Perhaps, the most common refrain of the offseason has been that “Jake Locker is in a make-or-break year.” That means Tennessee Titans fans might finally receive the answer to the question they have been asking since Steve McNair retired.
So can Locker be the “answer?” Let’s find out.
What Does It Mean to Be the "Answer"?
Before delving into whether Locker is the answer for the Titans, it's important to determine what question he's trying to answer.
Which is fine because that's not what the Titans, or any NFL team, really need (although it would be nice).
No, what every franchise is looking for is competent quarterback play with the ability to get hot every now and then.
Thus, the real question is whether you have a quarterback who can give you solid production and elevate his game when needed.
Do you think I'm being too dismissive of consistently great signal-calling?
I'm not. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have just as many Super Bowl titles (three) as the Hall of Fame group mentioned above. For their careers, Flacco is averaging 20 touchdown passes a year while Eli has tossed an average of 26 annually, meaning it’s all about timing.
As you’ll see below, those numbers are attainable for Locker as he matures. And the accompanying video proves he’s capable of making all the throws necessary to spark a hot streak.
How Does Locker Measure Up to Champions and His Peers?
Anybody who has watched the first two years of Locker’s career hasn’t been blown away. They harp on his low completion percentage and the lack of touchdown passes (14).
However, fans would be surprised to find out that he isn’t far off the pace set by those Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and his more ballyhooed peers.
Locker completes just 2.2 and 4.1 percent fewer passes than Manning and Flacco, respectfully.
“But those guys are downfield passers. You’re comparing apples and oranges.”
Actually, I’m not. Locker has averaged 7.2 yards per attempt over his career, while both Flacco and Manning have averaged 7.1 yards.
And what about his young peers? Check it out.
Of course, this chart doesn’t include Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson. They are irrelevant for this discussion because this discussion centers around how Locker compares to two other first-year starters who are believed to be franchise quarterbacks.
Nobody asks the same questions or expresses the same concerns about Andrew Luck or Ryan Tannehill. Yet, they hold Locker to a higher standard.
Again, if people try to bring up the downfield passing aspect of Luck’s former offense, please note that Luck’s average was only .05 yards higher than Locker’s.
Also, for those Indianapolis Colts fans who would blame dropped passes or a leaky offensive line, Locker actually recorded a higher accuracy rate when Pro Football Focus controlled for passes that were dropped or affected by being hit (subscription required).
What these numbers prove is that the gap between Locker and his competitors isn’t nearly as large as originally assumed.
How Can Locker Make Up the Difference?
“That’s great. Locker is at least within range of these other so-called ‘franchise quarterbacks.’ What is he going to do about it?”
Glad you asked.
Heading into his third year, Locker has a few things going for him.
First, the wide receiving corps is going to be dangerous. Kenny Britt is coming back at full strength and is looking for a new contract. The Titans also grabbed talented wide receiver Justin Hunter in the second round, whose presence on the outside will move the chains and occasionally stretch defenses.
But the best development for the receiving unit will be the move of Kendall Wright to the slot. He’ll be running those shorter routes that Victor Cruz runs for the New York Giants and using his speed to turn easy throws into long gains.
That’s important because new-ish offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains will be able to utilize those short tosses to get Locker’s confidence rolling.
Second, the offensive line received a huge upgrade with the additions of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. Considering that four of the five starting linemen ended 2012 on the injured reserve, Locker may actually be given a chance to stay healthy, unlike when he separated his shoulder twice last year.
Finally, the defense should be improved, since there really isn’t anywhere else for the unit to go after giving up the most points in the league.
Fewer points given up by the defense will ease the burden on the offense and give Locker a chance to run a balanced game plan instead of playing catch up. Don’t underestimate the importance of executing a plan you have practiced as opposed to winging it as you go.
Do you want a definite opinion on whether Locker will be the franchise quarterback the Titans seek? Find someone crazy enough to make that call without more info. It's entirely too early to tell.
But can he be? Well, I'm just crazy enough to say yes.