Everyone assumes Matt Hasselbeck has been brought to Tennessee to be a one-year stop-gap for rookie Jake Locker, but could he be more?
In recent history, benching a top 10 pick for even one season was unusual, but things have changed this year. There are two reasons you typically don't bench a top 10 pick for very long: first, they're picked in the top 10 for a reason. If a player is good enough to be taken off the board that quickly, he's good enough to make an instant impact. Second, and more importantly, money.
When Vince Young was signed in 2006, his contract was worth $58 million with over $25 million in guaranteed money. That is a lot of money. For the sake of comparison, since Locker was not drafted as high as Young, Matt Leinart signed a contract worth a mere $51 million (Leinart was drafted number 10 overall). With the salary cap at $120 million and top 10 picks earning an average of about $10 million a year, it doesn't make sense to give them a lot of time on the bench.
Locker, on the other hand, signed a contract post-lockout. His contract is worth $12 million over four years with an option for a fifth year. Way less than recent top 10 guys. In fact, that's worth less than Tim Tebow's contract and Tebow was drafted at number 24 in 2010. Long story short, a top 10 pick in 2011 is not the same thing as a top 10 pick pre-lockout.
One thing that labeled the selection of Locker as a reach was his reputation as a raw talent. Raw talents take time to develop and time is money (and if the lockout didn't teach us anything else, it's taught us that it is all about the money). That's why many analysts predicted Locker to fall to the late first or early second round: since Locker will take at least a year to develop into a polished NFL passer, no team will take him in the top 10 since they cannot afford to have a bench warmer eating up that much of the salary cap.
But the lockout changed things, now Locker is making less than a quarterback who was taken in the bottom of the first round the year before. Does that mean the Titans can afford to keep him on the bench for longer? Absolutely.
While Matt Hasselbeck may not be everyone's favorite, he's the right fit for Tennessee. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the 2010 season, but that was behind a porous offensive line and with receivers who are not great. Tennessee doesn't have a better receiver situation, but it does have an offensive line. Other than the needed upgrade at left guard, the Titans line is one of the league's best and they'll give Hasselbeck more time to find his receivers than he had in Seattle. Add to that Chris Johnson (if his holdout is settled) taking a lot of pressure off him and Hasselbeck will have a much easier time.
Then, there was the playoffs. Against the defending champion Saints, Hasselbeck completed 22 of 35 for 271 yards and four touchdowns. That's the kind of playoff performance the Titans will need from a quarterback if they can get there. But what to do with Locker?
Locker is averaging less money in his contract than Kerry Collins did in his last contract with Tennessee, so that amount of money going to a backup won't be unheard of. Hasselbeck, on the other hand, is averaging $7 million a year and will be paid higher than Locker every year of his contract. So, from a purely fiscal perspective, it makes more sense to start Hasselbeck over Locker every year of his contract.
Giving your future quarterback time off to develop has become the trendy move via Aaron Rodgers and so Jake Locker may see more time off the field than we all thought previously. So, can the Titans afford to keep Locker on the bench for more than a year? Absolutely. More than two? You bet. The real question: will they? We'll have to wait and see, but it's definitely a possibility.