In the monthslong buildup to next week’s NFL draft, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love has been the single most intriguing prospect in the country, if not simply the most enigmatic.

Love, who declared for the draft after completing his junior season last fall, has generated a lot of buzz in the predraft speculation, which has become a cottage industry for every guy with a laptop. His stock has risen dramatically since the season ended, despite a mediocre performance last fall.

Most prognosticators predict Love will be taken in the first round and several have compared him to — are you ready? — Patrick Mahomes, the great Kansas City Chiefs quarterback who took his team to a Super Bowl victory in his second year as a starter.

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Love is the wild card in the draft. There are plenty of reasons for both optimism and skepticism about his future at the next level.

Even to a casual observer it’s apparent Love has a powerful arm. He also has good size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), athleticism at a position that is becoming increasingly athletic and the ability to extend plays and throw on the run. The big question is which quarterback is he — the 2018 version or the 2019 version?

In 2018, he threw for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and an average of 8.5 yards per attempt for a 158.3 passer rating; in 2019, he threw for 3,402 yards, 20 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and an average of 7.2 yards per attempt for a 129.1 passer rating.

Love’s performance dropped considerably (where Mahomes improved all three seasons while playing for Texas Tech). Matt Wells, who coached Love in 2017 and 2018 as USU’s head coach before moving to Texas Tech, told ESPN that he received calls from seven NFL head coaches last week inquiring about Love. Apparently, there are still a lot of questions to be answered even at this late date in the evaluation process.

Was Love’s mediocre performance due to having lesser talent around him last fall? And how do you factor the inferior competition he faces in the Mountain West Conference?

Love raised his stock at the NFL combine, placing himself among the top four quarterback prospects, somewhere behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and perhaps pulling ahead or even with Oregon’s Justin Herbert.

Tagovailoa is the X factor because of his injury history. No one would be surprised if Love is selected in the top 10 overall picks, especially if he is taken by a team that can afford to let him sit and mature for a season or two before he plays, as Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers did. Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Jacksonville could provide that opportunity.

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ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported the Dolphins, Saints, Patriots, Redskins, Packers and Chargers are among the teams that have made inquiries about Love. Love might be targeted as the eventual replacement for Tom Brady in New England (or Tampa) or Rodgers in Green Bay. Brady will be 43 next season, and Rodgers, who will turn 37 in December, isn’t the dominant player he once was. If the Dolphins or Redskins draft Love, there might be a temptation to rush him onto the field prematurely.

For the record, only 24 Utah collegiate players have been taken in the first round of the NFL draft, but that comes with several qualifiers — two of them were taken in the first round of the supplemental draft, two of them were taken by the old AFL (before it merged with the NFL), and one of them (the incomparable Merlin Olsen) was counted once but was actually drafted twice in the first round in the same year — by an NFL team and an AFL team.

Utah collegians taken in the first round of the NFL draft

If Love is chosen in the first round, he would be the first USU player taken in the first round since Phil Olsen in 1970. He also would be the seventh Utah collegiate quarterback to do so, if you count Steve Young. Young would’ve been a high first-round draft pick in 1984 if he hadn’t signed with the soon-to-be defunct United States Football League. A couple of months later, the NFL held a supplemental draft of players who had been selected that year by the USFL, and Young was the first player chosen (Buccaneers).

The other quarterbacks who were taken in the first round were Utah’s Lee Grosscup in 1959 (Giants); USU’s Bill Munson in 1964 (Rams); BYU’s Marc Wilson in 1980 (Raiders); BYU’s Jim McMahon in 1982 (Bears); and Utah’s Alex Smith in 2005 (Chiefs).

Grosscup played in only 16 games during three years in the NFL and AFL, throwing for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Munson played for 16 years, for five teams. He started two seasons for the Rams and alternated as the starter and backup for eight years with the Lions. He passed for 84 touchdowns, 80 interceptions and almost 13,000 yards.

Wilson was the Raiders’ starting quarterback for a time and led them to a division title in 1985, but he lost his job to ageless wonder Jim Plunkett. Wilson played 10 years in the NFL, the last two for the New England Patriots. He threw for 86 touchdowns, 102 interceptions and 14,391 yards.

McMahon fulfilled the prediction of his college coach, LaVell Edwards, by leading a team to the Super Bowl — the Chicago Bears in 1985. But injuries and an ultraconservative offensive coach, Mike Ditka, hampered his career. He played 15 years in the NFL, for six teams. He threw for 18,148 yards, 100 touchdowns and 90 interceptions.

Young of course had a Hall of Fame career. He was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1992 and 1994, as well as MVP of the 1995 Super Bowl in which he threw a record six touchdown passes in a rout of the San Diego Chargers. Despite playing two seasons for the LA Express of the USFL and two years with the moribund Buccaneers and serving as Joe Montana’s caddie for four seasons in San Francisco before he became a full-time starter, Young threw for 33,124 yards, 232 touchdowns and 107 interceptions.

Alex Smith has played 15 seasons in the NFL, but has missed two of them (2008 and 2019) with injuries and his future in the game is uncertain. He was famously ditched by the 49ers in favor of Colin Kaepernick, but he rebounded with the Chiefs. Smith is an underrated player, having thrown for 34,000 yards, 193 touchdowns and 101 interceptions.

Love will be the next Utah-connected quarterback to get a shot at the NFL.