First round Senior quarterbacks bust at a significantly lower rate than first round Juniors. So why is it that most great prospects declare early? Because of possibilities like Locker's 2010 season.
Posted by Kip Earlywine
Foreword: If anyone believes they are unbiased, then you can assume that they are either delusional fools or petty narcissists. I try my best to be upfront about my biases and give a good effort to work around them, but they will always exist and play a role in my thinking, and sometimes I’m not even aware of it. So I have to be up front when I saw that I am a diehard Washington Huskies fan, and have been since 1990, just slightly before I became a Seahawks fan. As such, its probably impossible for me to give you an 100% unbiased view of Jake Locker, so instead I will try my hardest to give you 99%.
If you follow the Huskies, then you probably remember that just the mere news of Jake Locker committing to Washington was earth-shattering. After all, Locker was considered by some to be a top 10 quarterback prospect nationally and a guy who grew up about a 90 minute drive north of Seattle. When Locker made this commitment, Washington was fresh off a 2-9 record, and a 1-10 record prior to that. The Huskies had been one of the worst BCS eligible teams in the nation for several years by this point, and Locker was seen as a messianic figure to many of the Huskies faithful. Everyone knows that great teams begin with great quarterbacks. It was guys like Sonny Sixkiller and Warren Moon that put Washington on the map to begin with. Warren Moon won games by himself, and with winning comes better recruiting, and a team could get back on its feet in a competition where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Coming out of high school, Locker dominated leading his team to a 14-0 state title winning season. During that year he passed for 1603 yards and 25 touchdowns, while also rushing for 1329 yards and 24 touchdowns. It was a season like one Ladainian Tomlinson would enjoy, if Tomlinson just threw the ball a little more. After Redshirting in 2006, Locker made his college debut by crushing Syracuse 42-12 on the road. Syracuse was hardly a powerhouse, but they weren’t Portland State either. Beating a “real” team in a blowout road win, largely thanks to 83 rushing yards and two touchdowns from the quarterback position, set the tone for a season in which Locker nearly rushed for 1000 yards, which was a school rookie record (later broken by Chris Polk). Locker led the Huskies to a convincing 24-10 win over Boise State the next week- and like a manager who sticks with the hot hand, Tyrone Willingham wasn’t in the biggest rush to develop Locker when just a raw athlete playing his game was winning and winning big.
That short-term mindset came to roost the next season, when Locker started battling injuries due to running too much and too physically, including a broken thumb that shelved him for the entire 2nd half of the year in Washington’s infamous and historic 0-11 season. Admittedly, the Huskies played a brutal schedule and couldn’t catch a break (“unsportsmanlike” celebration against BYU anyone?), but excuses aside, the Huskies were a wretched team and even a struggling Jake Locker was clearly the best player they had.
When you hear people talk about how Locker is really a sophomore quarterback and not a senior, this is what they mean. Locker may have been a 5th year senior last year, but he only played two years within Sarkisian’s system, and just a year and a half before that for a coach that didn’t want to mess with a successful but unrefined quarterback. So while I dislike using the word “raw” in regards to Jake Locker, he’s still relatively new to the system we now judge him by, and further improvement in some areas of concern is reasonable to hope for.
- Elite athleticism and bulk for the position
- Excellent acceleration and top speed
- Good ball security when running
- Instinctive runner
- Runs like a fullback, can power through tackles when he takes off
- Outstanding execution on designed runs
- Sells play action very well
- Disciplined: willing to throw the ball away to avoid negative plays
- Good throwing mechanics, ball comes out at 3/4 at worst
- Quick release
- A natural when running bootlegs
- Over 70% completion rate outside the pocket
- Elite level talent rolling to his left
- Good evade and juke outside the pocket
- Surprisingly good deep accuracy and touch
- Very good arm strength
- Smooth, quick drop back.
- Very strong work ethic
- Natural leader, fiery competitor
- Has strong character
- Not easily discouraged or demoralized, battles through every snap
- Has a few truly dominant games each year
- Occasionally makes “wow” plays, can fill a highlight reel
- Good in a 2 minute offense, strong in the 4th quarter and overtime
- Played in a pro-style offense
- Makes pre-snap reads and audibles
- Completion rate is better than it looks, he suffered about 3 drops a game
- Supporting cast was more bad than good, played college football’s toughest schedule in 2010
- An alarmingly high number of injuries
- Hardly ever shies away from contact
- A completely different quarterback when playing hurt or without mobility
- His speed won’t have quite the same impact at the next level
- Erratic ball placement when passing in the pocket
- Alarmingly low completion rate from within the pocket
- Surprisingly bad pocket awareness and evasiveness in the pocket
- Unnatural footwork except when on the run
- Highly inconsistent game to game
- More mediocre performances than great ones
- Rarely checks his 2nd read
- Occasionally locks on to his receivers
- Trusts his arm too much sometimes and throws into small windows
- “Mechanical” quarterback who executes plays instead of creating them
- Is probably near his ceiling mentally
- Benefited from a pretty good running game
- Rest of the team bailed him out at the end of 2010
If every GM was like Peter King and only watched highlight videos to form opinions on prospects, Jake Locker would be in strong consideration to go #1 overall. I mean that somewhat as a compliment- his flaws take some digging to find but his talent and play-making ability is plainly evident. Taken on the whole, Jake Locker is like a 3rd round prospect with moments where he looks like a guy who’d go top 5. If you only saw Locker play one game last year, and that game was USC or Oregon State, you’d wonder how he wasn’t a top 10 lock. Or, if you saw him play Nebraska or UCLA, you’d wonder why anyone would draft him as a quarterback at all.
In fairness, I don’t really blame Locker for the Nebraska game, his receivers were draped in coverage and out of 20 pass attempts he had a wide open receiver to throw to just once. Perhaps Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Mallett would experience better results in a similar predicament, but neither of those quarterbacks had to deal with the talent discrepancy Locker did in games like Nebraska or Stanford so its impossible to know. In the college game, there is a bigger gulf that separates the best from the worst compared to the NFL, so I’m not really worried about Locker facing another Nebraska situation again. Corners will be better, but at least he’ll have NFL caliber receivers to throw to avoid facing a situation like that again.
Locker is a safe quarterback who avoids mistakes most of the time. I respect a quarterback who throws the ball away and takes an incompletion over a sack or interception, though this is something Locker had to do a lot in 2010. Whereas Mallett hardly ever threw the ball away because he always found a good target, Locker often makes just one or two reads to one side of the field, if he doesn’t find anything, he either tucks and runs or throws the ball away. That’s disappointingly limited, and though I can’t say for sure, I suspect he’ll probably never become the kind of guy who checks three or four reads with regularity. Just a hunch based on the fact that he didn’t seem to grow in this regard over the last two years. Of course, you don’t have to scan the whole field with regularity to be a good quarterback, and in fact most NFL quarterbacks don’t, including (from my own observation), Matt Hasselbeck even in his prime. Still, it would be nice if Locker was better at finding open wide recievers, because he throws the ball away quite a lot and by his own admission its one of the biggest contributors to his low completion rate.
Speaking of completion rate, can Locker be a 60% passer in the NFL? I believe he can, but only in an offense that moves him out of the pocket as much as possible so that his stellar mobile accuracy can help compensate for his weak pocket accuracy. All the talk about fixing Locker’s “shortstop” stride is neat and all, but its just impossible to tell if it will make any real difference. Some believe it will, and that’s why Locker is being talked about as an early to mid 1st rounder right now.
My two biggest worries with Locker are his mental cieling and his health history. If you watch Locker play closely, you will notice that every motion he makes looks choreographed. I give Locker points for good execution, but I think its clear by now that if he was an artist, he’d be limited to tracing over someone else’s image rather than sketch his own. As said before, he’s still relatively new to a pro-style offense and so its not completely unreasonable to hold out hope that with time he’ll become more natural in the pocket, but to me he looks like a trained animal out there when he isn’t rolling out- and I suspect that what you see is what you’ll get in this regard.
In terms of injuries, Locker does not shy from contact and this led to plenty of “ding-up” injuries like concussions, broken fingers, strained hamstrings, and so forth. Locker may be built like a fullback, but he’s still human. I think Locker is probably going to have a solid career if he’s picked by the right team, but unless he learns to avoid contact, he’s going to flat out suck, because when he’s hurt he isn’t mobile, and when he isn’t mobile, he isn’t the least bit accurate or effective. One of the reasons Locker’s stats look so bad over his career is because he played with at least a minor injury in the vast majority of his games.
Still, its important to remember why we’re even talking about Locker as a 1st rounder at all. Lets not forget that this is a guy who can turn a botched snap and broken play into a 15 yard touchdown run, as he once did against Arizona. Cam Newton aside, Locker is the ultimate playmaker quarterback in this draft, making big plays with both his arm and his legs. While I don’t expect Locker to be putting up huge rushing totals in the pros, he’s as fast as Dexter McCluster, and McCluster had a 94 yard punt return last year. So I fully expect the homerun ability to remain at least somewhat intact when he takes off.
NFL comparison: Vince Young
People seem to have forgotten, but Michael Vick was once a “failed” quarterback. As it turns out, Vick just needed to go to the right team and play in the right system to reach his amazing potential. Right now, Vince Young is in a very similar career cross-roads where it seems everyone has given up on him and become disenchanted with his obvious physical talent. Maybe Vince Young will get traded to the right team and save his career the same way Vick did, or maybe he won’t and he’ll go down as one of the bigger draft busts of the last decade. Vick and Young are alike in the sense that even when they struggled, they still won more games than they lost, because stats like passer rating don’t account those 16 yard runs on 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter. Locker didn’t have a winning record thanks to a team around him that, aside from Chris Polk, was mostly terrible, but I think on a typical NFL team, Locker could be a kindred spirit to Vick/Young by posting sub-mediocre passing stats and still winning games. And on the right team, a team that plays Locker to his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses, he could be a good quarterback with flashes of greatness. He’s good enough to perhaps win a Superbowl in a magical type of season where he strings together several great performances at the right time, like Eli Manning did in 2007.
Is Seattle the right team? Possibly, yes. Locker would have been the perfect fit for Jeremy Bates who runs a ton of play action, roll outs, and deep passes, all major strengths for Locker. We’ve been told to expect that Bevell does not mark a dramatic shift away from the kind of scheme Bates used, and if that’s true, then Locker would still be a great fit here. I once worried that Locker would suffer from lofty hometown expectations given his legendary status at Washington, but it seems that in the last 8 months even the locals have really cooled on him and expectations would be tempered and moderate.
Josh Freeman is a popular and flattering comp for Locker, but its one I hesitate to make because Freeman’s biggest skill, his ability to move around and make things happen from within the pocket, is actually one of Locker’s bigger weaknesses. Still, there is some truth in the comparison in that Freeman was a late riser who’s stock was initially low because of poor stats that were influenced by a weak supporting cast. Its impossible to statistically isolate Locker from his supporting cast, but watching the tape, you can see plenty of times he’d get a better result with more help around him, and it makes you wonder.