Packers spring a surprise, trade up to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love
GREEN BAY - On a Saturday afternoon last October, a day that led to what could become the Green Bay Packers’ most consequential draft selection in more than a decade, Brian Gutekunst was on the campus of LSU.
He followed national scout Sam Seal and West Coast scout Luke Benuska to Death Valley, planning to evaluate a quarterback. But he didn’t travel down south to only study Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner who was drafted first overall Thursday night.
The quarterback Gutekunst wanted to see completed 50 percent of his 30 passes. He tossed three interceptions. There were no touchdowns.
This was a dismantling, Utah State overmatched and outclassed against an LSU team cruising to a 15-0 record and national championship. Its quarterback kept chucking, shrunken throwing windows be damned. Whatever Jordan Love showed that day – the moxie, the poise, the pure athleticism with his pass protection in shambles and the scoreboard a rout – stuck with Gutekunst.
“As far as his skill set,” Gutekunst said, “he’s a very natural thrower, can make all the throws. He’s a very good athlete. He has the kind of size we look for, and I just think there’s some rawness to him, but I just think he’s got everything in front of him.
“He’s a very good athlete, very loose, fluid athlete, and his ability to create second chances when things break down was one of the things that drew us to him.”
During the following months, in meetings with Love at the NFL scouting combine, a one-hour Zoom call between the quarterback and Packers coaches sometime after, Gutekunst's intrigue only increased.
Late Thursday night, more than six months after that trip to Baton Rouge, La., two months after Gutekunst made clear he was open to drafting a quarterback even with his first pick, the GM saw an opening. The Packers traded up four spots in the first round, giving the Miami Dolphins their 30th overall pick and No. 136 in the fourth round, to draft Love at No. 26. Two spots later than they drafted Aaron Rodgers exactly 15 years to the day before.
It was the first time since 2005 the Packers drafted an offensive skill player in Round 1, let alone a quarterback. The Packers entered Thursday night having drafted a defender with their first pick eight straight years, the longest streak in the NFL.
Now, they may have started to run the clock on the Aaron Rodgers era, even if Gutekunst was hesitant to give his 21-year-old rookie those expectations.
“I think that’s probably not fair,” Gutekunst said. “I don’t think you can put that on him right now. Right now, I think he just needs to come in and learn and try to become the best quarterback he can be. We did draft him in the first round, so we like a lot about him. We think he has a very good upside to become a starter in the National Football League. But we’ve got the best quarterback in the National Football League, and we can plan to have him for a while competing for championships.
“I can understand the fan base and people thinking, ‘Why would you do this at this time?’ But I just think the value of our board and the way it sat, it was the best for the Green Bay Packers.”
The timing is hard to mistake as coincidence. When the Packers made the controversial decision to draft Rodgers, Brett Favre was entering his age-36 season. Gutekunst’s decision Thursday night might leave fans even more skeptical than predecessor Ted Thompson’s did then. Unlike Favre, Rodgers has not even hinted at early retirement.
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But Rodgers will be 36 years old when the 2020 NFL season is scheduled to begin. He turns 37 in December. Though he has four years left on a contract that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player when it was signed before the 2018 season, Rodgers has spoken openly in recent years about being closer to the end of his career than the start.
Gutekunst, who did not consult Rodgers before making the pick, was careful not to ruffle his quarterback when explaining his decision.
"He’s obviously been through this," Gutekunst said, "and he’s a pro. I think it’s certainly, this is something that is a long-term decision. I think when you go through kind of the way things went tonight, you run the short term and the long term. The way the board fell, this was the best decision for the Packers. I think obviously Aaron’s been around for a long time, and he knows what we’re playing for right now, and that’s what’s most important right now.”
While Rodgers has made clear he plans to play into his 40s, that doesn’t mean he will. Rodgers has dealt with significant injuries in his career, including a pair of broken collarbones that cost him half of the 2013 and 2017 seasons, and a knee that needed scoped following the 2015 season. He also finished with a passer rating below 100 points in three straight seasons, and four of his last five.
No matter, Rodgers doesn’t anticipate relinquishing his starting job soon, something he made clear during a radio appearance with ESPN Wisconsin in early March.
“I’m a realist,” Rodgers said on the air. “I know where we’re at as an organization, and where I’m at in my career. I still feel like I have a ton of years left playing at the highest level. I’m confident enough. I’ve always felt like it doesn’t matter who you bring in, they’re not going to be able to beat me out anytime soon. So I feel really confident about my abilities and my place.”
The relationship Rodgers cultivates with Love will be fascinating to watch. Fifteen years ago, Rodgers played the role of incoming youngster. His frosty relationship to Favre was no secret, culminating in a tumultuous summer of 2008, when the Packers chose to make the quarterback change.
Love, who was 9 years old that summer, might not know the history, but he’ll soon find himself in a similar situation as the newcomer behind a legend. In his introduction to Wisconsin media early Friday morning, Love tiptoed the line between confidence and deference.
“I’d say (I’m) a playmaker,” Love said. “That’s what you need at the quarterback spot. That’s what they’ve got right now. I’d just say playmaking. A guy that can make plays when the normal plays break down, and you can make off-schedule plays and off-schedule throws.”
Love said he had not heard from Rodgers, though he wasn’t drafted until almost 10:30 p.m. There will be plenty of time for pleasantries to be exchanged.
Just as there will be plenty of time for Gutekunst to figure out what happens next. Barring injury, Rodgers will be the Packers’ starting quarterback whenever next season starts. Same as 2021. Eventually, Gutekunst might find himself facing a difficult decision, not unlike his predecessor.
Teams don’t trade up in the first round to draft a quarterback they plan to keep on the sideline. In Love, the Packers surely hope they found a franchise quarterback who can lead them into contention after Rodgers’ prime years.
“Playing quarterback in the National Football League,” Gutekunst said, “is probably the hardest position in all of sports. I think whenever you have the ability to take a player, whether it’s in the first round, second round, third round, that you think has a chance to play, you have to consider it. It really wasn’t about this year. This was not something we set out to do.
“It just happened that someone we liked fell to us, and we thought it was the best decision.”