The NFL is driven by the play of quarterbacks, and talent evaluators are always searching for franchise players.
The early focus of this year's draft has been the ongoing battle between Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton as the possible No. 1 overall pick. But the most contentious debate going on in war rooms right now revolves around the potential of Jake Locker.
While the University of Washington star was widely regarded as the top quarterback prospect heading into last season, talent evaluators are spending countless hours trying to determine if he has the game to develop into a franchise player at the next level after a lackluster senior season.
There are a lot of things to like about Locker's potential to become the face of a franchise. He has been lauded for his outstanding work ethic, leadership skills and football intelligence. As a two-time team captain, he earned the reputation for being one of the hardest workers on the squad and appears to have the "show up early, stay late" mentality that is commonplace among elite pro quarterbacks.
Locker's outstanding preparation led to rave reviews from team officials after he blew them away during interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine. I'm told he clearly articulated his responsibilities within the scheme and was able to accurately diagnose coverages from game tape. Locker also projected the image and confidence of a leader, and teams came away convinced that he could handle the responsibilities of a franchise quarterback.
His impressive character traits are complemented by an outstanding set of physical tools. Locker ranks as one of the best athletes at the position, and his sensational performance at the combine only validated his status among teams as one of the college football's most dynamic playmakers.
Locker showcased those skills over a four-year career in which he amassed 9,578 yards of total offense with 82 total touchdowns. Although most of that production was generated through the air, it's important to note that Locker rushed for 1,939 yards with 29 rushing touchdowns. His superior running skills were featured as part of an option offense during his first two seasons, and then used as a complement to the Huskies' west coast offense during his final two years.
Locker frequently worked from the perimeter on bootlegs and rollouts in Steve Sarkisian's system, giving the offense an explosive run-pass option. His ability to throw with accuracy and touch on the move is impressive, and he appears to be most comfortable working outside of the pocket. Locker's improvisational skills are his biggest strength. His game shines when he is utilized on the move.
Getting deeper into Locker's profile, his success as a mobile quarterback could be attributed to his extensive experience running a Wing-T offense in high school. As part of a state championship team at Ferndale High School (Wash.), he was featured as the point man in an offense that relied on his athleticism and strong arm to manufacture big plays. Locker routinely kept the ball on quarterback counters or option plays, and threw extensively off waggle or counter-pass action plays.
It's not surprising to me that Locker struggled with his consistency as a pocket passer throughout his collegiate career given his limited experience in a conventional passing offense. His footwork and fundamentals have only been developed over the past two seasons, which is a major factor in his disappointing completion percentage. Inside the pocket, he fails to consistently find his balance and doesn't show a great feel for the timing and execution of the passing game.
It's not to say Locker didn't show glimpses of being a franchise quarterback last season. He was 22-of-33 passing for 289 yards with four touchdowns against Syracuse, and completed 21 of 35 passes for 286 yards with five touchdowns and an interception against Oregon State. But two disappointing performances against Nebraska (including 5 of 16 for 56 yards in the Holiday Bowl) and another against UCLA, completing 10 of 21 passes for 68 yards with an interception, prevent scouts from universally proclaiming him as an elite prospect.
Locker was simply too inconsistent with his accuracy, decision-making and awareness in those games, issues which were glaring while watching him at the Senior Bowl. He struggled completing passes from the pocket and his questionable touch and accuracy showed that he still needed a lot of work refining his skills as a drop-back passer.
To his credit, Locker's passing has shown dramatic improvement since that fateful week in Alabama. He was outstanding at the combine during the throwing portion of the workout, and his arm strength, accuracy and touch looked vastly improved. He delivered the ball on time and with excellent pace while executing fluid three-, five- and seven-step drops. His balance and body control were superb. His improved performance in that workout has fueled speculation that he could develop rapidly as a pro with experience and repetitions on the practice field.
If he can put together another phenomenal workout in front of scouts and coaches during private workouts, Locker could create another dilemma in war rooms across the league: How early do you draft a quarterback that is likely a few years away from being ready to contribute?
On talent alone, Locker should merit consideration in the first round. But it's difficult for teams to take a developmental prospect early unless there is already a scheme fit as well as a veteran presence in place.
The Redskins have a veteran in place (either Rex Grossman or Donovan McNabb) to serve as the starter this season, and Mike Shanahan's system has featured athletic quarterbacks (John Elway, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler) in the past. Shanahan has shown a willingness to adopt certain concepts that play to the strengths of mobile quarterbacks, a trait which could lead to success for Locker.
The Dolphins also represent a fit for Locker. Chad Henne is a serviceable starter with the skills to blossom into a long-term solution. But if he fails to fulfill his potential in a year or so, Locker could step in after spending the neccessary time improving on the practice field. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano has familiarity working with an athletic playmaker after spending several seasons with Tony Romo in Dallas.
The Seahawks are the most intriguing possibility of all, an opportunity for Locker to play in the Pacific Northwest in front of a supportive fan base very familiar with his skills. He would step into a situation with two veteran quarterbacks (Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst), which would lessen the need to get him on the field as a rookie. New offensive coordinator Darren Bevell has experience crafting his system to meet the talents of a quarterback, so it wouldn't be a stretch to see him tweak his scheme to maximize Locker's talents.
Locker's immense talent and potential make his value one of the most intriguing war room debates of the 2011 NFL Draft. It will be interesting to see how many teams are willing to pass on the opportunity to cultivate his talent.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks