This weekly in-season feature is to provide observations from NFL or college games that will help fantasy owners learn about college prospects or team tendencies that will help you with future lineup decisions.
Is Jake Locker the next Steve Young, Steven McGhee or Jevan Snead? The University of Washington quarterback was getting so much hype among NFL personnel types and media two years ago that he seemed destined to be a top-10 pick if he decided to leave school early for the draft.
There were comparisons to Steve Young and John Elway because of his physical skills. Two years later, Locker has yet to fulfill that promise on the field in the same way we've seen from a prospect like Andrew Luck. Now there are doubters that say Locker doesn't warrant the hype.
After my first extended look at Locker under the microscope in a decisive loss to Arizona, I believe I've seen enough just from three quarters of play to understand why NFL personnel executives might spend a premium pick on a player like Locker. If the right organization takes him, I might even agree with the decision.
But make no mistake Jake Locker is raw material as a quarterback. There are signs that he's high-grade raw material but until Locker learns enough at the NFL level to demonstrate an any conceptual skills and instincts of an elite quarterback, there is a lot of risk for a team to make a significant investment him.
But as we saw with Tim Tebow, the NFL is filled with coaches and execs with the hubris of characters in ancient myths. Someone is likely to take a chance on Locker as a first or second-round pick as long as his character isn't an issue. My analysis below illustrates why.
What catches my eye with Locker from the beginning is his fundamental form as a passer. There are really no glaring mistakes or issues with his mechanics and he can deliver the ball from a variety of angles in and out of the pocket.
Locker's first throw of the night was a 1st and 10 with 12:16 in the 1st quarter from an offset I formation with both receivers to the right of the formation against a 4-3 defense.
This was a play designed around a five-step drop and thrown from the opposite hash to the far sideline. Locker's drop got him six yards behind the line of scrimmage and he got his feet pointed in the direction of his target as he made his plant.
His feet were also spread a healthy distance apart with his knees bent so that he could generate some torque when he delivered the football. He stepped into his throw with his front leg pointed to the target and his hips transferring his weight from his back foot to his front foot as he released the football from his back shoulder with a strong overhand delivery.
Locker also held the ball with both hands during his drop and set. His release begins with him bringing the ball behind him at chest level and he delivers it over the top with nice form with a solid spiral. He completed this 13-yard pass on a short sideline curl of six yards that his receiver took another seven for the first down.
This is the typical Jake Locker delivery when he has time in the pocket and its something any NFL quarterback coach will want as a starting point for a young quarterback. He won't have to correct much, which means he can spend more time working on adding components to Locker's game rather than stripping them down at the barest level.
Locker also has a quick release. On a 26-yard score with 11:34 in the 1st quarter Locker flicked a 35-yard pass on the run to his left, turning his shoulders to the target while on the move and releasing the ball quickly and easily. Although the pass wasn't a tight spiral, it was thrown with good touch and trajectory to hit the receiver in stride over his outside shoulder with the safety trailing a step away on this corner route in the back of the endzone.
The most glaring issue with Locker's mechanics is his footwork. This is common with most quarterback prospects because they tend to get lazy with their feet. As Steve Young mentions all the time on the air, once a quarterback develops his footwork and its ingrained within his performance, his accuracy and control in the pocket rapidly improves.
Locker's footwork on a quick throw from the shotgun was an example of lazy effort. He did not make crisp steps in his short drop, point his feet in the direction of the receiver or set his feet in a good throwing stance to distribute his weight. The result of the short pass that he threw into the flat was a ball low and away from the receiver, incomplete with 4:02 in the 1st quarter. This is why quarterbacks always say that the short passes are often the hardest, because those quick routes require very tight, concentrated steps.
I believe NFL coaches will feel more confident that they can help a player like Jake Locker develop greater accuracy because the throwing motion is good and the base accuracy is there; they just need to refine his techniques by ingraining strong footwork. Once he learns this common lesson they have to teach all players, I think they believe Locker will slow down and execute more consistently. In fact, I see the potential of Locker becoming a fundamentally sound quarterback very quickly.
Slowing down his execution of his mechanics will be a key issue. If it's a matter of getting better control of his form, Locker should thrive. He overthrew a skinny post on a 1st and 10 with 4:01 in the 3rd quarter by about 5 yards because he's rushed his footwork. His base was pretty wide after he climbed the pocket and he didn't completely reset his feet. This prevented him from distributing his weight into the throw and the ball sailed.
However, if Locker is rushing because he's uncomfortable with the offensive concepts and reading defenses, then his upside becomes less of a slam-dunk. This is a concern because everything about the play I described above was rushed, including an unconvincing pump fake to his right and then immediately going into his drop before staring down his real read the rest of the way. We'll address this in more detail later.
One of the things I think that has NFL executives excited about him is his ability to throw well to his left as a right-handed passer. After completing a 35-yard touchdown on the run to his left, Locker followed up with a three-yard completion on a designed roll left to begin the second half. Although it was a short pass with virtually no production on the play, it was a good example of his ability to deliver the ball with a quick release on the move and do so accurately. Locker has knack for making plays on the move and we've seen the value of quarterbacks that do this well: Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre (in his prime), and now Mike Vick.
There are other examples of Locker becoming a player with potential for great accuracy. He made an accurate pass to his left while back pedaling to his right on a screen pass to his RB in the flat on 2nd and 11 with 8:44 in the 1st quarter.
Later, Locker completed a 3rd and 10 circle route to his running back six yards downfield for an 11-yard gain with 3:58 in the 1st quarter, but the pass was thrown far enough to his runner's back shoulder that his teammate could not catch the ball on the run. This limited his gain to 11 yards. It was an accurate throw, but could become pinpoint with time once he's more consistent with his feet.
His pass on the run to his right on 2nd and 10 with 1:00 in the 1st quarter was low and too far to the inside, which gave the cornerback an angle on the comeback route. The defender nearly intercepted the pass as a result. Locker executed a play action bootleg to his left and squared his feet at the last moment to his target on a drag route, delivering an accurate pass to his receiver at the line of scrimmage with 10:37 in the half. On a 1st and 10 pass with 2:00 in the 3rd quarter, Locker got flushed to his right and overshot his wide open receiver in the corner of the end zone about 30 yards downfield for what should have been a score. This should have been an easy score for a right-handed passer.
What all these plays have in common is that Locker is better throwing to his left than he is to his right. Mark Sanchez is this way, too. In fact, a vast majority of the offensive plays were designed to target the left side of the field.
There's a solid body of evidence that suggests when he's inaccurate, the reasons are predictably his footwork. His 13-yard hook route on play action on 1st and 10 with 9:26 in the half was a little high. Locker climbed the pocket to get a little extra room to step into the throw and he didn't fully transfer his weight to his front foot as he stepped forward and into his release.
Although many of Locker's passes were quick first reads in the short game both on the perimeter and underneath linebackers, Locker completed a 43-yard streak down the left flat with 1:42 in the first half. He threw the ball inside the receiver, dropping it between the trailing cornerback and the safety coming over the top.
This was throw was accurate in terms of the result, but not how he'll be coached to do it in the NFL. Locker will need to learn to throw this ball to the sideline shoulder of the receiver so he doesn't force his teammate to veer towards the oncoming safety to make the catch. Throwing the ball over the outside shoulder, especially with the amount of room the receiver gave Locker to throw it outside, would have allowed the receiver to catch the ball in stride and potentially outrun the safety for a long score.
Again, the accuracy and timing were there, just not the placement. This can be fixed because it's more of a conceptual issue and not a physical skill/mechanics issue. When he has time, or more importantly takes the time, to step into a throw, his accuracy is good.
His RB dropped a 4th and 12 circle route that was a very catchable but rushed and a little inside the shoulder of the runner in stride with 0:11 in the 3rd quarter.
As mentioned, Locker's first touchdown came off a play action bootleg from the Pistol formation on 1st and 10 with 11:38 in the 1st quarter. Washington used three receivers against the 4-3 defense, motioning the slot receiver from right to left that revealed a zone look when the weakside linebacker moved outside to line up with the receiver.
Locker executed a solid play fake into the belly of his runner, which sucked all three linebackers to the right side of the formation, and as the slot receiver dipped inside the linebacker in shallow zone, Locker exploited the safety's single coverage for the score. This was a well-designed play by Steve Sarkisian and it gave Locker the ability to make a safety productive decision with one read.
This is a common theme in the Washington offense: giving the quarterback quick, single reads and if that read doesn't work out, tuck the ball and run. But the downside of this system is that Locker tends to rush through the play like a child that is asked to read a book aloud but in his attempt to impress, reads the words too fast and without meaning. We'll see this repeatedly in the coming examples.
Locker made an accurate pass on a screen play to his RB on a 2nd and 11 with 8:44 in the 1st quarter, but he did not make a good decision to deliver the football under a heavy rush because Arizona had the play sniffed out. To Locker's credit he did not see the defense's recognition of this play because he was trying to disguise the screen and only turned to look at his receiver at the last moment while he was throwing the football. The result was a loss of five yards.
On a 3rd and 16 with 8:05 in the 1st quarter, Locker felt pressure from his left in the tight pocket and immediately backed away from the pocket and veered to his left. This was a good decision, but he stared down his fullback on a flat route from the moment he released from the line of scrimmage on a play action pass from the Pistol formation and this did not help the play. Locker needed to look downfield first rather then lock onto his check-down option. Once he backed away from the pressure, he limited himself further because he confined his throwing window to that fullback rather than the deeper developing routes that he might have exploited if he climbed the pocket.
On 2nd and 10 with 4:01 in the 1st quarter there seemed to be a route mix up between Locker's two receivers on the left side running short routes in the flat. Locker made a quick throw that the slot receiver hesitated to reach for because his teammate was in the area and the ball fell incomplete. Locker appeared to have made his decision to throw the ball in the short flat before the snap, because he barely made any drop before turning left from the shotgun and releasing the ball. This could have been a more accurate pass if he set his feet, but once again he made his decision before the snap and rushed it. Is this a mechanical or conceptual issue? I think it's both, and the conceptual part could be troubling.
Locker's six-yard completion for an 11-yard gain on 3rd and 11 with 3:58 in the first quarter was the product of an excellent scheme where the Huskies came to the line in a four-receiver formation with the running back slot right and two other receivers stack left and bunched at the line of scrimmage.
Locker motioned the slot back behind the stack formation to the left just before the snap and waited for the receivers to clear out the middle of the field for the slot back to get open on a circle route underneath for what resulted in a quick, six-yard pass and another five yards after the catch.
What I'm seeing when a quarterback has a predetermined receiver before the snap and frequently rushes his pass to the player, is a passer that isn't completely comfortable or in control of this offense. This might be the most troubling aspect of Locker's game. Is he going to be able to grasp the mental aspect of the game? Will he work hard enough? Or will he be another Derek Anderson, an athletic signal caller with the tools to be great but lacking the consistency and conceptual master of the position to get there.
Here are examples of what Locker could have done with more on-field awareness and not playing a simpler, one-read game:
Locker's 1st and 10 play action pass from the pistol with 2:21 in the 1st quarter was a play he rushed and he didn't show full field awareness that you would like to see from an elite quarterbacking prospect. His wide receiver that motioned behind the play fake to give the defense an impression of an end around had drifted to the left flat with no defender within 15 yards of him, but Locker was locked onto his fullback on a crossing route.
When the QB had to climb the pocket and veer to his left, it drew the nearest defender to the wide receiver to enter an open rushing lane to the quarterback. If Locker showed better awareness of where is receivers were on the field he could have made a quick throw to the wideout for a big gain.
Locker's decision to go to a receiver in the left flat on 3rd and 4 with 13:45 in the 3rd quarter seemed questionable because the formation was a 1x3 receiver set with the inside slot receiver motioning from right to left to make it a 2x2 look before the snap. During the motion Locker saw the cornerback motion with the receiver, but he backed away from the line of scrimmage after the motion, which tipped off a zone look. While he targeted the correct receiver in terms of depth and coverage, this change in coverage due to the motion gave him a single coverage on the outside receiver split right but Locker didn't even look to that side of the field during his drop.
Earlier in the game, Locker executed a bootleg left and threw the ball to the flat with 10:37 in the 2nd quarter, but he rushed the throw because he was under pressure. Watching this play develop, you have to wonder if Locker couldn't have used a pump fake to get the pursuing rusher airborne and then climb past him to find another receiver or gain yardage in the left flat. This is something I think most decent veteran quarterbacks do as well as really smart college passers. Once again it seems as if Locker is reading the words of the QB book correctly but he doesn't read well between the lines yet. This aspect of the game is where he's a raw and it's were NFL organizations will have to take a risk and hope this veteran type of move will click within him as he gains more experience. Personally, I'm not certain it will. Most quarterbacks I've seen do this far more naturally at this stage. Even a player like Michael Vick did this in college and his footwork was a hot mess.
It is disappointing to watch the amount of one-read throwing that he's doing in this game. On 1st and 10 with 6:50 in the half, just after Arizona scored on a 78-yard run to go ahead by 10 points, Locker takes the shotgun snap from a three-receiver set and immediately stares down the running back in the flat before completing a pass to him for no gain. He had some pressure on the backside, but if he rolled left on this play he would have created a lot of space with two receivers in the area to work back to him for a better play.
What complicates matters is that there is some evidence of maturity when he's under pressure that NFL teams will like. He made a good decision to throw the ball out of bounds on a play action roll left with 1:05 in the first quarter when he felt pressure in his face and his receivers could not get open. He dipped away from the pressure to initially buy an extra split-second of time, but then made the quick call to throw it away. Then on a 3rd and 15 pass he made another good decision to throw it away after initially climbing the pocket a couple of steps with 0:55 in the 1st quarter.
The fact that he rushes some plays but can buy time and then throw the ball away will have coaches, scouts and executives debating whether Locker is project with franchise potential that will develop quickly or a project with back up potential that just doesn't have the feel for the game as a passer and they won't be able to count on him developing it.
What they will see is fundamental decision-making that is very conservative, but on the whole very sound. The greatest question is whether Locker can expand his game and multi-task the entire field once he continues to refine his mechanics and conceptual understanding of the game.
Locker showed decent zip and arm strength on a six-yard curl thrown from the opposite hash to the far sideline on 1st and 10 with 12:16 in the 1st quarter. Locker's 26-yard touchdown was a nice example of his arm strength because the ball traveled 35 yards in the air with little effort as the right-hander released the football on the run to his left. Locker completed as 43-yard streak to his receiver on 1st and 10 with 1:42 in the half. The pass covered 48 yards in the air and was thrown from the right hash to the left flat with a lot of arc and it hung in the air and forced the receiver to dip inside (and let the cornerback catch up) to make the grab. Arm strength won't be an issue. I'm sure someone like Mike Mayock, Mel Kiper or Ron Jaworski will find something to nitpick and turn into a two-minute TV segment, but he has plenty of a gun to play quarterback in the NFL.
This is also an area where Locker is fairly instinctive and polished for a college player. On 3rd and 16 with 8:02 in the 1st quarter, Locker sensed the pocket constricting him and he backed away from the pocket and veered to his left, checking the ball down to his fullback on a flat route at the sideline for a seven-yard gain. While Locker was quick to get his feet reset to deliver the pass, his decision to back away from the pressure rather than climb the pocket wasn't the best choice because it limited his options to where he could deliver the football. But he didn't try to throw the ball backing away. He moved laterally to set his feet and deliver.
Locker seemed to rush his reads on a play action pass from the pistol with 2:18 in the 1st quarter. But he did a good job of initially climbing the pocket a couple of steps to his left when he felt pressure up the middle to create a throwing lane.
Locker showed good speed against a defensive line stunt that flushed him to his right on 2nd and 10 with 1:00 in the 1st quarter. He outran to defensive linemen to the flat and delivered a pass to his receiver on a sideline comeback. Although the pass was nearly intercepted because he delivered the ball too far to the inside of his receiver, the athleticism and ability to find open space was good.
Locker climbed the pocket a couple of steps to throw the ball downfield on 3rd and 15 with 0:55 in the 1st quarter, but he had to throw the ball away because none of his receivers were open. Once again, Locker did a good job climbing a few steps in the pocket after initially dropping deep from an I formation play action with 9:28 in the half. He found a good lane to step into his throw to complete a 13-yard hook route that resulted in a 26-yard gain.
As with most college (and many NFL) passers, Locker struggled against pressure up the middle. Locker faced a five-man blitz on 3rd and 9 with 6:08 in the half and the linebacker up the middle sacked him. He was in a shotgun formation with four receivers in 2x2 bunched to either side of the line. Pressure up the middle also resulted in a sack of Locker with 1:33 in the half.
On 3rd and 20 with 1:20 in the half, Locker was flushed right by the defensive tackle that sacked him a few plays before. The QB did a good job of getting to the sideline and looking downfield for a receiver. When he didn't find an open teammate, he threw the ball out of bounds.
Locker only had one designed run in this game (a three-yard carry) because he was suffering from injuries that kept him out of practice the entire week. This was unusual for him and I will be interested in seeing whether this kind of decision-making changes when he's healthy.
Locker has all the physical skills you want from a franchise quarterback. And his base fundamentals will provide him a very workable foundation for coaches to build upon quickly. He throws well on the move and has potential for pinpoint accuracy when he has time. He is fast enough to make plays with his feet and he demonstrates nice pocket awareness and signs of good maneuverability and not just mobility. I especially liked that he had the maturity to throw the ball away when nothing was available and that he repeatedly climbed the pocket as he felt pressure.
But make no mistake, the UW offense is predicated on quick reads and limited progressions. Or at least in Locker's case, the staff allows Locker to get away with making one read. Locker had opportunities to find receivers on the opposite side of the field of the first option that were wide open when that first option wasn't available. A quarterback with this skill could have made this game far closer than it was.
Locker really didn't check down on routes early as much as he locked onto his check-down receiver from his drop and threw the ball in that direction. It seems as if Locker is reading the words of the QB book correctly but he doesn't read well between the lines yet to take control of the game.
This is why I don't think Locker is going to be projected as highly as his peers in the draft. If a team believes he's going to be a fast learner, like the Bucs seem to be correct about with Josh Freeman, then we might see him picked over more heralded passers.
I think Locker is a long-term project with the potential to experience an accelerated development. He's kind of like Frankenstein. All of the parts are there and if the lightning strike happens at the right moment, everything can synthesize, his game comes to life and he's a monster of a player.
But if he doesn't grasp the conceptual part of the game quickly, he could become a tease of a player like Rob Johnson, Josh McCown or other signal callers with tremendous physical skills that can end coaching stints.
This makes Locker a much bigger gamble as a young quarterback to pick in the early rounds of dynasty drafts because he's unlikely to see a career trajectory of a Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford or Ben Roethlisberger.
Remember, Steve Young and John Elway were players that had long and difficult paths to fantasy prominence. I think Locker has the chance to draw some of these comparisons in time, but it might take a longer road for him to get there and I'm not willing to make a big investment on it happening.
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