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Jake Locker's Tennessee Titans career at make-or-break point

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Money speaks loudest in pro-athlete parlance, and in that way, the Tennessee Titans sent a strong message to Jake Locker in May, when they declined to pick up his $14.6 million option for 2015.

But that was three months ago. And training camp has a way of breathing new life into plotlines that were previously thought hopeless.

So here we are in August -- with new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt now having gotten his footing, as well as considerable time on the field with his players -- and the idea that Locker could eventually get it right with this team, delivering on the promise that made him the eighth overall pick three years ago, is viable again.

Likely? Maybe not. But firmly entrenched now as the starter in Tennessee, Locker most certainly will get his shot to prove he was worth the investment the Titans made in 2011, and that he's worth investing in going forward.

"Sure," Whisenhunt said. "I mean, I think that's why we're excited about working with Jake. The organization felt strongly about Jake a number of years ago, to draft him where they did. I think there have been signs of him starting to play well, especially at the start of last season. The injury thing has been one that's been frustrating on a lot of fronts for a lot of people, Jake included.

"But aside from that, he has a lot of the qualities, the abilities you like in that position. And if he can do it at a level that you feel he was progressing to last year, there'll be a lot of excitement about the future."

Locker is one of a number of quarterbacks going into 2014 with both his personal fortunes and those of his team riding on his performance. As is true of Alex Smith with the Kansas City Chiefs and, if they start in the fall, Michael Vick with the New York Jets and Brian Hoyer with the Cleveland Browns, Locker's play is a variable for a group with an intriguing foundation of young talent. Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were in similar situations with the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, but Dalton landed a contract extension Monday, while Kaepernick signed his earlier this offseason.

Based on the way Locker began last season, there's reason for cautious optimism: He had six touchdown passes and no interceptions as the Titans went 3-1 in September. But in the last of those four games, he went down with a sprained hip and MCL. When he returned three weeks later, his play leveled off, and just three weeks after that, a Lisfranc injury ended his season.

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Three years into his NFL career, the ups and downs of that last paragraph pretty much encapsulate the story of Locker as a pro athlete. According to Titans sources, the sole reason the club declined to pick up the option -- remember, these fifth-year options available on contracts signed by first-round draft picks are guaranteed for injury only -- was health. The team simply couldn't risk being on the hook for nearly $15 million in 2015 were Locker to go down again, and no one gets that more than Locker himself.

"After I broke my foot, I got up and could feel something was wrong," Locker said. "But I was like, You know what? I'm gonna play one more play. Hopefully, it'll go away. It didn't hurt that bad, so I thought maybe it'd be alright. And then I went to hand it off and I couldn't run. That was one of those moments where I was like, No, this isn't gonna happen again this way. It's hard."

He resolved later to focus on what he could control. And that's good, because a lot has happened since then. Locker has a new coach in Whisenhunt (who replaced the fired Mike Munchak) and a new offensive coordinator in Jason Michael. Meanwhile, two cornerstone offensive pieces of the past -- running back Chris Johnson and receiver Kenny Britt -- are gone.

Fortunately for Locker, Whisenhunt has resurrected quarterbacks in ruts before. He did it with Kurt Warner when he was head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and he did it with Philip Rivers when he was offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers last year. To that end, Locker has spent considerable time watching the latter on tape as he learns the new scheme.

"One thing you see, (Rivers) was very disciplined with his feet and his eyes, where he was in the progression, where he was in the offense," Locker said. "I feel like when I've gotten myself in trouble in OTAs and in practice on certain plays, it's because I'm getting sloppy with my feet, and where I'm putting my eyes. When I'm consistent with that, I feel really good about working inside this offense."

The Titans' new staff also asked Locker to cut some weight -- he's down five pounds, to 220 -- to take pressure off his surgically repaired foot.

And that leads to the question of his playing style. Locker points out that, for the most part, his injuries have been freak occurrences, not the result of recklessness, citing the fact that last year's foot injury came on a called run. Still, Whisenhunt has worked with big athletes at the position before -- like Ben Roethlisberger when he was offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and his feeling is that the hits should be limited, to some degree, through coaching.

"Ben's done that. Aaron Rodgers, you see him make runs," Whisenhunt said. "I'm not saying that's all Jake's gotta do, but that's gonna happen. You just have to be a little bit smarter, in how those things happen, not trying to get the extra yards, not trying to stay inbounds to extend a play. Now, let's be clear that if we're talking about a critical third down or a touchdown, that's football -- you have to do those things.

"But during the normal course of playing, once you've gotten the first down or as much as you can get, being smart, getting down, getting out of bounds, so you can -- and I hate to use the clich�� term -- live to fight another day, that's part of it."

All of this guarantees nothing, of course. Locker's football character has always been beyond reproach, so it is fair to assume he'll do everything he can to take the coaching and get it right.

Whether that happens or not remains an open question.

And questions remain for Hoyer, Smith and Vick, too. So here's a look at each guy and what he needs to do in 2014, through the eyes of one veteran pro scouting director:

Hoyer: "He's the classic NFL backup quarterback. I'm not comparing him specifically to (Jeff) Hostetler, but he's like that in that you'd be comfortable he can come in and win a game or two for you, keep things going. The guys love him and will rally around him, but not that's not indicative of his physical skills."

Locker: "Locker still has to prove he can play. You know he has the athleticism, the toughness, and those are the things that get him in trouble the most. He has to prove he can play consistently. I wouldn't see a big market for him. I can't see a franchise coming out and saying, 'Let's pay him as a starter.' The current mid-level deal is Aaron Rodgers' old deal, and it's hard to see him getting that if he can't play a full year."

Smith: "The reality is, he's not a franchise quarterback. His perception is, San Francisco won with him, Kansas City won with him. So he may see himself as a franchise quarterback. The timing for him in K.C., he was the right fit, but Andy (Reid) can find a more talented quarterback. He'd be a mid-tier guy on the market. I'm not sure anyone would invest $100 million in him. He's more a stop-gap guy who can be a good teacher for a young guy, and can be in the lineup until (that) young guy is ready."

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Vick: "I think he's at the end, and he knows that. How much gas is left in the tank? A guy like Vick always has the athletic ability to lean back on, and he was always just an adequate passer. How much is left in the tank? You're not gonna pay Vick to be a passer. You can find creative ways to involve him. But he's another one where you gotta talk about his injury history."

Three and out from Titans camp

1) The most noticeable difference made by Whisenhunt thus far? To those inside the Titans organization, it's the attention to detail he's stressed. Remember, this is the first real shakeup since the franchise moved to Tennessee from Houston in 1997. Jeff Fisher served 17 years as head coach, and he was replaced by one of his top lieutenants, Munchak, who held the post for the past three seasons. (Oh, and Fisher himself was an internal hire off of his predecessor Jack Pardee's staff.) From my perspective, the stickler in Whisenhunt is apparent at practice in the way he smoothly moves from position group to position group during individual drills. At one point, he was getting on a young receiver for rounding his turns during a cone drill. Then he was studying Locker's footwork. On the flip side, Whisenhunt says he tweaked things in his year as a coordinator between head-coaching gigs, as most guys do. "Your ego, it's hard to say, 'OK, I was wrong, this wasn't good enough.' But when you're away from it, you can look at those things and you're with another system, you're with different players, you see a different way of doing things, you can incorporate those things into what you're doing. Ultimately, hopefully, it makes you better."

2) Getting Ray Horton as defensive coordinator was a coup, in that he's been a head-coaching candidate, and if it weren't for a couple of messy situations over the past two years, a name like his wouldn't be on the market. Whisenhunt says that because Horton won a ring as a player (with the 1992 Dallas Cowboys) and a coach (two, in fact, with the 2005 and '08 Steelers), "He brings credibility to the position." And it appears the buy-in has been quick from the players. Veteran safety Bernard Pollard explained how, after Horton did film study on each player on the defense, he called them individually to give them things to work on over the course of the spring. And in the time since, Horton has implemented a similar strategy in teaching his Steeler-scheme defense, giving the players a plan and trusting them to carry it out. More than anything, the idea is to get guys to play instinctively and to play fast. "It's being able to just go," said Pollard. "There were times last year, we didn't have that freedom. For a coach to come in and give you that freedom but demand that you be accountable at the same time, that's been the best thing for us." Three Titans players to watch as fits with Horton: Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley.

3) Locker's success is obviously the biggest key on offense. The good news is that the Titans feel like they've put the right group of players around him. The offensive line got a high-end infusion of talent for the second straight year, with No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan coming aboard, and it'll be a disappointment if that group isn't a major strength for the team. Receiver Kendall Wright looks like he should top last year's 94-catch campaign, while Justin Hunter could -- with a little more growing up -- be a force on the outside. And Taylor Thompson, a converted defensive end, is a dark horse at tight end. The one spot that'll get scrutiny is tailback, but it's not like Johnson lit the world on fire last year. Still, Tennessee has to hope it can keep Shonn Greene healthy and get rookie Bishop Sankey up to speed quickly.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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