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Tom Oates: Packers struck gold drafting Aaron Rodgers 15 years ago, but odds not on their side with Jordan Love

Tom Oates: Packers struck gold drafting Aaron Rodgers 15 years ago, but odds not on their side with Jordan Love

Jordan Love photo

Many observers say the biggest concerns right now for Jordan Love are his field vision and decision-making.

Let’s set one thing straight about Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst selling the farm to draft Jordan Love: In and of itself, selecting the developmental quarterback from Utah State in the first round was a sound move.

Finding your quarterback of the future is easier when you have a fully functioning quarterback of the present because you’re under no pressure and can wait for the right player to come along. When former general manager Ted Thompson chose a free-falling Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in the first round 15 years ago, it kept the Packers from ever having to tank a season. Gutekunst’s obvious belief is Love has the talent to develop into a quarterback who can keep the playoff train rolling in Green Bay, just like Rodgers did when he succeeded Brett Favre.

The biggest problem with trading up and picking Love where the Packers did is timing. Many wanted Gutekunst to delay drafting a quarterback of the future and use his first-round pick to fill a pressing need. Others are on board with Gutekunst’s forward-thinking draft even though Rodgers is 36 and has four years left on his contract in an era when great quarterbacks are playing into their 40s.

Well, it’s all moot now that the deed is done. At this point, it’s up to Love to supply a final grade on Gutekunst’s draft and that likely won’t come for three or four years.

If Love is good enough to continue the Favre-Rodgers lineage, Gutekunst will be seen as the genius who kept the Packers in contention for a fourth straight decade. If Love flops, Guteunst will be known as the bum who didn’t give Rodgers enough help in his remaining prime years.

What are the chances Love will make this draft worthwhile for the Packers?

Given the combustibility of quarterbacks in the NFL and the poor track record of those taken late in the first round, it is somewhere south of 50%. Rodgers did it, but Love isn’t in Rodgers’ league as an NFL prospect when he came out of California in 2005.

That doesn’t mean anyone should write off Love as a bust before he even hits the practice field. After all, the Packers didn’t reach for Love with the 26th pick. Most draft experts had him going a few spots before that. He was seen by many scouts as a hidden, if unpolished, gem.

One thing NFL people generally agree on is Love is the best pure thrower in the draft and has the size and mobility to thrive in the modern game. He also will have a chance to sit and learn behind Rodgers, important for a quarterback that even Gutekunst called raw in terms of his development.

There are serious questions about Love’s game, though. He had a brilliant season in 2018, throwing 32 touchdown passes with six interceptions, but regressed badly in 2019 with 20 touchdown passes and a whopping 17 interceptions. Although he had a new offensive coordinator and lost most of his supporting cast from 2018, Love’s wobbly performance raised red flags and brought into question his decision-making and accuracy. He also comes from a simplistic offense that has little carryover to the NFL.

Although many comparisons have been made to the Packers’ selection of Rodgers in 2005, the situation is significantly different in a variety of ways.

Rodgers was under consideration for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft but fell to 24th when San Francisco chose Alex Smith over him; Love was widely considered the fourth-best quarterback this year. Rodgers played big-time competition in the Pac-12 Conference; Love played only four games against opponents from Power 5 conferences. Rodgers played for quarterback guru Jeff Tedford; Love played his final season for former University of Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who once chose Tanner McEvoy over Joel Stave as his starting quarterback. Rodgers has a legendary chip on his shoulder; Love’s drive was questioned by some scouts. And despite playing against inferior competition, Love didn’t stand up statistically to Rodgers in college.

But there’s more to the comparison than that. Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf looked for players who, in his words, tilted the field. That’s why he traded for Favre in 1992 even though Favre wasn’t drafted until the second round. In Favre’s final two seasons in college, he led little old Southern Mississippi to victories over Florida State, Alabama and Auburn when all were ranked in the top 15. He also went 3-1 against Mississippi State of the SEC.

At Cal, Rodgers showed he could tilt the field. With him at quarterback, the Bears were 18-8 overall, their best two-year win total since the 1950s, and 12-4 in the conference. USC won the national championship both years, but Cal split a pair of close games with the Trojans as Rodgers completed 79.7% of his passes. Love’s Utah State teams were 0-4 against Power 5 teams and 0-3 against Boise State.

Love has history working against him as well. Besides Rodgers, the quarterbacks drafted 19th and lower in the first round during the previous 20 years were Patrick Ramsey, Rex Grossman, Kyle Boller, J.P Losman, Jason Campbell, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow, Brandon Wheeden, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch and Lamar Jackson. Rodgers and Jackson hit big-time and the jury is out on Bridgewater, but the rest were disappointments.

Of course, there are no guarantees in the draft, even among quarterbacks picked in the top 10. But if Love can develop into an elite quarterback under coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers will have stability at the game’s most important position. It could happen, but the odds are stacked against history repeating itself in Green Bay.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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