There is a bit of hype following Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker. With 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 99.4 in his rookie season he certainly didn’t do anything to make the Titans brass second-guess their 1st round selection of the former Washington folk hero. But will looking closely at his debut season result in the same optimism?
Spreading the Field
Rookie quarterbacks don’t generally spread the ball around a lot. Coaches will often place the equivalent of restrictor plates on the arm of the quarterback, attempting to make the field smaller and mission less overwhelming. But in his rookie season, 31 out of Jake Locker’s 61 charted passes were in the middle 0-9 yards (50.8%). To throw to that area is common for all quarterbacks, but to have an overwhelming half of all passes thrown to one spot is uncanny. Teammate Matt Hasselbeck threw 162 out of 490 charted passes (33%) in the middle of the field between 0 and 9 yards and even that is above average. By comparison, fellow rookie Andy Dalton attempted 125 out of 511 in that zone, or 24.5% of his attempts.
Now, this isn’t top secret information. All you need is a PFF subscription to see this tendency and of course all 32 NFL teams should have that by now. In football, throwing consistently to one spot is like a baseball player batting .500 on fastballs right down the middle. The solution for the opponent is easy – take way that part of their game. Or as we may find in the next section, just give it to them?
Speaking of restrictor plates, the offense that Tennessee operated with Jake Locker was very much a dink and dunk offense combined with the threat for a deep pass. Last year, Locker attempted the same number of passes (11) over 20 yards as he did between 10 and 19. Here is the breakdown of his 64 attempts in the Atlanta, New Orleans, and Indianapolis games (courtesy of ESPN.com box scores):
3rd quarter down 23-3 Jake Locker comes in, 3:07 left- deep right (Incomplete (I)), short left (8 yards), short right (40 TD)
4th quarter down 23-10, 14:24 left – short middle (5), short left (7), short middle (I), short left (I)
4th quarter down 23-10, 6:36 left – short middle (5), short left (17), short right (I), short left (I), deep left (I), deep left (I), short left (22 on 4th down), short left (I), deep left (32), short left (I), short left (I), short right (4 TD)
2nd quarter mid-drive Hasselbeck goes down, Locker comes in on 2nd and 35 to go – short left (9 yards), short middle (11)
2nd quarter, 8:48 left – deep right (31), deep right (I)
2nd quarter 3:34 left – short left (I), short right (I), short right (12)
Start of 3rd quarter – short left (I), short left (15), short right (I), deep left (I)
3rd quarter, 3:51 left – short right (I), deep right (I), short right (I), short left (54 + penalty)
4th quarter, 12:39 left – deep left (I)
4th quarter, 7:01 left – short middle (8), deep middle (40 TD)
4th quarter, 4:36 left – short left (18), short middle (I), short left (I), short right (9), deep right (I)
4th quarter, 1:34 left from their own 20 trailing by 5 – short right (25), short right (10), deep middle (40), short left (I)
4th quarter, down 20-6, 6:13 left – short right (I), short left (9), short right (9), short right (9), short middle (7 TD)
4th quarter, down 27-13, 3:26 left – short right (11), short middle (I), short right (15), short right (12), short right (9), short middle (10), short right (11), short right (6), short right (I), short right (I), short left (I)
What does this mean? Simply put, much of Jake Locker’s production came in garbage time. Against Indianapolis and Atlanta, all of Locker’s passes occurred while trailing by at least 13 points with 18 minutes or less remaining in the game. So while it is good that Locker was able to throw the ball when defenses knew it was coming, chances are that much of it was given to them by the defense. Afterall, as mentioned in the last section nearly half of Locker’s passes were in the middle of the field – which is exactly where defenses want the ball to go while in prevent so that the offense cannot use the sidelines to stop the clock.
The New Orleans game was the only close game that Locker played in, and that was in fact his worst passing game, with a -3.1 PFF rating. He did make some nice plays with his legs (he had a +2.1 rush rating) but if you want the most fair analysis of Jake Locker, that Saints game is the one and the results were sketchy.
Jake Locker is a good, tough player, with plus leadership traits and plenty of arm talent. So what is the problem? Consistency and production. At Washington, Jake Locker would make one throw that made you say “wow” but come back on the next play and give it away to the defense. On top of that, the statistical production was never really there in college. Of course, looking at just production is a cheap way to look at things but in his Senior season in three games against Nebraska and Stanford (the closest semblance of NFL defenses that he faced) he threw for 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions while completing 16 passes on 50 attempts (32%). At the time, many used the talent gap excuse for Jake Locker’s struggles. But his successor Keith Price had a completion percentage on the 2011 season of 66.9% – and that overall completion percentage was higher than any one game that Locker had in all of 2010. The talent at Washington definitely improved from 2010 to 2011, but can we really rule out a talent increase at quarterback too?
There is a reason Jake Locker is seen as a project – it’s because he hasn’t put it all together yet. Another year sitting behind Matt Hasselbeck would benefit him greatly and in my opinion, there’s no need to rush him. He flashed some positive things in his rookie season but the sample size is just so small. He never even started a game so chances are the defensive gameplanning against him and his unique skillset was limited.
I am high on Jake Locker the player in the long-run (Cam Newton was the only other quarterback who I saw in 2011 as a true first round talent), but in fantasy football where statistical production is everything I see very little chance of him becoming a fantasy juggernaut. Locker will always be more of a gamer to me – someone who can scramble for a touchdown, take what the defense gives him, and win over the fans with talent and toughness. But I see his absolute fantasy football ceiling being similar to another Titan – Steve McNair.
Our Bryan Fontaine has him 11th overall among quarterbacks in his dynasty rankings, which is a bit too high for my blood. Locker would probably be in the 15-20 range for me and I feel like he is riding a bit too high on a misleading rookie performance.
Follow Mike on Twitter, @MDaneshgar.