There are more than a few lessons I learned during my time as an NFL personnel man. One was that if one person in a room full of scouts and coaches stands on a table for a particular prospect while everyone else claims to look the other way, then it’s time to take another look at the player in question.
It’s worthwhile to go back to the evaluation and try to see what the lone voice in the room sees. The process might lead you right back to your present evaluation, but it might also help prevent a mistake.
It turns out Washington quarterback Jake Locker is just that type of player. Locker has been sliding down draft boards throughout the fall and winter. The way some see it, he isn’t evn a third-round pick at this point. That leads to a series of questions: First, is that true? Are scouts missing something? Have we all become tainted by perceptions? Most importantly, are his issues correctable?
As my mentor, the late Dick Steinberg, once said to me, “Let’s start with what we like about a player and then work back to the negatives.”
In order to re-open the evaluation of Locker, I thought it wise to enlist a few quarterback experts into the process. First is former NFL quarterback Jim Miller, who like me has watched most of Locker’s game tapes, studied his work at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine and most recently watched Washington’s pro-day tape. Then there is Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, an accomplished quarterback coach himself, who coached Locker. Sarkisian played quarterback at BYU and coached Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, and Mark Sanchez, among others. Next is a former NFL head coach who specialized in quarterbacks and has been watching Locker’s game tapes for me specifically to address the issue of technique correctability. I also reached out to a current NFL head coach who needs a quarterback in this draft and was kind enough to share his thoughts on Locker, as well as a general manager who is not in need of a quarterback.
I even went back to a Pac-10 defensive coordinator who faced Washington this season and asked about Locker and the Huskies’ offense. His first reaction: “Locker had no one in front of him, yet he threw for a ton of yards and killed us with his feet.”
Former Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien, who was with the team while I was a part of the organization, is working with Locker and has made some interesting corrections in his mechanics. Miller observed that O’Brien has tightened Locker’s shoulders and body lean on his drops, improving his balance since the Senior Bowl. Miller also noted Locker has a nice over-the-top delivery, with his elbow above the shoulder at the point the ball is released.
Those sound like improvements, but there remain critics who describe Locker as inaccurate, unable to find receivers downfield and too quick to hit the panic button and run. As soon as I watched Locker on tape, though, I had an immediate idea on several issues that could be resolved by improved footwork. The issues surfaced at the Senior Bowl, and by the combine I was convinced the lack of depth on Locker’s drops was causing most of his problems. Locker has a tendency to drop-step off the snap, which doesn’t allow him to pull away from center and reach 7 yards deep on his five-step drop.
I did a video series with the late Bill Walsh a number of years ago on NFL coaching. Although I had coached college quarterbacks for six years, I learned an enormous amount from Coach Walsh about the importance of getting out from under center with a first step at 180 degrees. Coach Walsh called one drill “punch/reach” and believed it was never too late to work on it. He loved to talk about putting Joe Montana and Steve Young through it nearly every day.
Locker doesn’t take the proper first step on a consistent basis, and it gets him in trouble. But there’s no doubt he can improve. Coach Brad Childress told me he worked on the same drill with a young Donovan McNabb coming out of Syracuse until he perfected it.
The improvement was evident at Locker’s pro-day workout last week. Sarkisian recognizes that it’s an area of weakness, pointing out Locker has had only two seasons in a pro-style offense and is still improving his muscle memory.
“The quarterbacks I coached at USC started preparing for the NFL game in eighth grade, and by time they got to USC, they were ready,” Sarkisian said. “Jake just started learning the fundamentals two years ago, had to break some bad habits. His personality and mental toughness will get him there in another year.”
Added the current NFL head coach: “Jake is like a sophomore in college to me, and if he goes to a team that can sit him for one year, he may be great.”
As a part-time scout for the Buccaneers at the time Steve Young arrived, I remember a great athlete who was just not ready to beat out Steve DeBerg. But the raw talent, great feet and competitiveness were there. Locker reminds me a bit of Young at that stage, so I asked others for their opinion.
Miller sees that Locker has a sixth sense when he feels pressure and is aware while looking downfield. He believes Locker’s vision and cuts in the open field are uncanny, just like Young’s. Sarkisian called it “a fair comparison at this point.” The former NFL coach said the key for Locker is to learn how to play the game in the pocket. Childress pointed out a critical NFL stat about quarterbacks running for first downs. Rich Gannon led the NFL in that category during his best NFL season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Locker do the same someday.
So where does Locker fit in the NFL? The consensus among this group is a team with a veteran, established quarterback so Locker can continue his development on the practice field. A team could develop a package for him as a rookie, but patience is critical. Jacksonville (David Garrard), Tennessee (Kerry Collins), Seattle (Matt Hasselbeck) and Oakland (Jason Campbell) would all be interesting spots for Locker.
One attribute that rings out loud and clear for Locker is how well he throws to his left. After watching the pro-day workout, the general manager said Locker looked like Troy Aikman while throwing skinny post routes to his left. One of my evaluators has an issue with Locker’s height (6-foot-2½), saying he isn’t comfortable with quarterbacks under 6-4. A way to combat that would be to build a significant amount of waggle and bootlegs into the offensive package, which would take some pressure off Locker.
It reminds me that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has always had a strong perimeter passing attack based off his run game, and Washington would be an interesting destination for Locker if he didn’t have to start right away.
When it comes to Locker’s mental toughness and football intelligence, Sarkisian is the best source. You can get sense of these areas by putting a quarterback on the board or watching game tape, but nothing rock solid. Sarkisian said Locker identifies all defenses, makes protection calls, kills plays at the line, checks into audibles and handles criticism well. Granted, he is Locker’s coach, but coaches have to tell it like it is with the future of prospects on the line.
I was glad to have revisited Locker’s profile over the last five days. It opened my eyes to his potential, reset where I think he belongs in the draft, and, quite frankly, changed my overall opinion of him. I think Locker should be a late first-round pick, and I know two head coaches who agree with me.