As we finally reach part four in our Locker Series (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here), we'll look to understand what we've reviewed in these previous posts, and how those things might project forward. Admittedly, this has been an enlightening process for me, even if laborious. I had watched every play from the 2013 season, and many of them in detail. Like most that follow an NFL team, I had my own opinions of our QB even as I headed into this study. In an effort to be objective, I did my best to put that bias aside.
What I found was more hopeful than I previously anticipated. Perhaps some of that some of the optimism heading into a new season. Of course, it wasn't all rosy, either. There are reasons that many are down on Locker. After carefully reviewing every throw, I can't really fault one opinion or the other. To me, Jake's shown enough consistency and talent in meaningful areas that the Titans can probably find a way to scheme around his deficiencies, but at one point or another he's going to have to overcome these issues.
I think the best way to look at this is through the prism of things we can work with, and things that need improvement. Consistent with the polarizing opinions of Jake among the fanbase is his play on the field. Within games he can show you brilliance that make you a momentary believer, and then, just plays later, deficiencies that make you question his future in the league.
Things We Can Work With or Build Around
Jake is limited at this stage in his career.
We all need to make peace with this statement. Some fans want to take the approach that suggesting he's limited (or that he needs to be hidden to an extent) is an insult. That guys are either "good" or "bad". They either "get it" or they don't. It's not nearly this simple.
Jake has clear deficiencies, and areas in his game where he's uncomfortable. We'll get to those.
Let's start with the good stuff, though. Where does Jake shine?
From the Accuracy post, I found three basic rules for Jake:
1. First read is clearly open.
2. Read is not muddy, and he trusts it.
3. It's not a short-intermediate throw across the middle. In particular, it's not a crossing route.
The first two carry the most importance. The third is not an absolute, but generally issues arise because it doesn't meet the requirements of the first two rules.
When these things are in place, he can make throws with anticipation:
And, appropriate trajectory:
The net-net here is that when Jake trusts what he's seeing he can make every throw in the book, and he can make it with accuracy. When I began this study, I held the opinion that the footwork was the root of accuracy issues. And, while that does hold true at times, he flashes other times where he trusts the read and throws with sloppy footwork. He's able to overcome even mechanical issues if he believes in what he's seeing.
Another belief I held heading into this was that Jake had issues with pressure. This did not show up on tape. He's willing to look down the barrel and step into a rusher to deliver a pass.
In watching these types of plays, it's not hard to see why many fans are excited about Locker. And, for good reason. There's plenty of flash, especially early in the year.
Then, the injury happened against the Jets and play suffered. In many ways, this injury allowed fans to see what they wanted to see. Especially among supporters of Jake, the post injury games are rarely discussed, and generally treated with the caveat that they were injury influenced. The interesting thing in my study is that the injury didn't appear to affect production. After all, he was still capable of making these types of athletic plays upon his return:
The thing that appeared to have the most influence was that opposing defenses began to adapt. Sideline throws (comebacks and out routes) started to get taken away in the later games. Passes were forced back inside the numbers, and things came unraveled.
Things That Will Need Improvement
Two similar plays here. Two different defensive techniques. Two different results.
Note the corner technique on the outside on each of these plays. In the top play, the corners have inside leverage. They will open their hips to the side line, take away the middle of the field, and force the QB to make the difficult throw to the sideline. Pete Carroll describes this technique well:
To take this even further for example we tell our corners to play inside leverage (i.e. to the inside shoulder of the receiver) in this defense. This helps the corner avoid giving up the big play to the inside of the field. If you want them to play the out route towards the sideline you have to give them someone playing support over the top. There is not a corner in college or the NFL that can both play the out routes and also avoid giving up the deep ball to the inside. You have to be realistic as to what your players can do. They only way a corner can play inside leverage and make a play on the out route is if the offense screws up or the quarterback makes a bad throw or the receiver runs a bad route. If you don’t understand that then you are asking the corner to do something he can’t do.
This shows up in that top play. Route + Ball Velocity + Placement + Poor leverage = Low Risk / High Reward throw. Moreover, the read is easy. If the corner shows this leverage, and the receiver has him on his inside hip before the break, the QB knows he can cut the ball loose.
In the bottom play, the corners play with outside leverage. The flip their hips inside. Basically, the message is - we'll give up the intermediate middle, but take away the deep outside. And, for what it's worth, the technique doesn't always work. Nate breaks free here at the bottom of the screen, but the post snap leverage read can signify that this is a dangerous throw. When throwing the deep comeback or out, the QB doesn't have the luxury of verifying whether the receiver will break free, though. The ball has to come out before the receiver is out of his break. There has to be a comfort level that the CB can't break on the ball. This technique is somewhat counterintuitive, because the deep out is - technically - a much more difficult throw. The throws inside, however, require a comfort level from the QB with making throws in and around the clutter of the defense.
Of course, this wasn't an absolute rule in these games. Different coverages were shown, and throws were still made outside. In general, though, Jake was required to make more throws between the numbers and he struggled.
On plays like this where the receiver is a second read, and crosses the defense, Jake's clearly uncomfortable. The play feels rushed despite a nice, clean pocket.
It's worth noting that there weren't issues on all throws over the middle. If the throw can be made in rhythm, and it's the first read, there doesn't appear to be a problem (final Houston throw excepted). It's not that he can't make the throws. He just appears uncomfortable with the clutter.
Some people would characterize this as the game needing to "slow down". That's probably a good description. I think that only comes with reps. Of course, there's the possibility that it may never come at all.
There were other issues that came up in the review, though most ended up tying back to Jake trusting what he was seeing. He made some poor decisions at times, but it wasn't a recurring theme. Read progression - which, heading into this review, I considered a real problem - also comes back to Jake trusting the read. If he gets to that second or third read and trusts it, the accuracy is fine. I will say that he has a tendency at times to lock onto an initial read, it just wasn't a problem that came up with consistency.
If I had to give a grade to Jake Locker at this point in his career, it would be an incomplete. Projections in general are speculative, even when they have a much larger sample size. With Locker, and his limited time on the field, there's a lot of guess work. As I said when I started this series, all of this is putting injuries aside. Another severe injury almost certainly means the end for Jake in Tennessee. If he can stay healthy though, where do I stand?
When Locker was selected, it was widely accepted that he was a work in progress. A physical freak with off the charts intangibles that was still learning the game. I think this reference point is important. Because he didn't have the polish of other high end draft picks, the lens through which he's evaluated is different. You're after the ceiling. It's why you take the risk on a guy like Jake Locker over an Andy Dalton. It then becomes a two pronged question:
1. Is Jake Locker progressing year over year?
2. Can you win with Jake Locker as he matures?
We'll have to see how Locker advances this year, but, thusfar, I'm comfortable saying that the answer to both these questions is yes.
Jake Locker isn't a field general, but he has the physical tools that allow him a longer leash. If he's a tick slower with reads, his arm can make up for it. Throws deep and outside are some of the most dangerous throws for QBs, yet they are among the safest for Jake. Time will tell if Ken Whisenhunt can help clarify things for Jake when the deep throws are taken away. And, there's obviously room for Jake to progress in that department as well. But, when the deep-intermediate ball works, you've got building blocks. The opposite is not necessarily true for those with limited arms that can't drive intermediate and deep throws.
The thing I keep coming back to with Jake is that he's put everything you want out of a QB on tape at one point or another, albeit not all at once. Accuracy. Throws under pressure. Athleticism. Pocket manipulation. Read progression. All of it. And, when I think of QB flops in general, there's typically an Achille's heel. Something that's a constant struggle. I just don't see that out of Jake. I see a kid who's still learning, but he's also progressing. Given this information, I'm inclined to think that it's an issue of putting in time, work, and reps. From that perspective, I'm not sure there's a QB in this league I could more easily get behind.