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This Spotlight was written by guest writer Dominic Brown.
2014 OR BUST
There’s no ambiguity on what 2014 means for Jake Locker. The second the Titans opted not to pick up his option for a fifth year, it officially became a make or break season for the former first round pick. His performance over those 16 weeks on the field will likely dictate whether he’ll spend the rest of his career with a long-term contract as a starting QB or move from team to team as a backup. No pressure Jake.
The fact that Tennessee’s head office and coaches chose to decline his option came as no surprise to anyone, including Locker himself. Since he was drafted 8th overall in 2011, the Titan’s quarterback has never lived up to the expectations of management or fantasy owners. While he has given us a few glimpses of what could be, flaws in his game and injuries have kept him from reaching his full potential and from being a consistent fantasy producer.
LOCKER’S HISTORY OF INACCURACY
Reasons for concern:
Inaccuracy has been a major flaw of Locker’s game going back to his days at The University of Washington. Despite being in a pro style offense, his completion percentage was never more than 58 percent. This is a huge red flag for most scouts because not only is accuracy one of the most important traits of a good quarterback, there is a common belief that if you don’t have it in college, you probably never will. There are always exceptions to this rule but Locker has not been one of them. As a starting quarterback in the NFL, his career completion percentage sits at an underwhelming 57.2 percent. You don’t need to be a numbers person to see that on average he hasn’t shown many signs of improvement.
Reasons for optimism:
Before we label Locker as a bona fide first round bust, let’s put on our optimist hat for a moment. Despite the low career numbers, his completion percentage has actually gone up each season.
In fact, Locker’s numbers from 2013 tell a pretty interesting story. For the first time in his career, he completed over 60% of his passes throwing only 4 picks in 183 passes. As a result, he was having some very solid fantasy performances at the beginning of the season. In Week 3 against San Diego he added 68 yards and a TD on the ground to go with 299 yards and a passing TD. The next week he threw 3 TDs against the Jets with a 75% completion rate. Even more promising was that in his first 4 games his accuracy rate was increasing each week. He was looking like a possible low-end QB1 and his ability to run the ball had fantasy football owners dreaming of a poor man’s Michael Vick, circa 2010. Fantasy experts started to skeptically wonder if maybe he had finally found his game. And then in true Locker fashion, he hurt his hip and was forced to sit out Weeks 5 and 6. In Week 7, he returned against San Francisco and despite putting up a respectable 300 plus yards and 2 scores, his completion percentage started declining until he suffered a Lisfranc injury that would keep him out for the entire rest of the season. Leaving the fantasy world wondering what would have happened if he had just stayed healthy.
Statistics show that 11 out of 12 playoff quarterbacks last year had a completion rate of 60 percent or better during the regular season. If Jake had continued to keep pace after those early weeks in 2013, he would have been sitting in some pretty good company as a viable QB1 among fantasy circles.
Another positive for any remaining Locker hopefuls out there is he now has the benefit of new coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Jason Michael. Reports out of Titan’s camp say Whisenhunt has been grooming Locker to be more of a pocket passer, which statistically should help develop more accuracy and maintain more consistency. In this new system, we can also expect to see Locker in more shotgun formations. This same tactic worked well for Whisenthunt in the past to help quarterbacks like Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger elevate their games. Most recently Whisenhunt was able to help Philip Rivers turn his career around in San Diego, just when it looked like he may never be a worthwhile starter again.
Another telling piece of information: In the past Locker was quick to dismiss his accuracy issues, maintaining that wins and losses were all that mattered. This April he finally owned up to it and admitted that improved accuracy was one of his goals. We’ve seen examples of how this kind of self-realization can take a player to the next level. Whether it’s a running back who realizes he can’t jump to the outside on every snap, a good receiver who finally understands how precise route running can make him great, or in general any player who understands that to be a true professional you need to always be working to find your weakest areas and improve them. This may not prove to be enough to keep Locker a more consistent passer, but it’s a start.
We also can’t ignore the fact that there are some solid fantasy quarterbacks who still struggle with accuracy. Jay Cutler is a prime example. While the Bears’ quarterback doesn’t always throw the most accurate ball and has his own battles with injury, he had a completion rate of 63.1% in 2013. Part of his success has to due with having receivers like Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, who help make up for inaccurate throws with their physical play and ball domination. Locker may not have Jeffrey or Marshall to throw to but he does have a dynamic core of receivers in Kendall Wright, tight end Delanie Walker and an vertical threat Justin Hunter. All are poised to break out this year or at the very least take a big step forward. Plus the addition of a quick, pass-catching Dexter McCluster could give him the outlet he needs to get the ball out fast instead of taking off running.
LOCKER’S HISTORY OF INJURY
Reasons for concern:
There are plenty. In three seasons Locker has only started 18 games, sitting out almost half his career with some ailment or another. At 26 years old and being in the league for only 3 seasons, it may not be fair to call Locker injury prone, but he’s certainly dealt with his share going back to college. It’s hard to put much trust in Locker when he has never been able to make it through an entire season.
Reasons for optimism:
Reports out of Titan’s camp are that Locker has recovered well from his Lisfranc surgery and he should be ready to go for the regular season. Looking forward into 2014, a new system that keeps him less mobile will hopefully decrease his chances of getting hurt. The only problem is that it also decreases his chances of adding significant rushing yards to the fantasy scores each week – further skewing the balance of risk/reward to the side of risk.
One thing Locker has going for him in the “please don’t hit me hard” department is what should be an improved offensive line made up of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, tackles Michael Roos and 2014 draft pick Taylor Lewan and newly signed veteran Michael Oher. If they can establish a decent ground game and the line holds up, Locker should have more time to get the ball out. Heck, he could even remain upright for all 16 games.
LAST MAN STANDING…HOPEFULLY
As far as competition, there isn’t much. Locker is still the Titans’ best option for success in 2014. The team added Charlie Whitehurst after letting Ryan Fitzpatrick leave for Houston in the offseason and didn’t draft quarterback Zach Mettenberger until the 6th round. In other words, the cards are on the table. It’s clear they want to give Locker one more chance to show them that he can be their quarterback of the future. While Mettenberger could pose a threat if Locker struggles, he is still recovering from a surgically repaired ACL and may not be 100% at the start of the season. So right now, it’s Locker’s job to lose.
- Locker showed a steadily rising completion percentage and was a low end QB1 for several weeks in 2013 before getting hurt
- New coach Ken Whisenhunt is grooming Locker to be more of a pocket passer and has a history of helping quarterbacks improve their game (i.e. Philip Rivers)
- Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Delanie Walker are all high upside receiving options. If all three take a step forward, Locker will have powerful weapons to throw to all over the field.
- In his entire NFL career, Locker has never stayed healthy for a full season. Betting on that to change could be costly
- Locker has a lengthy track record of accuracy problems which doesn’t bode well for a major reform
- Under Whisenhunt’s new system Locker could see a significant decrease in valuable fantasy rushing yards
I firmly believe in the human spirit’s ability to surpass any and all roadblocks with faith, hard work and determination. But I’m still not holding a spot on my roster for Jake Locker in standard redraft leagues. If by mid season Locker is a low end QB1 behind a strong offensive line and with a powerhouse of talent at the receiver position, I will not be surprised. There is definitely a chance he can outperform his current projections and maybe significantly so. Yet with so much talent in the quarterback pool this year, there’s really no reason to jump headfirst into the deep end for Locker unless you’re in a 16-team or 2QB league. The right move is to let him fall out of the draft and watch the first few games for signs that the new system is working. If his completion percentage is above 60% for the first few games, he might be worth picking up off the waiver wire. The upside is there, but so is his track record.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB
J.J. Zachariason – Numberfire
…don’t assume that Jake Locker, who hasn’t done anything of real worth in his NFL career, will be worthless in fantasy football this year. He has the tools to be a Konami Code quarterback, his head coach has historically brought quarterback relevancy, and Locker's weapons are youthful and hold a lot of potential. I'll more than likely regret writing this once December hits, but there's still a chance - albeit a slight one - that Jake Locker moves into QB1 conversation this year.
Justin Becker – Titan Sized
He’s still not being drafted on average going into the 2014 fantasy football season, and that’s probably still suggested. However, Locker is absolutely a player to watch and has the tools necessary to turn into a very viable QB1 in fantasy football.
A huge part of his fantasy success is going to hinge on his health. If he can simply appear in all 16 games, he’s going to have a decent shot at approaching top-15 value. If he can keep progressing, utilize his weapons and make good decisions, he could be even better.
Justin Winn - Rotoviz
Critically, I believe there is too much opportunity cost in drafting Locker. If Locker gets injured, you will have used up a draft selection and roster spot on him for no reason, especially since his ADP essentially dictates that he has to be your QB2. There is also the chance he loses his job outright midseason. It makes more sense to draft a different QB with more upside who is also less of an overall risk.
If you really want some skin in the Titans QB situation, I suggest you invest in the possibility that Locker gets injured. The Titans drafted Zach Mettenberger, RotoViz’s fifth-ranked rookie QB. He has some red flags, but there are also some indications that he could be a great prospect, certainly better than Locker. Because he was drafted so late by a team that nobody pays much attention to, you can obtain him relatively cheaply in dynasty. That is unusual for a QB who has a very good chance of seeing the field in his rookie year. In redraft, just wait to see if Locker gets injured and pick Mettenberger up if he does. If Mettenberger is the real deal, the only thing stopping him from showing it are Locker’s frail body and “Clipboard” Charlie Whitehurst. I believe that possibility is more likely and more cost-effective than hoping 2014 is the year Locker finally lives up to his status as a 1st round pick.