While what we're hearing is that the owners and players are still far from agreement, it is extremely unlikely that such a lucrative operation shuts down for a full year. That said, here are 5 reasons that Jake Locker should start for the Tennessee Titans even with a shortened (or potentially non-existent) off-season.
Rusty Smith, 2010 6th Round Pick
The current Titans roster has two quarterbacks: Vince Young and Rusty Smith. With Vince Young certain to be cut, that leaves Rusty Smith and, after he signs, Jake Locker.
Rusty Smith's poor showing last year did not evoke confidence in Titans fans. While it is too early to say he can never be a good backup quarterback (or even a starting quarterback) in the NFL, he is most likely not the answer for next year. In fact, with the Titans taking Locker so early in the draft, Rusty Smith will probably never be the answer.
While people have been throwing around the idea of Kerry Collins as a stop gap, indications are that he is content to remain retired. This is not to say that he might not re-sign, but it is not guaranteed. Besides, with Collins' age and immobility, he is not a huge upgrade over Locker anyway.
While fans were often split on whether or not Vince Young was worth the trouble, a lot of people are behind Jake Locker in Nashville. There are still people who will have wanted Gabbert, Ponder, Dalton, or Kaepernick over Locker (or even for Vince Young to stay), but it seems like the upside of Jake Locker has created an atmosphere of optimism amongst the Titans faithful.
If the Titans are not Super Bowl contenders (and by all indications they aren't), then fans would rather see the franchise guy out there than a journeyman like Bulger or Collins.
If Kenny Britt works out his off the field issues (which, admittedly, is a fairly big "if" at this point), then Locker will have a true No. 1 receiver to go along with the most dynamic running back in the NFL. All signs point to the fact that Johnson is going to get his extension and the organization will avoid a protracted holdout. Combined with the expected ascent of Jared Cook as a playmaking tight end, Locker should have all the weapons necessary to have a smooth (in relative terms) transition to the NFL.
The Titans also have a solid offensive line and a tendency to get the ball out quick. It seems like Leroy Harris is going to be resigned, providing stability and continuity to a position that is already a Titans strength (not to mention the new head coach is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman). That, combined with Locker's running ability, should be able to keep him off the ground and making plays.
Before the draft, there were rumblings that the Titans liked Locker, but no one knew they liked him THIS much. The thought was that they would take Fairley and try to trade into the back of the first round, or move back in the first round and pick up extra picks. Instead, they took Locker at the No. 8 spot and didn't look back.
GM Mike Reinfeldt and Head Coach Mike Munchak absolutely raved about Locker's leadership ability and grit, calling him a guy that makes plays and works hard to get the job done. That he has the backing of the coaching staff is patently obvious (although apparently Mike Reinfeldt has stated that Locker will not be starting 2011 as the Titans signal caller).
But what of the players?
Chris Johnson recently said that he expects Locker to start. While expecting him to start and hoping he starts are two different things, there is nevertheless a begrudging respect hidden in that innocuous statement. Leroy Harris told reporters that Locker is "a great football player. I can see it already."
While Nate Washington (and, ostensibly, other veterans) was perhaps a bit more reserved in his praise of Locker, everything coming out of the Titans camp is that the players really like Locker's work ethic.
The five guys above were all thrown into the fire their first years. How did that turn out for their teams? Well, Ryan, Flacco, and Sanchez all took their teams into the playoffs last year. Bradford threw for 3,500 yards on 60 percent completion. And Josh Freeman looks to be the next guy to join the list of elite quarterbacks, improving from 3-13 in his rookie season to 10-6 last year.
Now, Jake Locker is not one of those guys. He doesn't have the accuracy of Bradford or the poise of Flacco or the ability of Ryan right now. But no one expected them to be that good, either.
I don't subscribe to the notion that if you draft a guy high, you have to start him—too many quarterbacks have crashed and burned because of starting too soon. But Locker is a guy that has succeeded in the face of adversity, worked hard and always been accountable.
Will he have his bumps along the way? Of course he will; Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions his rookie year. But if ever there were a time to start him, it is now—a good running game, a good line, (hopefully) solid coaching and a clear transition period where fans want to see hope for the future almost as much as winning games today.
If it's true that Reinfeldt really does want a veteran quarterback to start the 2011 season, maybe he should remember what qualities made him draft Locker in the first place—those are the qualities that will lead him to success in the NFL right now.