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NFL Rookie Watch: Jake Locker

A year ago, University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker was being praised for making the difficult decision of returning to college for his senior season. Many NFL draft experts had pegged Locker as a top 5 pick -- some felt he was the best player, period. But when Tennessee grabbed him with the eighth overall selection in April, fans gasped. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert was still on the board. Locker's poor accuracy numbers (53.9 career completion percentage) and his lackluster senior year had made him a mid-first round prospect, at best, in the minds of those same experts.

What on earth were the Titans thinking?

Unfazed by popular opinion, Locker marched in front of reporters with a Titans shirt and camouflage cap and said of Tennessee, "It's a team that I'll be proud to be a part of." Titans fans were divided on whether to be proud of the pick.

What everyone seems to agree on is Locker's work ethic; it became the focus of almost every early story written about the team's first round pick. "[Head coach Mike Munchak] is a worker, [offensive line coach] Bruce Matthews is a worker," said Warren Moon, who played with both coaches in Houston, "and those are the type [of] guys they like to be around ... Jake Locker will bring that -- he will work as hard as anybody." Said Tennessee offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, "We have a new culture here at the quarterback spot, a guy who is going to be the first one in here and the last one out."

The easiest thing about Locker's transition to the pro game will be handing the ball off to Chris Johnson. The star running back's presence will keep defenses honest and will provide some cushion to Locker's learning curve. Still, Locker has his work cut out for him if he is to improve a passing offense which ranked 25th in the league last season.

Dissecting the depth chart: The Vince Young-Jeff Fisher feud is over in Nashville, leaving the door open for the team to groom a new franchise quarterback. Fantasy owners can expect Tennessee to push Locker into that role early. As Munchak told reporters a day after the pick, "I think he'll have the opportunity to come in and compete right away. And if we think he's the best fit, I think we'll feel that when the time comes in August and September." Ahead of Locker on the depth chart are 38-year-old Kerry Collins and journeyman Chris Simms, neither of whom have much of a future in pro football. Last year's sixth round pick, Rusty Smith, threw four interceptions without a touchdown in two appearances last season. In short, make way for Locker.

Just the stats: In four seasons, Locker tossed 53 touchdowns for the Huskies as compared to 35 interceptions. His best season, statistically, was his junior year of 2009, when he completed 58.2 percent of his attempts for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns. Perhaps most surprising, Locker registered just three 300-yard passing efforts in 40 career games. His most memorable performance may have been his 286-yard, five-touchdown day in a 35-34 overtime win over No. 24-ranked Oregon State last October.

Projection for 2011: 325 attempts, 1,950 passing yards, 11 TDs, 9 INTs.

2010 rookie comparison: Jimmy Clausen

Sorry if this scares you. Clausen posted an embarrassing touchdown-to-interception ratio (3:9) for the Panthers last season. Locker has a stronger supporting cast, so his efficiency numbers should be a tad better (even though efficiency was the biggest red flag scouts raised about Locker). But, in terms of opportunities, Clausen serves as a good model for fantasy owners to gauge Locker's year one potential. Clausen appeared in 13 games for Carolina and attempted 299 passes.

Interesting fact that won't help you: In June 2009, Locker was drafted by the Angels in the 10th round of Major League Baseball's Entry Draft.

What he's worth: Want the cold-hard truth? Not much. It's difficult to make a case for Locker, who will experience ups and downs in Tennessee's offense. Yes, the Titans will test out their top choice early, but the results won't remind anyone of Sam Bradford's rookie campaign. Like most quarterbacks, Locker's payoff is a few years down the road. Fantasy owners need to exercise patience with this prospect.

Mike Beacom is a contributing writer for FootballDiehards.com.

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