Percentages say Jake Locker should return to Washington
Some 73 percent of high-profile quarterbacks leaving college early didn't succeed in NFL.
Special to The Seattle Times
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Hugh Millen, a former Washington quarterback, is an analyst at KJR Radio 950 and KCPQ TV. After being named MVP of the New England Patriots in 1991, he signed what was then the largest contract in club history. After 11 years in the NFL, he was the career completion percentage leader for the Patriots and the Denver Broncos.
Some day my grandchildren will ask me what I remember about Jake Locker. I will reply that watching him play football was nothing less than breathtaking. That he could run like Hugh McElhenny and throw like Warren Moon. That he was, simply, the most talented Washington football player I ever saw.
Whether dragging six defenders into the Boise State end zone or slamming a Notre Dame defender to the turf with a stiff-arm-gone-postal, the only thing that equaled Locker's talent was his ferocious competitiveness. And his character.
"But wait, Grampa," they'll interrupt, "tell us about his NFL career."
Before that narrative can be told, Locker has perhaps the decision of his life. I believe he has earned the right to set aside every Husky's desire for him to return and to act in the interests of himself and his family. Still, by doing so, the choice isn't the money grab of April's draft.
The choice is Washington.
When Locker announces his decision, we will learn how he prioritizes three values: 1) money; 2) the thrill of high-level quarterbacking; 3) the memories he takes and the legacy he leaves from his Washington experience.
And we will learn how he manages the risk of two threats — injury and failure.
Locker is projected to be a top-10 pick in this spring's draft after never having been even second-team All-Pac-10 because of his measurable talent and vast improvement in only one season under Steve Sarkisian. If the NFL is this mesmerized by his skill set, then it is almost inconceivable that a second year with Sarkisian would leave Locker unclaimed in 2011's first round.
Because a rookie wage scale would likely affect only the top 10 to 15 picks, a quarterback taken that year at No. 32 would still be slotted at about $12 million.
The injury potential takes two forms: career-ending and career-changing. Insurance can mitigate career-ending.
Sam Bradford's recent shoulder separation is the example many will use to advise juniors to leave school early. Yet history indicates that the Oklahoma QB's injury is both rare and surmountable. Of the 252 senior quarterbacks drafted in the last 20 years, CBSSportsline.com draft expert Rob Rang cites just 13 who suffered injuries as seniors. In all instances, the impact on draft status was minimal.
Recall that Miami running back Willis McGahee completely powdered his left knee, yet recovered to be the 23rd overall pick four months later. Bradford will see his payday.
Thus one near-certainty emerges: Regardless of when Locker elects to enter the NFL draft, he already has achieved what could be termed Stage 1 financial security.
That's an appropriate first objective for Locker, but the dizzying contracts granted today's top draftees is a whole different cut of meat. Stage 2 security in the form of $30 million guaranteed seems irresistible.
Stage 1 allows a football retiree to golf every day. Stage 2 allows him to fly his helicopter to the course. But attain Stage 3 wealth and he can buy his grandkids a fleet of choppers and a string of golf courses.
With their rich rookie contracts, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb and Philip Rivers made sure they would never miss a meal. But their subsequent performance at young ages resulted in each of them signing contract extensions north of $100 million.
The 9.2 percent average annual increase in the NFL salary cap (9.6 percent last year) since it was instituted in 1994 is another factor. Applying that rate, if Locker were to duplicate Rivers' early career, his future would be as follows: fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft, one Pro Bowl and no Super Bowl. And in August 2016, on the eve of his sixth season, Locker would sign a seven-year, $183 million contract with $71 million guaranteed.
A vast fortune awaits Locker if he plays well.
Yet many junior quarterbacks who enter the NFL don't. Since 1980, only 27 percent of junior QBs drafted in the top 15 succeeded (see accompanying chart) while the success rate for top-15 seniors is 62 percent. The list of juniors is filled with conference players of the year and All-Americans. And that same list is filled with career backups and washouts. Players such as Tim Couch, Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, Andre Ware and Timm Rosenbach were all out of the league in four years or less.
Would those juniors have succeeded had they stayed one more year in college? Unknowable, of course, but a critical question Locker must ask himself: Will he be better prepared for the NFL with one more year at Washington?
Locker was prodigious in high school but constrained by the wing-T offense. His quarterback coach for his first three years at Washington was former collegiate running back Tim Lappano. Predictably, the timing and precision so vital to an effective passing game was never demanded. Seam routes completed 28 yards downfield during practice — when the depth should be 18 to 22 to beat the safety — would be greeted with a high-five for Locker and a comment from Lappano, "nice throw."
After two seasons Locker's completion percentage was below 50 percent and some analysts suggested he move to safety.
A year later, Locker's ascension has been astounding. But is he truly NFL-ready?
Locker will learn at the next level that it's sink or swim in a fast-moving river. His occasional scampers will put stress on a defense but he will make his living with his feet planted 5 yards behind the center. From there he will be asked to process information quickly, anticipate eye-blink openings in a defense and deliver the football accurately and consistently.
If it were easy, 73 percent of those juniors wouldn't fail.
If it's prudent to consider the Bradford example, then it isn't cynical to consider those juniors who failed.
And if Locker were to fail, I believe it would take a chunk out of him that his stockbroker could never fill.
When I watch Locker I wonder what, down even to the cellular level, makes his muscles fire so quickly. As mostly a journeyman backup, I seldom experienced the thrill of quarterbacking at peak-level. But it is intoxicating. With one decision, Locker can more than double his chances of experiencing that great thrill over a memorable pro career.
This gift he was given, he can now give back. Returning to Washington is an extraordinary opportunity for Jake Locker to give. To his teammates. To Husky Nation. But primarily to himself.
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