2011 NFL Draft: Is It Time To Stop Apologizing for Jake Locker?

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2011 NFL Draft: Is It Time To Stop Apologizing for Jake Locker?
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
If Locker can't figure out the mental side, his physical tools will be meaningless.

He has nobody to throw to.

He has no time to scan the field.

He's still has so much room to improve.

There are hundreds of similar excuses for why Washington QB Jake Locker has so far been unable to capitalize on his incredible promise.

Over the last season draft analysts, announcers and college football fans across the nation have raked their brains trying to find ways to continuously defend the strong-armed signal caller who was once regarded as the number one prospect in the nation.

Amidst all the clamor to stick up for the senior, there is one lines of thinking that hasn't gotten enough attention: maybe he just isn't as good as everybody thought.

Sure, Jake Locker has tremendous tools. He has a strong arm, an NFL body, unquestioned leadership skills and tremendous mobility. But the NFL has proved year after year that it is not a league in which tools are enough for success.

Still, there is something about Locker that makes everybody want to forget history.

The most common argument when defending Locker is that his teams at Washington have had no talent with which he can work. His career 54 percent completion percentage is therefore not a result of his problems seeing the field, but the lack of competent WRs that he has to thrown to.

Ditto for his 53:35 touchdown to interception ratio. 

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The Senior Bowl was supposed to be his coming out party—his opportunity to show what he could do with solid NFL talent around him.

Only, things didn't get better. He continued to have problems reading the defense, which is made even more troublesome by the fact that he comes from a pro style system where he is used to going through multiple reads. His week in Mobile consisted of him missing receivers, forcing throws and showing his lack of comfort in the pocket.

It concluded with an up and down game on Saturday. In a game that forbids blitzing and press coverage, a talented QB should have a field day against the soft Cover 1 or 3 defenses.

However, Locker was borderline miserable in the first half, getting stripped once, missing open receivers and leading Titus Young high and over the middle and almost got the Boise State receiver killed between the corner and oncoming safety.

Although Locker recovered statistically in the second half, he got stripped again, showing poor pocket presence, footwork and the continued lack of comfort going through his progressions.

For all the physical tools that Locker has, he has yet to show the mental make-up to succeed as an NFL QB, and that is perhaps the most important attribute there is under center.

If a quarterback doesn't have the ability to read a defense, feel the pocket, understand routes and his own limitations, there is no chance that he will succeed in the NFL. We have seen it time and time again.

Dave Martin/Getty Images
Jevan Snead was another sure fire first rounder who was tripped up by his lack of mental make-up.

Just last year there was a prospect who was in a similar situation to Locker, former Mississippi QB Jevan Snead. Going into his Junior season in 2009, Snead was seen as an elite prospect after throwing for over 2,700 yards and 26 TDs for a Rebels team with average talent. However, his tendency to force too many throws and his inability to go through his progressions caught up with him and Snead suffered through a 2009 season that show him throw 20 INTs and plummet in draft circles, despite throwing for 2,600 yards and 20 TDs.

Was Snead the overall athlete that Locker is? No. But he displayed equal size, a strong arm, and better technique as a passer. So how does he go from being a sure fire 1st rounder to no longer being on an NFL roster? Because his mental inadequacies reared their head and showed NFL teams that he didn't have the make-up to be a starter at the next level.

 

Taking a look at some of the most common excuses used to defend Locker's poor performance, it's just as easy to find examples of players who have either succumb to similar weaknesses or succeeded in situations where he has failed.

 

LACK OF TALENT

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Noted as a QB expert, Sarkisian has been unable to get improvements out of Locker

The first QB that comes to mind when discussing a player who succeeded with minimal talent around him is Drew Brees.

When Brees was at Purdue, he led the Boilermakers to multiple eight-plus win seasons and a Rose Bowl birth, not to mention his shattering of school records, with only two relevant NFL players sharing a roster with him over four years. Of the Boilermakers who played with Brees that went on to the NFL only Roosevelt Colvin and Matt Light have made any sort of impact at the next level.

Locker himself has played with three players, albeit all defensive, who are likely to contribute something at the next level (Donald Butler, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Mason Foster). So how can we keep apologizing for Locker based on talent around him, when quarterbacks have succeeded with the same or less?

If Locker is as gifted as we are made to believe, and a potential franchise player, shouldn't he lift up his teammates and carry them to new heights as Brees did? Yes, Washington beat Nebraska this year, but Locker was 5-16 for 56 yards, while also totaling 83 on the ground. It's hardly a performance that could carry a team. That game was won by their defense, limiting Nebraska to seven points.

 

UNMATCHED SKILL SET

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Newton is as impressive an athlete as Locker is, still more people question his ability to be an NFL QB.

Another defense that is always made for Locker is that nobody else has had his combination of arm strength and athletic ability, so his talented tools outweigh his lack of collegiate success.

However, in the same draft class Locker is matched up against a QB with equal arm strength and just as much mobility in Cam Newton. However Newton, in his one collegiate season, reached heights that Locker never has and showed accuracy that Locker never displayed. People just refuse to make the comparison because of all the off-field concerns for Newton. But if you look at it from a strictly talent standpoint, the comparison is intriguing.

Yes, the talent around Newton was unquestionably better and yes, they run completely different systems, but if we look at just their skill sets, how can we have so many people declare that Newton is just an athlete and not an NFL QB, while simultaneously making the case for Locker as a franchise signal caller?

Locker has more experience, but does not have better results.

He has a strong arm, but so does Newton. He has impressive agility, but so does Newton. He has a great NFL body, but Newton is bigger and perhaps even stronger. And Newton has proved to be more accurate on both the short throws common in a spread offense and on the deeper balls that are part of any system.

Yet analysts and football fans continuously doubt Newton's ability to play QB at the next level. What has Locker done to suggest that he is any more ready? Sure, he plays in a more comparable system, but if he doesn't find success in that system than the argument is moot.

If we question the future of one of these prospects, it is only fair to question the future of the other.

 

LEADERSHIP ABILITY

Many observers believe that because Locker is a tremendous leader and a fierce competitor, he can overcame his deficiencies by guiding his teammates.

These qualities are without a doubt important in an NFL QB, but they are still not enough to overcome the lack of mental make-up.

In the last decade, we have seen countless QBs come out of college with a reputation as a guy that teammates loved to follow, only to see them crash and burn—Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, and Tim Couch come to mind.

The NFL is a league based on wins, success and financial security. If you are not winning games, your teammates are going to start to follow the player that can bring more wins and with it, more money.

Leadership ability only counts at the next level if success follows it.

 

HE'S STILL RAW

Since Locker isn't even an NFL rookie, his tools have people drooling over the prospect of what he could become once an NFL team gets their hands on him.

However, what has he done to suggest that this ceiling is actually there? Working with Steve Sarkisian, a former NFL QB coach who guided the Raiders to the eighth-ranked passing offense in 2004, Locker has regressed, rather than shown improvement.

His completion percentage dropped from a mediocre 58 percent to 55 percent, he threw for almost 600 fewer yards, his yards per attempt dropped, as did his TD totals and his overall comfort level in the pocket seemed to plummet. 

He's spent two years working in a pro style offense and still appears incapable of passing from the pocket. Even during Senior Bowl practices when he has had time to throw, he appears uncertain with his footwork and incapable of going through his progressions. Only when he is on the run, has he found consistent collegiate success.

If he has been unable to improve in a pro style offense, run by a QB guru, why should anybody believe that he will find any more success in the NFL working in a pro style system under some other QB coach?

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We can make all the excuses we want for Locker, but all we are doing is denying what history has already proved to us time and time again. Talent is only half the battle.

Every few years there comes a can't miss prospect in the mold of JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Alex Smith or David Carr—a quarterback who is so physically gifted that he is bound to overcome the mental deficiencies.

But each time, these gifted players run into the same situation, where they are unable to rely solely on talent, their inability to handle the mental side of the game leads to their downfall. For Leaf it was his mental instability, for Russell it was his poor work ethic, Carr suffered behind a bad line and Smith was unable to make the switch from a spread offense.

Why are we to believe that Locker's transition will be any different? Sometimes the players that fail to translate are not always the players who don't have the right attitude or work ethic, sometimes its the guys who can't process the information or think on the fly.

Until Locker can prove that he has the mental make-up to go through progressions, learn proper footwork, improve his pocket presence and make strides in his overall accuracy, he will likely be another name to add to the ever expanding list of examples of tools just not being enough.

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