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Originally published April 23, 2011 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 24, 2011 at 5:46 PM

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Why quarterback Jake Locker is the NFL draft's wild card

The Seattle Times asked experts inside the NFL to evaluate Jake Locker. Their answers explain why the former Washington quarterback is scary and enticing at the same time.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Locker's four issues

Athleticism

• His stats from February's scouting combine were exceptional.

Accuracy

• Locker completed 54 percent of his pass attempts in college. Of the 23 QBs chosen in the first round of the NFL draft from 2003 to 2010, only one had a lower completion percentage.

Decision-making

• Some question how well he diagnoses defenses and how quickly he can process information in the pocket.

Intangibles

• It's impossible to fake toughness, and Locker showed that with the rib injury he played through last season.

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He is one of the most universally praised players in the NFL draft, but also one of the most divisive.

There isn't an NFL coach or general manager who doesn't love Jake Locker's personality, his toughness and the resolve he had to stay in school and play his senior year at Washington. Locker is everything the league's top men admire in a person.

The questions are what he will become as a player. Of the 254 players who will be drafted this week into the NFL, there might not be a player with a wider range of evaluations than Locker.

Is he a franchise quarterback, someone worthy of being chosen early in the first round? Some think so. Or is he a developmental prospect, a type of player usually chosen late in the second or in the third round?

To pinpoint the concerns, The Seattle Times interviewed a high-ranking executive in the league, a member of an NFL coaching staff and numerous scouts. The scouts are not quoted, but their insights informed the commentary on Locker's skill set. All spoke on the condition their names would not be used, so they could provide an honest discussion of Locker's strengths and weaknesses entering the draft.

1. Accuracy

You must take a step back to understand the biggest concerns about Locker.

Actually, it will take more than one step. Try a five- or seven-step drop, then watch Locker stand in the pocket.

"That's what makes me nervous," said the NFL assistant.

Locker's accuracy is above average when he's on the move, but when he's in the pocket, patting the ball and looking for open receivers? That's the question. And when he moves a step or two to evade pressure, he has shown difficulty re-establishing good form to make the throw. All that points to a potential problem. In the NFL, when it's third down and the team needs to extend a drive, the quarterback has to be in dropback mode.

The NFL assistant pointed out that over the second half of Washington's 2010 season, the Huskies dialed back the number of dropback passes called for Locker. Sometimes that was to keep opposing pass rushers from teeing off on Locker. But some of that was a reflection on Locker's proficiency out of the pocket. The coaches thought Washington's best bet at winning was to put him on the move.

Locker's completion percentage declined to 55.4 percent his senior season, the first regression in his college career. The executive pointed to elements in his throwing motion and footwork that could be modified to improve his accuracy.

"I think those things are fixable," the executive said.

2. Decision making

More than mechanics go into accuracy, though.

It's a matter of processing information. How quickly does the quarterback recognize the scheme the defense is employing? How swiftly can he move from one receiver to the next until he finds one who's open?

Making a definitive diagnosis is impossible. Teams are left to make an informed guess. Locker's love for the game — his passion for football — has been apparent. The issue NFL teams are left with is that Locker should have improved in his second year under the system of coach Steve Sarkisian. Instead, he appeared to regress.

That issue is compounded by Locker's reported score of 20 on the Wonderlic, a standardized test in which an individual has 12 minutes to answer 50 questions. The purpose: to measure the ability to process information quickly.

"It's an evaluation tool, but only one," the executive said of the test.

Tellingly, the executive wasn't certain of Locker's reported score until he was reminded.

"Twenty is fine," he said.

Dan Marino's Wonderlic score was reportedly in the teens, so while coaches like to see a starting quarterback in the upper 20s or low 30s, Locker's score is hardly a deal-breaker.

3. Athleticism

This is Locker's trump card. And it's something that he may have used too much in college when he was fast enough to outrun some defensive backs and tough enough to take on linebackers.

"He flashes on tape for you with his throwing ability and escapability and mobility," said the NFL assistant.

Locker's 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was timed at 4.59 seconds in February, but every NFL team keeps its own times, too. Most timed Locker faster than that.

The concern isn't whether Locker is athletic enough to play quarterback in the NFL, it's whether he's so athletic that it blinds teams to other deficiencies in his game.

In January, when Locker participated in the Senior Bowl, a current NFL executive — not the one quoted here — discussed Locker's Holiday Bowl performance while watching the quarterback practice. The Huskies took a 10-7 lead into halftime, and the executive said he thought to himself Locker was the only reason the Huskies held the lead. Then it occurred to him that Locker had yet to complete a single pass in the game.

In the NFL, a quarterback can't expect to run over a defense. Does Locker's reliance on moves and speed foretell an NFL disaster? Not necessarily. Mobility is an asset, and if you go back to 1997, Jake Plummer entered the NFL with a similar style and reputation. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan voiced the comparison of Locker to Plummer in February at the scouting combine, and the NFL assistant echoes that sentiment.

"He worked to become a pocket quarterback," the assistant said of Plummer. "He became more accurate out of the pocket and became a good player, not a superstar."

Plummer was a second-round pick out of Arizona State in 1997, No. 42 overall. He led Arizona to a playoff victory in his second NFL season and later took Denver to the AFC Championship Game.

But it's going to be a process for Locker. Even those who like his prospects think he's at least a year away from being ready to play. Others think it could take two.

"You've got to go some place where he doesn't have to play right away," the assistant coach said.

4. Intangibles

One question that is usually tough for NFL teams to figure out is a no-doubter with Locker:

How is this player going to handle coming into a great deal of money?

Of all the uncertainties about Locker, the idea that money will change him is not one of them. If it was, he would have cashed in with a baseball contract after high school or entered the NFL draft after his junior season at Washington.

Mechanics may be a question, but not the mental makeup. There is no doubt around the NFL about the kid's work ethic, toughness and resolve.

"He is definitely a try-hard guy," the executive said.

In fact, there is a concern about trying too hard.

"When I watched him at the combine, for an example, it looked like he was trying so hard and he was so tight," the executive said. "He just didn't let it go."

NFL teams try to measure how much a player loves football and how hard he's willing to work.

That's simply not a question with Locker.

Conclusion

Any discussion of where Locker will be chosen occurs against the backdrop of where he would have gone last year.

The NFL executive said flatly he expected Locker to be a top-five choice a year ago. Now? No one is quite sure.

Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are considered the top quarterback prospects. Both are likely to be gone in the first seven picks.

Locker is in the second tier of prospects, which numbers from two to five depending on who's counting. Where Locker fits into that second tier is also a matter of taste.

A growing sense the Tennessee Titans could choose Locker with the No. 8 pick cooled toward the end of last week. No one is sure what Washington will do at No. 10, and that team clearly needs a quarterback.

Minnesota needs a quarterback ready to step in right away, so it seems unlikely Locker would fit there. Jacksonville is an intriguing possibility at No. 16.

The Seahawks hold the No. 25 pick in the draft, and it doesn't take much to connect the geographical dots.

But there haven't been any indications the Seahawks are high on him. Maybe that's all a ruse, a stern poker face of sorts, but if Seattle is really interested, it has done a pretty good job hiding it.

So what do those within the league think?

The member of the coaching staff didn't see Locker as a first-round pick. The executive said Locker would be, just not by that exec's team.

"He'll go higher than we're going to draft him," the executive said. "I think he has a chance to be a really good player."

Of course, just one team has to believe in Locker to change the trajectory of a 2011 draft in which Locker is the wild card.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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