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FNQB: Jake Locker is a Tough Sell as a First Overall Pick

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I think, if Jake Locker ends up becoming the first overall pick in the NFL draft in 2011, he’ll be a very, very good player for a very, very long time.  I think he did the right thing by himself, by his coaches, and for his future by returning to the University of Washington for his senior season in 2010.  I’ve always enjoyed watching him as a player, and thought he was big enough, physical enough, and fast enough to play defense at the next level, or he could go play baseball.  Locker is a good enough athlete to choose a whole bunch of paths for a career as a professional athlete.

It seems certain, as of today, that he’s got his eyes set on the prize of being the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.  He’s going to work at it, aim to win a bunch of games for his team this year, all while preparing to be the very next player drafted into the NFL.  For me, at least, it’s going to be a tough sell.  Jake Locker has a very projectable skill set, but he has not been a great college quarterback in three years at Washington.

Locker’s College Stats

Locker’s first two college seasons weren’t exactly disappointing, but, he could have been easily replaced.  It says something about him that he won the job as a first year player under Ty Willingham, but he struggled through much of his first year, which is understandable considering the team was terrible, and he had never faced a level of competition on par with the Pac-10.  After going 3-9 as a freshman, he came back to high expectations as a Sophomore.  Against a brutal early schedule, the Huskies began 0-3, unable to produce any semblance of offense, but Locker was wise enough to not hurt his team with an interception.  The team finally got a winnable game against Stanford, but Locker threw only nine passes before leaving with a season ending injury.  The Huskies did not win a game in 2008, and Ty Willingham, who had recruited Locker, was fired.

Everything about Locker’s career to that point suggested that he was a pretty special player, and that he could do big things in 2009 when healthy again.  Steve Sarkisian was hired to take over the Washington program, and what he and Locker accomplished in just three weeks of football was pretty much not projected by anyone.  First, they took LSU to the very last second, then beat up on Idaho, and capped off their three week run with Locker managing a beautiful game to upset no. 3 ranked USC, 16-13.  Washington was an impressive 2-1, Locker had thrown 5 TDs to 1 pick, and the hype machine for the 6’3″ 225 lb QB was just getting started.

Problem was, it’s like the draft analysts stopped watching Locker at that point.  The slate of defenses he played over the last nine games of the season was among some of the worst in college football, including: Stanford, Notre Dame, Arizona, and Washington State.  Against the rest of the schedule, Locker broke 7.5 yards per attempt only once, completed 60% of his passes just twice, made his decisions at a rate that was even slower than he did as a freshman (sack rate increase by 1.5%), and threw 16 TDs to 10 INTs.

Locker’s numbers within his own conference were decidedly mediocre.  He ranked fourth in completion percentage behind Sean Canfield, Nick Foles, and Matt Barkley.  He was second in the conference in both TDs (Canfield), and INTs (Barkley).  He was just 5th in yards per attempt behind Andrew Luck, Canfield, Barkley, and Kevin Riley.

The conclusion to be drawn here is that based only on existing evidence, and ignoring that there’s at least one more season for all of these guys, Locker is not a decisively better prospect than Andrew Luck, and figures to be rated lower coming out (eventually) than Barkley.  Luck and Barkley were first year starters who have plenty of time to establish themselves as worthy pros.  Locker has just one season left.  It might just be my opinion here, but Locker needs to have a considerably better season than he has ever had to merely hold onto that first-overall-pick in waiting status he currently has.

Furthermore, out of all the teams that need a quarterback, there’s no guarantee any of them will pick with the first overall choice.  When I go through all the teams that could lose 13 or 14 games this year, some have established quarterbacks for the future, and others do not.  The teams that I would throw out there as potential first overall pick candidates: the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and St. Louis Rams.  You can scratch the Rams from the list of teams that need a quarterback, as you can with the Broncos, and the Bucs are probably less than reasonably likely to hold a pick high enough to where they would have to replace Josh Freeman after just two years.  So, how reasonable is it for one of the teams that need a quarterback to actually end up with the first overall pick?  More likely that not, I’d say, but closer to a coin flip than a certainty.

Locker, along with potential early entree draftees Luck and Ryan Mallett (Mallett is a lot more likely to declare next year than Luck, I think) round out a group of athletic but inaccurate quarterback prospects, who might ultimately lose their edge in the draft to a guy like Christian Ponder of Florida State if he has a strong year.  One of the things I’ll be doing over the next 6 months at LiveBall Sports is the Jake Locker completion percentage watch.  He has roughly 1/3 of all college attempts remaining in 2010.  He currently sits at a 53.3 completion percentage for his career.  To complete 59% of his passes in his career, Locker will need to complete 70.4% of his passes over about 415 attempts.  That will put Locker at the Matt Ryan mark for collegiate accuracy and experience, and given his size advantages, would make it hard to argue against him as the number one pick.

Basically, if Locker carves up defenses this year, it makes his projection very easy: greatness.  Every eye in the football universe is on him all year long, and he blows away his career numbers, then people were right about him.  But in reality, this is highly unlikely.  Locker has shown little ability to win games at the college level, avoid critical mistakes against bad defenses, make good decisions, or light up a scoreboard against a quality opponent.  I do tire of the assumptions about Locker’s career.  I don’t think any team would have taken him in the first round this past year because of his lack of production, and I think that’s why he’s back at Washington.  As a senior quarterback, he has every advantage to nail down his first overall selection now, it’s reasonable to conclude that the failure to do so will be in part because he never warranted such elite hype.

America’s eyes: they’ll be watching.

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