The Washington QB passed up a potential windfall when he declined to enter the '10 draft. Now, after a spotty senior season, he's trying to claw his way back up the board
This is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue
Jake Locker had no time to consider the stakes, and maybe that was best. No time to worry about the three dozen NFL scouts and coaches watching from the sideline. No time to dwell on their doubts about the accuracy of his right arm. Just fall back on training, on instinct and athleticism, and let the football go. Three-step drop. Five-step drop. Seven-step. Rollout. Bootleg. Just let it go.
A half hour later, when Locker's meticulously scripted Pro Day session was over, the men who'd traveled to Seattle, to the remotest corner of the NFL map, walked over to extend a handshake and congratulations. Locker was that good. Of his 40 passes, only two had hit the ground.
Scott Locker watched from behind one end zone at the Washington Huskies' practice facility with a wide smile. Like everyone else there, he knew this was a big test for Jacob, the given name he sometimes uses for his 22-year-old son. If the muscular signal-caller couldn't excel in drills with no defensive backs rerouting the receivers and no pass rushers pawing at his shoulder pads, would there be any reason to believe he could succeed in a real NFL game, when the pocket was dirty and the conditions chaotic?
Twenty minutes after the workout, father and son came together on the synthetic track surrounding the field and embraced. "Great job," Scott said. He was talking about the performance, but in a private moment with a visitor later in the day it became apparent he was also speaking more broadly, about how his son had handled himself over four turbulent years. In particular, the transition from being hailed as a savior his redshirt freshman year, when he was named a starter, to being second-guessed—and in some cases ripped—for not jumping to the NFL after his junior season.
Two prominent NFL analysts said at the time that Locker would be the first quarterback drafted and a surefire top 10 pick if he came out in 2010. But in December '09, Locker announced plans to return to Seattle for his senior year so that he could get his degree in history and lead the Huskies to their first bowl game since '02—both of which he accomplished. After that, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. took the projection a step further. "If you had to ask me right now who is going to be the Number 1 pick in the '11 draft, I would say it's etched in stone it's going to be Jake Locker," Kiper said. "You can mark that down. Jake Locker, if he's not the Number 1 pick, it's an upset."
Locker is not going to be the No. 1 pick. He also won't be the first quarterback selected. Or the second. Such is the fallout from an uneven senior season in which he had to deal with a quad bruise, a broken rib, porous pass protection and inconsistent receivers. After leading the Pac-10 as a junior with 3,188 yards in total offense—second most in school history—he produced just 2,650 last fall, and his completion rate dropped from 58.4% to 55.4%. With each injury and every loss during the Huskies' 3--6 start, the contention spread that Locker had blown it by staying in school.
"There was always that little jab that says, Too bad he's never going to reach that goal," says Scott. "People are quick to jump on something when it goes wrong, even if someone has done the right thing. I had a lot of people say, 'Does he just not think about his future and setting up the people around him to have things?' Jake knows you've got to do the things that make your life rich and not worry about being rich."
It's been said that Locker lost between $30 million and $50 million by going back to Washington for a senior year. The reality is that Locker never would have seen that kind of money, because he never would have been the first pick in 2010. The flaws that are apparent in his game today—inaccuracy, lack of pocket presence and inexperience with read progressions—were there a year ago. It's just that NFL personnel people had yet to put him under a microscope.
When they began to do so last fall, they found a talented athlete with suspect passing skills from the pocket. Locker was physically gifted, that was obvious: In high school in Ferndale, Wash., he was the state 3A player of the year in baseball and a 2006 draft pick of the Angels; he even signed a $250,000 contract with the team in '09. But he played in the wing T at Ferndale, and in his first two seasons at Washington he ran an offense that featured plenty of options, bootlegs and moving pockets. (Locker broke his right thumb in the fourth game of his sophomore season and missed the rest of the year; the Huskies went 0--12.) It wasn't until coach Steve Sarkisian arrived from USC in '09 that Locker moved into a pro-style offense. And that's when the buzz started, as he threw for 2,800 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In the season finale he connected on 19 of 23 passes with three TDs in a 42--10 spanking of Cal.
Instead of building on that, however, Locker and the Huskies struggled last season. When he had just four completions in 20 throws in a 56--21 September loss to Nebraska, talk of his being the first pick in the draft disappeared like the sun behind Seattle clouds.
The issue facing NFL teams now is whether the 6'2½", 231-pound Locker is a stud athlete who happens to play quarterback, or a quarterback who happens to be a stud athlete. That question could make him this year's most polarizing quarterback. Several teams are divided in their own buildings about him. Scouts love his upside and intangibles: He has a great work ethic, comes from a solid family and will never cost a general manager a minute's sleep wondering where he is at night. Coaches, however, know that their jobs could depend on Locker's playing well quickly, and even his strongest supporters accept that he'll need time to develop in the pro game. "It's unfortunate that the kid was built up to be something special instead of coming under the radar," says one NFL decision maker. "Anyone who looks at him now with a discerning eye will struggle to see him as a first-rounder. I can't see taking him in the first round and expecting him to play right away."
"He's probably the second-best athlete in the draft at that position behind Cam Newton," says another G.M. "[Locker] does have an upside, but he's a little ways away. You've got to give him some time. But the accuracy is still going to be his biggest issue."
For all the questions about Locker on the field, there are none away from it. He comes from the Mayberry-like town of Ferndale, where seemingly all of the 11,000-plus residents know his name. At Jake Locker Day last July the mayor joked that he'd be out of a job if Locker decided to run for office.
Athletic success is nothing new to the family. Locker's mother, Anita, won a state volleyball title at Ferndale High; dad Scott and uncles Pat, Mike and John all played at Western Washington, where Pat, a star running back, still holds the career total yardage record; and Jake's grandfather Hugh Locker was an all-city football player at Ballard High in Seattle. Still, those who know Jake admire him as much for his humility and humanity as his athletic gifts. When he arrived at Washington, one of his stated goals was to be a positive role model. As part of an independent study class on leadership last year he created the Touchdown for Kids program, which raised more than $50,000 for Seattle Children's Hospital. "Jake had thoughtfully planned it out, almost like it was a business plan," says Eve Kopp, director of corporate annual giving for the hospital's foundation. "He said, 'I want the whole community to be involved, and here's how we're going to do it.' He didn't want to be the spokesperson. He wanted the whole team to own it. He wanted all the accolades to go to his teammates."
Stories like these lead one general manager to privately admit he's "rooting" for Locker. The executive acknowledges the flaws in Locker's game but says the quarterback has a knack for excelling when it matters most. The Huskies' bowl hopes appeared to be over after a 53--16 loss at Oregon last November—their third defeat in a row, by an aggregate score of 138--30. It dropped them to 3--6, with two of their final three games on the road. But after a 17-point home win over UCLA, Locker engineered a drive at Cal to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired, then connected with wideout Jermaine Kearse for a 27-yard score with 44 seconds left against Washington State to give the Huskies a 35--28 Apple Cup victory and make them bowl eligible. In the Holiday Bowl they avenged their loss to Nebraska with a 19--7 win.
"This guy's future is so bright because there's so much upside to him," Sarkisian says of Locker. "People ask if you can improve his accuracy. I definitely think you can. And the reason is, if you look at him out of the pocket, when he's on the run and making those throws, the accuracy is there. That tells me the physical tools are there to be accurate. There is a level of comfort in the pocket that doesn't just happen overnight. It takes constant repetition. He's only been in a pro offense for two years. He will work at it. He has the character and the work ethic to make it happen."
Locker draws comparisons with former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, not only because of their upstanding character but also because both played in spread offenses and were viewed as quarterbacks who would scramble if their first read was covered. The description has merit but leaves out an important element: Tebow was surrounded by NFL talent. In addition to Tebow, who went in the first round to Denver last year, the Gators had 22 players drafted from 2007 to '10, including seven in the first round and 13 in the first three. Five of the picks were wide receivers, and one was a running back. Washington, which never was better than 7--6 under Locker, had just four players drafted over the same period, none of them in the first or second rounds. How teams factor the Huskies' dearth of elite talent into their evaluations could determine whether Locker goes in the top 10 of the first round to the Titans (No. 8) or the Redskins (10), mid-first to the Vikings (12) or the Jaguars (16) or toward the bottom, to the Seahawks (25). Some teams do not have a first-round grade on him, but given the number of clubs in need of a quarterback, the possibility of his dropping to the second is remote.
Regardless of what happens, Locker is taking the same approach that he did last year, when he first heard about Kiper's declaration, thanks to a text sent by a longtime pal. Says Locker, "It's cool to have somebody think that way about you, but it doesn't change what your goals are or how you go about preparing. If anything it should make you work harder. But I can't get caught up in that. Those [experts] have a job, but they're not the ones who draft people. That's how I looked at it then, and that's how I look at it now. Yeah, it's great that they're saying that—but, honestly, it really doesn't matter.
"The biggest thing that teams keep asking me about is accuracy and whether I can complete the passes more efficiently that I'll be asked to make. I say, 'Yeah. I guarantee you I can.' For me it's always been a process. I haven't been a drop-back passer for very long, and I feel myself getting better and better every day that I do it. Without a shadow of a doubt, I believe I can be one of the most efficient quarterbacks at the next level. All I need is the chance."
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More on the 2011 draft from Peter King, Don Banks and Jim Trotter at SI.com/nfl