Jake Locker will never be a viable franchise quarterback. There are some NFL talent evaluators that hold that opinion. Other teams believe he has all the tools to be a great player, and simply needs some solid coaching. Few players in this draft have the spread of possible draft positions that Locker does. He could go as high as #10 to the Redskins (Shanahan is supposedly a long-time fan), or could slide well into the second round. A few have even questioned whether he’s a 1st day draft pick. That’s a pretty wide gap.
The first time I saw Locker play was his Freshman year with the Huskies. It was his first home game after playing Syracuse in NY. I was blown away by his acceleration, toughness and arm strength. He looked like a #1 overall pick right from the start. And it was not just his physical tools that stood out. Locker rushed down the field to congratulate his receivers after big plays. He threw blocks on reverses. He cheered on the defense. His teammates responded to him, even as a young kid.
The growth you look for in a quarterback with Locker’s skills really didn’t come until Steve Sarkisian took over the helm before Locker’s Junior season. Injuries, bad coaching, and lack of history running a passing offense in High School all contributed to what appeared to be largely the same player three years after joining the Huskies. That first year with Sarkisian re-ignited Locker’s star. He looked like a legitimate drop-back quarterback after just one off-season with a good coach. That ability to apply what he was taught, and make such a big leap in a short period of time, was even more important for Locker than his actual on-the-field performance. The best quarterbacks in the NFL are the ones that have both the physical tools and are coachable in a way that allows them to eliminate repeated mistakes over time. All young QBs make foolish mistakes in the NFL. Good ones learn how to avoid repeating those mistakes.
One of the things that stood out about Locker’s on-field play that first year under Sarkisian was his performance on 3rd down. He regularly converted on 3rd and long (say 7+ yards). That is uncommon at any level of football. He seemed unfazed by the challenge those situations posed. He threw with confidence, and often with success. This frequent success did, at times, lead to forced throws and ugly interceptions when the play wasn’t there. But it was remarkable, nonetheless. A perfect example came in the final series against USC when Locker completed multiple jaw-dropping throws in the clutch to keep the winning drive alive. The problem was that for every series where Locker tantalized fans with his potential, there were 2-3 series that left them wondering if he had any idea what he was doing. This inconsistency was somewhat forgiven considering this was his first year with a good coach.
Where things turned sour for Locker was when he returned for his fifth season, and failed to show any noticeable improvement in his second year with Sark. In fact, having watched almost every game the kid has played in college, I’d argue he was a better QB in his penultimate season. There were a few non-Jake factors to consider. His wide receivers, particularly Devin Aguilar, failed to improve either. There were some head-slapping drops, injury problems, and less separation. Sark also seemed to over-complicate what had been a largely effective system from the previous year. This exposed one of Locker’s shortcomings. He is never going to be Peyton Manning when it comes to dissecting defenses and making adjustments. One thing that many people don’t mention is the absence of Tight End Kavario Middleton. Middleton was kicked off the team before the start of Locker’s last year, after being a key target in the middle of the field the year before. Locker is at his best throwing seam and post routes between the hash marks. Without Middleton, the middle of the field became a far harder place to find a a receiver.
What does this all mean for Locker’s potential as a pro? Locker has the physical tools to be a top-tier quarterback. He has the leadership skills, and a great work ethic to boot. The two biggest questions about Locker surround his accuracy and his game aptitude. For all Locker’s heart, integrity, and talent, he is not a great student of the game. The quarterback position needs to be played with anticipation. You have to know what the safety is going to do, whether the linebacker is going to retreat into your throwing lane, when your receiver is going to clear the coverage. The ball must be delivered before the player breaks free. Time and again, Locker failed these tests. Forget the inaccurate passes for a moment. This is just making the wrong throw to the wrong receiver at the wrong time. There are at least as many clips that can be found of Locker doing that as there can of him doing the opposite. Combine that with some mechanical problems that have led to accuracy issues and you can see why his completion percentage never got to that important 60%+ range.
There are quarterbacks that have entered the league with far bigger questions, and managed to become good or great NFL starters. There are also quarterbacks that had far less concerning questions about their abilities that never panned out. Locker has some once-in-a-generation-type skills when you combine his physical makeup with his quality of character. That’s why he is still a possible Top 10 pick. It’s also why I have trouble seeing him last to even the Seahawks at #25 in the 1st round. There are not that many QBs that come around with legitimate 1st round talent, and it seems unlikely that 24 coaching staffs will decide they don’t have the ability to get the most out of him. If he does somehow fall to Seattle, there is a very real chance they take him. Pete Carroll has stayed predictably quiet about players and team needs heading into the draft, but he has commented about Jake multiple times in the past. He has said Locker was one of the best players he faced during his tenure at USC, and was the best competitor he had seen. When most coaches talk about someone being a great competitor, it’s just clichéd coaches talk. When Pete Carroll says it, he’s paying the highest possible compliment he can give. The guy values competitors the way Charlie Sheen values…well…Charlie Sheen (or Tiger Blood, if you prefer). Locker is the poster child for the type of player Carroll wants, tons of talent and plenty of heart. The team could do far worse than Locker at #25, but there also may not be a higher risk pick they could make.
I’ll be taking a look at a few of the other quarterbacks in future posts. There are a handful that have legitimate shots at being the team’s QB.NEXT, and each comes with some intriguing questions.