Love: "I won the weigh-in? I guess that's for you guys to decide, but obviously, besides your weight, the rest isn't something you can control."

At the combine, he was also asked to compare himself to a present-day NFL quarterback -- a throw-anything-at-the-wall question that eventually lands in every prospect's lap -- and he said, "I get asked that a lot, and I say Patrick Mahomes, based on arm talent and what he can do." And then, as if he could see the headlines flash as soon as the thoughts became words, he smiled and said, "I'm not Patrick Mahomes -- calm down."

But he might be. That's the thing. It's not a ridiculous suggestion. And if his junior season had matched his sophomore season, he might be in the conversation with Burrow for the No. 1 pick. That sophomore year was vivid: 3,208 yards passing, a 66% completion percentage, 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He threw 50-yard bullets on the run, escaped trouble to extend plays, dropped touch passes into the slimmest of windows. And then, as a junior, with nine new starters and a new coaching staff that carried over the previous administration's offensive system, Love threw an FBS-high 17 interceptions.

Listen: Tim Keown discusses Jordan Love's NFL draft prospects on the ESPN Daily podcast.

Some of those picks came in late-game, third-and-long situations; some came when the receiver cut the route short; some came when Love simply felt the force of his arm talent would somehow make the linebacker in the middle of the field disappear. He has had to explain every one of them, because nearly every interview at the combine included a viewing of what he has come to call, with a mixture of grim acceptance and gallows humor, the Interception Tape.

It sounds terrible, to be at the interview for the job of a lifetime and presented with a sizzle reel of your worst moments, asked What were you thinking? But Love says he welcomed it. "It gave me a chance to tell them what was going through my mind," he tells me in late March. "They're not going to put your good plays out there; they want to see the bad ones and have you talk through it." This followed his words at the combine, when he said, "I threw 17 interceptions -- obviously I'm going to have to talk about them. It's never fun, but if I don't want to have to talk about it, I don't have to throw 17 interceptions."

He could have blamed the inexperience of those nine new starters or the odd circumstance of having a coaching staff running someone else's offense. There were NFL coaches who nearly demanded it. More than one said, "You can tell us you didn't have the talent around you," but he refused.

"We never had to rehearse that answer," says Steve Calhoun, a private QB coach who runs Armed and Dangerous in Southern California and has worked with Love for eight years. "He always gives the same answer: 'No, I just needed to play better. Hey, the big eye in the sky doesn't lie. That's me out there, No. 10, and I just threw the ball to the other team.'"

(There's a chance the focus on the Interception Tape saved Love from the combine's most time-honored custom: the bizarre interview question. He was spared, he says, but a fellow quarterback prospect was standing at a whiteboard, diagramming a play, when a coach asked, "What would you do if I punched you in the face right now?")

Love is at his best on broken plays, or in the current parlance, "off-schedule plays." Improvisation is the new currency, and his highlights are filled with 50-yard darts thrown with a quick flip of the wrist, on the run, in the middle of a not-yet-grown-men mess up front. To evaluators, watching these plays is therapy; when everything falls apart, when mistakes are made, this is a guy whose talent makes bail. This skill, which Love attributes to growing up playing "backyard football," is the shiny object that supersedes any concerns about three years spent in a no-huddle, shotgun-snap offense.

Which brings up another point: If so many of the NFL's best offenses, from Andy Reid's in Kansas City to Sean McVay's in Los Angeles to John Harbaugh's in Baltimore, operate almost solely out of the shotgun, and often without a huddle, why is getting under center still treated as such a defining skill? The actual game seems to have moved beyond the nostalgic comfort of a quarterback sticking his hands between a center's legs, so why hasn't the evaluation process evolved along with it?

"Eventually, everyone is going to have to change toward the future," Calhoun says. "How many games are played under center anymore? And yet at the combine, everything is done under center. You don't take one shotgun snap, but how many times was Patrick Mahomes under center last year?"

What do you want: Patrick Mahomes (calm down) or Alex Smith? (Poor Alex, always held up as the pinnacle of caution.) "Jordan trusts he can make every throw," says David Yost, the Utah State offensive coordinator for two years before moving to Texas Tech before last season. "He's going to put the ball in harm's way more than a guy who protects the ball but never pushes it. Jordan's not a checkdown-checkdown-checkdown guy."

Before playing Michigan State in the first game of Love's sophomore season, Yost and Love devised a game plan heavy on deep passes. "You can't overdo it," Yost told him, and Love made 16 throws on vertical routes -- "I called four or five," Yost says, "and he called the rest on his own" -- on his way to completing 29 of 44 passes for 319 yards in a seven-point loss to the 11th-ranked team in the country.

"It's funny, but at every level, we try to make football out to be a lot more than it is," Yost says. "Jordan's smart, and he has common sense. The guys who have common sense but might not be that smart are fine. I've had smart guys with no common sense -- and they couldn't play."

LOVE AND I spoke by phone on March 25, the day we both would have been in Logan for his pro day. We couldn't meet in person, obviously; he and Calhoun were having a difficult time even finding a place in Orange County to work out. High schools and colleges are closed, along with their fields. Calhoun found a public park to work out his clients in groups of three or four, but then the park closed. "It's tough, but what can you do?" Love says. He and Calhoun had the pro day all planned out: 42 throws that would answer any questions left over from the combine. They weren't throwing any 5-yard hitches either, just 42 throws that only an NFL quarterback can make.

"It was going to be great," Calhoun says. "It was a very aggressive script -- we weren't trying to be safe. All 32 teams would have been there -- GMs, head coaches -- and if they liked him before, they were really going to like him now."

There are limitations to a telephone interview. It's difficult to describe a person without face-to-face interaction, but it feels safe to say Love has an easy, self-effacing manner. "He's so composed that from the outside one might wonder how competitive he is and how much it matters to him," says Texas Tech coach Matt Wells, who was the head coach for Love's first three years at Utah State, including his first season as a redshirt. "I can answer both of those questions: He's extremely competitive, and it matters to him more than anything else in the world."

Over the telephone, it's also tough to develop the kind of rapport needed to have a meaningful conversation about what it's like to lose a father when you're 14. Orbin Love died of a self-inflicted gunshot at home while Jordan was playing in a weekend basketball tournament. Both Orbin and Anna, Jordan's mother, were California Highway Patrol officers, and Jordan has said his father's death took away not only a father but a coach, mentor and friend.

The NFL's evaluation process can seem intrusive and not always compassionate, concerned primarily with how a prospect's habits and personality might one day reflect on the image of the team and league. The difficult conversations are often bypassed in favor of shocking questions and threats of random whiteboard violence. But teams want to know how a first-round quarterback -- let's be honest: an investment -- is going to react to adversity on the field, and it's accepted that how he reacts to adversity off it is as good a measurement as any.

"Teams asked me, 'What adversity have you had to face outside football?'" Love says. "I end up talking about my dad a lot because of that, but it's not something I use for sympathy. I'm not looking for any pity whatsoever. I'm just letting them know that I've gone through some things and I've been able to get through it with the help of a lot of people."

They asked Calhoun, "What do you think bothers him?"

"Nothing in the NFL is going to bring him down," Calhoun answers. "If he throws three picks and loses? That's nothing. He's had to handle some unbelievable adversity, and he's been able to come out the other side. What I believe is, nothing in the NFL can compare with what he's experienced in life."

How did he get here? The mystery isn't that his talent was missed by so many but that it was seen by anybody at all. "He didn't arrive the traditional way," Yost says. "The traditional way is that we know about these guys from the time they're freshmen in high school, we tell them they're great and it's never their fault. Jordan wasn't on that path."

Before his senior year at Liberty High in Bakersfield, California, Love went to a Utah State summer team camp as a jangly 180-pound kid who loved basketball and didn't have a single Division I football offer. In shorts, a T-shirt and a helmet, he resembled a lollipop. "The more we saw him, the more we liked him," Wells says. "During the workout, we did everything you could do to put pressure on the kid, and he made every throw. We liked his arm strength, we liked his character, we liked his swag. I thought he was cool."

Love laughs when this is repeated to him; he'd never heard it before. "He said that about me?" he asks. "My swag? That's funny that he would say that. I didn't know I had any back then."

ASK A COACH, guru, evaluator, fetishist -- any member of the gigantic quarterback-industrial complex -- to opine on any aspect of the position and stand back; this stuff is ingrained in them like knots in wood. "I could give you a thousand things over 10 hours," Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said at the combine in February, "and bore you to death with it."

It is a requirement for an NFL quarterback, Mayock says, to stand in that huddle and use his words and the power of his personality to convey not only the play but the enormity of the moment, because what Jon Gruden is asking him to understand is "mind-boggling," and as they evaluate the best prospects in this year's quarterback class -- Love has been linked to the Mayock/Gruden Raiders at No. 12 if he gets past the Chargers at No. 6 -- they're "talking about a guy who can handle Jon Gruden's offense, can spit it out, has the intellectual capacity -- the gigawatts -- to get all that, and to translate it on Sunday."

And that's just scratching the thinnest slice of the outer edge of the surface. Because there's more. There's always more.

There's the verbiage -- always with the verbiage -- that few men on earth can understand, and even fewer can enact, and it booms through the helmet in a multisyllabic purge of X's and Y's and Z's as the play clock is ticking and the crowd is screaming and those grown men are digging in like enraged sprinters, and through all of this you must look into the eyes of your 10 brothers in the huddle and convey the calm and fortitude of the alpha male -- always with the alpha male -- in a way that makes all that complicated verbiage dissolve into a unifying message of touchdowns and victories that osmotically forges a bond between each man privileged enough to experience it.

In the end, after hands are measured and interceptions are dissected and arm strength is assessed, the NFL is evaluating quarterbacks on the basis of an unscientific and nonuniform personality test. (Assuming not every team suggests punching out the guy at the whiteboard.) The idea is to assemble enough information -- numerical and anecdotal -- to create a prediction in which they feel 70% confident.

At the risk of being presumptuous, the trail should take them to the fall of 2018, to a game that has evaporated into the haze of seasons and games. Things weren't looking good for the Aggies, and Yost -- sitting helplessly up in a booth -- got on the headset with Love and told him, "Go tell the whole group we're going to score. They need to hear it from someone other than a coach."

Yost tracked Love's movements, but he couldn't tell whether he followed the order. He could have done it in the huddle and Yost wouldn't have known, but it didn't look like it from the booth. The Aggies went down and scored, which was the whole point, but Yost still needed to know.

He asked an offensive lineman, "Did Jordan say anything to the group?"

"No," the lineman said. "He went around and talked to each guy individually."

OK, Yost thought. That works.

"You don't want guys running around screaming and yelling because they feel they should do it," Yost says. "You can be that alpha -- and still be yourself."

Slowly, the questions get answered, and the percentage of uncertainty whittles its way toward its magical number. When the Serious Football People conclude a treatise on the demands of the job and the road ahead for those who choose to take it, there's always a knowing pause. It's a silent punchline that hangs there, sending a clear message: So good luck to you, kid. Love knows what's out there: grown men, ready to introduce his head to the turf; a playbook demanding consumption and digestion; verbiage awaiting verbalization.

"NFL people know you're not the best quarterback walking around right now," he says. "There's a ton of work ahead -- a ton of work."

He stops himself. That sounds modest, the right thing to say, but it also feels like a subconscious surrender to the forces of the industry. It's complicated, sure, but not impossible.

"It can be done," he says. "Word for word, and step by step."