Jordan Love’s Packers start mirrors Aaron Rodgers. But he’s still missing a key advantage Rodgers had

To the credit of Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, his institutional memory was accurate when it came to Jordan Love’s first month as a starting quarterback. There would be good parts and bad. There would be hopeful moments and struggles. There would also be the same coaching goals, supported by the same kind of personnel build.

Just like it was with Aaron Rodgers.

For the most part, the similarities in the results are striking through four games. Both Rodgers and Love began 2-2. Both accounted for eight touchdowns in their first four games. Both threw three interceptions. Their passing yards per game are the same zip code (240 for Rodgers, 225 for Love), while their completion percentage — given the small sample size of four games — is basically one bad quarter apart: 61.9 percent for Rodgers, 56 for Love.

But there’s an undeniable difference when you look at the team’s offensive roster build between the two players. And if there’s anything we’re learning about Love right now, it’s that he has been facing an uphill climb that Rodgers didn’t experience. Not just from the standpoint of many forgetting that Rodgers’ first season was a work in progress, but also due to the realities of the surrounding depth chart, which has been every bit the steep challenge that it looked like this offseason.

Come Monday night against the Las Vegas Raiders, Love will finally have his full complement of skill position players around him. What he won’t have is the wideout on the other sideline — former Packers receiver Davante Adams — who likely would have made a world of difference in Green Bay. And that’s where the difference stacks up for Love: The high-level veteran wideout he should have been playing with is nowhere to be found … which is different than how Rodgers had it when he kicked off his career as a starter in Green Bay in 2008.

For most football fans outside of the Packers’ hemisphere — and maybe even for some inside it — that has gotten lost in the first month of the season, particularly coming off a dreadful loss to the Detroit Lions that was a sobering look at the work ahead in Green Bay. We’ll get to the Lions loss in a moment, because it was an important audit when it comes to Love. First, let’s look back at what Gutekunst said about Rodgers’ first season as a starter and what he expected the realities to be with Love.

Here’s what Gutekunst told reporters at the NFL scouting combine about Rodgers’ first season as a starter, when the Packers finished 6-10: “We won some games early and had a really rough stretch in the middle. But I think there was a growing confidence to that year that, ‘Hey, we’ve got the next guy and now it’s just keep building.’”

Here’s what what Gutekunst told many of those same reporters on the verge of April’s NFL Draft, about Love’s path in 2023: “I think there’s going to be challenges. There’s no doubt about it. There’s always challenges in the NFL season. What those will be are kind of to be determined.”

Four games in, the clarifying has begun. What’s left exposed, again, is the significant difference between the offense Rodgers took over in 2008 versus the one Love is manning in 2023.

What’s ailing Packers’ offense? Look at the draft investment

While Rodgers walked into a roster that had just advanced to the NFC title game the season prior, the difference that mattered in his development was a trio of wideouts: 33-year-old Donald Driver, who was coming off his third Pro Bowl season; 25-year-old Greg Jennings, who was heading into his third season and blossoming into one of the best young receivers in the league; and a driven 24-year-old in James Jones, who was heading into his third season and well on his way to becoming a quality No. 3 receiver. Even the mixed-bag offensive line, which was average at best overall, had some continuity, with five starters playing in 73 of a possible 80 games.

Compare that to Love, who through four games has been dealing with a banged-up offensive line that has already lost its most talented player — left tackle David Bakhtiari — for the remainder of the season. Now pull back for the wider picture of the skill group, and what you see is a landslide of inexperience at the pass-catching positions. That includes three rookies — tight end Luke Musgrave, and wideouts Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks — who have already had to play sizable roles.

The “experience” at the position: Two second-year players who have yet to settle into consistency, between the solid Romeo Doubs and the flashy but still largely boom-or-bust talent in Christian Watson.

This is the kind of offense you get when you have a general manager in Gutekunst who closely follows the blueprint of predecessor Ted Thompson — spending his most valuable first-round draft assets on defense, then splurging throughout the rest of the draft in an attempt to find offensive players who can eventually develop into core pieces. The plan makes sense when you have an elite quarterback who can help cover up gaps that occur while those players are being weaned into high-level starters.

That made some sense in the late stages of Rodgers’ career. It might have made sense if Adams was still at the top of the receivers depth chart. But in the early stages of Love taking over — and without at least one commanding receiver to help him — it likely needs to be reassessed. If you don’t think so, pull up the 34-20 Thursday night throttling at the hands of the Lions, who walked into Lambeau Field and showcased why their offense looks capable of commanding the NFC North for years to come.

Since Gutekunst took over as general manager in 2018, the Packers have devoted one of their eight first-round draft picks to offense. That pick: Jordan Love.

In the same time, the Lions have used five of their seven first-round picks on a depth chart that is now giving Jared Goff every chance to succeed. Those picks included Frank Ragnow, who has become one of the best centers in the NFL; right tackle Penei Sewell, who is an elite pass-protecting right tackle and two young players with high-end speed in running back Jahmyr Gibbs and wideout Jameson Williams — who are both expected to be core starters in the coming years, even with Williams recently returning from a four-game suspension. Even the fifth first-rounder was valuable tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was a foundational piece until his contract extension expectations spurred a trade to the Minnesota Vikings. It’s also worth noting Detroit spent a first-rounder on solid left tackle Taylor Decker.

That’s a notable difference in high-end investment between the two offenses. So much so that one longtime NFL personnel executive texted during that Thursday night game: “Flip these QBs to the other team[’s] roster and everyone is high on Love and ripping Goff. What they’re both working with [offensively] is so obvious.”

Packers need to answer same question with Jordan Love they did with Aaron Rodgers

Some might take that as a shot at Gutekunst, but really it’s more of a basic observation of how two personnel departments have operated. The Lions have splurged on offense over two different front-office regimes since 2018, and the result has been a higher-end attack with a defense that is only now finding traction. Conversely, Gutekunst spent that same amount of time trying to figure out whether he was building a defense to balance out the end of Rodgers’ final years, or stacking assets to help Love make his transition.

Gutekunst leaned into the latter, like Thompson before him. That shouldn’t be ignored.

Thompson laid down this draft architecture long ago. It’s what Gutekunst learned inside the system, to the point that if you trace back to the 2012 NFL Draft, the Packers have spent only one first-round pick on an offensive player. That’s the fewest first-round offensive players chosen by any team in the NFL in the past 12 years. Those results are starting to show, especially when pressed against the Lions or even another division rival in the Minnesota Vikings, who have selected two high-end offensive cornerstones and one budding starter during the first round in three of the past four drafts: wideout Justin Jefferson (2020), offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw (2021) and wideout Jordan Addison (2023).

Flip these QBs to the other team[’s] roster and everyone is high on Love and ripping [Jared] Goff. What they’re both working with [offensively] is so obvious.longtime NFL personnel executive during the Packers-Lions game

That doesn’t mean Gutekeunst or the Packers have gone about their build wrong. It does mean there are cold realities to face. At the very least, the offensive line could use some first-round investment — particularly with Bahktiari’s health looking more and more like an annual concern. The wideouts? They could eventually have what they need, but it’s going to take time and development (and some consistent health) for Watson, Doubs, Reed and Wicks to be called a reliable unit. But in a 2024 draft that is going to feature plenty of high-end pass catching talent worthy of a first-round pick, surely Love wouldn’t complain if an asset was spent on that unit.

If that sounds like uncertainty about where all this is going, Gutekunst would likely point that discouragement back to 2008, when the team started 4-3 under Rodgers and went 2-7 the rest of the way. It wasn’t pretty. Along the way, Rodgers had a pair of three-interception games and some typical peaks and valleys. But the last five games of the season, Rodgers never had a quarterback rating below 87.6.

And with that, the ultimate question was answered: At the very least, the Packers had their next quarterback to work with. Even at the end of a deflating campaign, answering that question was all that really mattered. It would also be quickly pushed aside one season later when Rodgers roared to an 11-5 season, a playoff berth, and he earned his first of 10 Pro Bowl nods. Just like that, after one season of patience and a surrounding offensive roster that took a leap forward, Rodgers joined the ranks of the league’s elite quarterbacks.

There’s no telling whether that’s ultimately in store for Love. But one thing is for sure: It won’t be without some patience from the coaching staff and help from the front office. Whether that’s in the form of a trade for a veteran wideout at the deadline or actually expending a first-rounder on an offensive player, Love isn’t going to simply turn the corner on his own. That’s fine because Rodgers didn’t either. And everyone — not just Gutekunst — should remember that.

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