This story appears in the April 18, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
JAKE LOCKER IS ACCUSTOMED to being first. Among the half-dozen NFL prospects he's training with on a mid-February morning in Irvine, Calif., the
former University of Washington quarterback is first to stretch, first to run a 40-yard dash, first to spin around the three-cone drill. A few hours later, the 22-year-old, with his Marine buzz cut and slugger's arms, is first to arrive at Oakley headquarters, a fortress atop a Southern California hill, for a tour of the sunglasses company arranged by the prospects' agents. As the players wait in the building's lobby, someone notices the cathedral-like ceiling and asks, "How high is that?"
Locker answers first: "I'd say it's about 30 yards -- 60 feet."
Scotty McKnight, a former Colorado receiver who might not be drafted, turns his head, drops his eyebrows and grins. McKnight loves giving people a hard time, and his fellow prospect has provided a rare opening. "Thirty yards is 90 feet," he says.
"Uh, I didn't take math," says Locker, who earned his degree in history.
This time last year, the thought of the quarterback's practicing with and taking crap from a grab bag of players who may not be drafted would have been absurd. Scouts saw his thrilling game (powerful arm, 4.5 40) and perfect pedigree (son of a youth football coach, so athletically gifted that he was a two-time MLB draft pick) and declared him the top pick in the 2010 draft -- a spot that would have earned him a guaranteed $50 million. But Locker shocked scouts by returning to Seattle for his senior year, then failed to meet the high expectations that everyone had set for him. It didn't take long for things to go bad. In a huge September showdown against Nebraska, Locker completed just four passes in the 56-21 loss. The perception that he could become a franchise quarterback was effectively destroyed. His decision-making, footwork and instincts -- once seen as wonderfully raw -- suddenly became hopeless liabilities. Teams now grade Locker anywhere from a late first- to mid-third-rounder, far behind this year's
hottest passers, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton.
But Locker isn't really to blame for this downward spiral. He's a victim of a very subjective science: quarterback evaluation, which often reveals as much about the evaluators as it does about their subject. Because while scouts analyze every trait imaginable, from leadership to arm strength, final grades are based on an individual's beliefs about what matters most. That's why three football men can watch the same player during the same game, sometimes the same throw, and derive three different assessments.
To prove it, The Magazine visited an offensive coordinator for an NFC team and two directors of college scouting (one each from the AFC and the NFC) and watched as each broke down Locker's best game from last season: a 35-34
double-overtime win over Oregon State in which he completed 21 of 35 passes for 286 yards and five touchdowns. These experts identified a variety of flaws, and their evaluations are critical: Overvaluing a QB could cost their team millions of dollars and set the organization back years in terms of development. So scouts tend to view perceived weaknesses in absolute terms, assuming a QB's flaws in college always carry over to the NFL -- and they cover their butts by telling their bosses as much. Which brings us back to Locker. Hell-bent on proving he can overcome any perceived shortcomings, he has armed himself with a brain specialist and a QB coach in preparation for his NFL career. We visited with them, too.
THE AFC SCOUT'S BELIEFS are stashed in a spiral notebook, scribbled in blue and red ink. He reads aloud a particularly damning note: Locker
identifies defenses quicker outside the pocket than in it. Armed with the universal NFL film watcher's tool kit -- coffee, clicker and Copenhagen -- the expert turns to a TV. "I'll show you what I mean," he says.
It's the first quarter. On first down from the Oregon State 16-yard line, Locker bootlegs right. "Not a lot of guys can do this," the scout says as he clicks to the end zone angle to get a better look. Nearly out of bounds, Locker scans his three options and drills a perfect pass over a leaping linebacker to receiver Jermaine Kearse, who catches the ball in the end zone. But in the third quarter, when Locker fires a six-yarder to Kearse, the scout stares at the screen and shakes his head. "Look at the coach on the sideline," he says, pointing to Huskies headman Steve Sarkisian, who has dropped his arms in apparent frustration. "Jake must have screwed up."
Indeed he has. The scout rewinds the film, which shows Oregon State breaking the huddle into man coverage. But just before the snap, the Beavers shift to Cover 2. Sarkisian had called the perfect routes for this defense: Kearse hooking up and wideout Jordan Polk running deep. Locker's read should be Beavers corner James Dockery. If he covers short, throw deep; if he covers deep, throw short. Dockery covers short, and Polk is open deep, but Locker throws short. "He didn't recognize the coverage," the scout says. "In the pocket, he doesn't process quickly."
It's a curable condition -- if a quarterback has a patient coach, a more patient owner and years of reps in the same system. Says the scout: Too many ifs to choose Locker before the second round.
DONNIE HALE BELIEVES HIS MACHINE can help Locker read defenses more quickly. Hale is a technician for Neurotopia, a company dedicated
to improving athletes' mental performance by use of brain-training exercises. Pro baseball and football players hire Hale to help with a variety of processes, from thinking quicker to sleeping sounder. On a February morning at Velocity, a Southern California gym, he squeezes a blob of clear goop onto his finger and rubs it onto Locker's head before planting a small electric suction cup on the spot. Locker sits in a recliner, classical piano music softly playing in his Beats by Dr. Dre high-performance headphones, with wires running from his head to a small processor connected to Hale's computer. Locker faces a TV screen that displays video-game-like images of a spaceship navigating tunnels; he'll guide the vessel by thinking about it.
Hale controls the level of difficulty of the exercise, and he starts with wide, easy-to-navigate tunnels. Charting on the technician's laptop are Locker's brain waves, blue and red lines rising and falling like stocks. Alpha waves, the blue line, are produced by the brain when, say, you're relaxing in your backyard. Beta waves, the red line, are produced when you're engaged in an activity like driving. Locker's goal: sync his alpha and beta waves so he can process defenses with, Hale says, "a calm, intense focus."
Five minutes in, Hale narrows the tunnel walls and increases the number of obstacles. As Locker collides with rocks, bumping around like he's learning to parallel park, his beta waves rise, reflecting frustration. After eight minutes, Hale tightens the course to its toughest level, filling the screen with more rocks, dips and sharp turns. Locker locks in: He occasionally hits the obstacles but corrects quickly. His red and blue lines start to rise and fall together. As he crosses the finish line at the end of today's 20-minute session -- the second of 20 he'll have before the draft -- he raises his hands, signaling touchdown. Most people feel drained after completing the game. Not Locker. "I'm relaxed," he says.
AT A RESTAURANT near his team's facility, the offensive coordinator launches the Washington-Oregon State game on a laptop. He watches Locker miss the Cover 2 and shrugs. Only a few quarterbacks -- Peyton, Brady, Brees -- make that read. "Plus," he says, "I love Locker's release."
The coordinator always analyzes a quarterback's release first. He likes a short, compact lash; Locker's motion is suitably smooth and clean. Next, he considers height. The best QBs, he says, range from 6'2" to 6'5"; Locker slides in at 6' 2.75". Then, he evaluates instinct: that inscrutable ability to focus downfield yet remain acutely aware of the pass rush. "That's the most important trait," he says.
On first down from the Beavers' 12-yard line, Locker drops back, climbs the pocket, and fires high of wideout D'Andre Goodwin, who's blanketed near the pylon. It seems like a smart throwaway, but the coach isn't buying. "Locker isn't in sync with his receivers," he says, as he rewinds the film. When Locker ends his drop, Goodwin is briefly open. That window closes when Locker pushes in the pocket twice, taking two little hops, and delays the throw. A few plays later, he again pushes twice and nearly collides with an offensive lineman. Unable to step into the throw, he lets the ball sail. Now the coordinator zeroes in on the QB's habitual pushes like a politico watching polls. The movements not only contribute to Locker's inaccuracy, scouts' biggest criticism, but also suggest that, as the coach says, "he's a mechanical quarterback."
That's code for a learned signal-caller, not an instinctual one. Learned quarterbacks run plays to perfection if everything goes as planned. Instinctual ones flip broken plays into big ones. "A quarterback's instincts are like a receiver's speed," the coach says. "You can develop it, but you can't coach it." So while he considers Locker to be an "excellent prospect," he pegs him as a third-rounder because "his habits might be too hard to break."
KEN O'BRIEN BELIEVES bad habits can be fixed. The former Jets QB works with Locker for 90 minutes each day starting at 9 a.m. A member of the famed Class of 1983, in which six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, O'Brien, unlike a lot of scouts and coaches, believes many signal-callers naturally improve in the pros. Quarterbacking is a skill that can be learned. Brady upped his accuracy. Peyton learned to throw on the run. Aaron Rodgers became a quicker thinker. So O'Brien has Locker practicing three-step drops, then five-step drops. He works on play-action drops, drops with a push, drops with two pushes, quick drops, deep drops. In his 10th year tutoring QBs, O'Brien pushes his student, but not too hard. After all, Locker has had two days off since Washington's season ended in December. "Overkill can set in," O'Brien says.
Back in '83, O'Brien prepped for the draft by spending mornings in class and afternoons throwing with his UC Davis teammates. The combine was in its infancy then, hardly the showcase it is now. NFL coaches might drop by and talk to the players well into the night, learning what made them tick. Today, there's less access and even less optimism. QBs speed-date teams in 15-minute interviews at the combine, where flaws tend to be regarded in finite terms. Anyone whose stock has dropped, Locker says, "would be lying if they told you they didn't occasionally question themselves." O'Brien wants his charge to remember that great players find ways to be great at the next level. So a few nights a week, he sends Locker a supportive text. After one workout, O'Brien tapped: "I like where you're at. Keep spinning it." In his prefurnished, temporary two-bedroom apartment in Irvine, Locker smiled at his buzzing BlackBerry and thought, Hell, yeah. I like where I'm at too.
THE NFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR pulls Locker's scouting reports off his team's secret intranet site. A few notes stand out. He likes the size of the quarterback's hands: 9 7/8". Plenty meaty. "Good for playing in cold weather," he says. But he worries about the discrepancy in the prospect's character grades. Teams tend to divide character into two categories: leadership and football. As a leader, Locker earns an easy A. After the Huskies won only four games his freshman year, he organized sprints each off-season morning at 6 o'clock. Throughout college, he visited hospitals, befriended three terminally ill kids and spoke at their funerals. Then as a senior, he led the Huskies to their first bowl win since 2001. Says Sarkisian, "He set the standard."
Maybe, but Locker's football character merits only a C. Too often, this team's scouts report, he struggled to manage his offense and the game. The question is why. So, clicker in hand, the scout kicks his feet onto his desk and turns on the Oregon State game. Unlike the other evaluators, he sees positives. On quick thinking: After Locker completes a deep comeback, the scout says, "See how the ball comes out before the receiver cuts? That's quick thinking." On pushing into pressure: Yes, Locker does it, but his arm often saves him.
In the second quarter, for instance, he pushes into a defensive tackle, but flicks the ball 50 yards for six. On football leadership: The Huskies' offense often looks out of sorts because Locker is dodging disasters caused by a questionable O-line. "After weeks of getting your ass kicked," says the scout, "you don't want to sit back there."
Still, the personnel director calls Locker an "improving quarterback" who "carried his team" but "needs some work." In other words, he's a second-rounder. Thing is, Locker showed the same traits as a junior, when experts projected him No. 1. "Perceptions changed," says the scout. "He had buzz, but nobody had studied him."
LOCKER KNEW he wasn't ready last year. He had played running back in youth ball before moving to quarterback at Ferndale High to run the wing-T. His first two years at Washington, he was an option quarterback. By the end of his junior year, he had run Sarkisian's pro-style offense for just one season. But before making the decision to stay in school, he studied 2009's top signal-callers. Most had played their senior year, and only Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers were top-10 picks. So he took out a Lloyd's of London policy on his arm and decided to "not get freaked out over where I'm drafted."
Now Locker is in the strange position of defending himself against the perception that he cost himself the No. 1 slot. He's weathered criticism of his play by accepting responsibility, even when other factors, such as a so-so
receiving corps, were often at fault. Not only did he play most of the season with a broken rib and bruised quad, he also rebounded from the loss to Nebraska by beating the Huskers in the Holiday Bowl. He's convinced he's better prepared for having put up good numbers in a pro-style offense rather than great numbers in the spread, the system used by Newton and Gabbert. And just because he didn't turn pro when his stock was highest doesn't mean he won't be a better quarterback. "Success will come quicker because I played my senior year," he says. "The smart evaluators can see that."
Most do. On the heels of Locker's strong combine and further examination of all of his game performances, The Magazine's three experts admit they'd consider taking him in the first round despite having graded him lower.
Because he's talented, and franchise QBs are so rare, they might be willing to roll the dice on the flash of brilliance that seduced them in the first place. Truth is, scouts usually follow a pendulum swing of emotions: They fall hard for a player at first, then pick him apart before circling back to their first instinct. Locker's case is no exception. Says the offensive coordinator, "He's too talented to slip far."
ON A MORNING JUST DAYS BEFORE THE COMBINE, Locker -- head down, elbows at knees, T-shirt soaked -- gasps for air. He's holding both ends of a thick, heavy rope that's wrapped around a pole 20 feet away. A clock reads 17 seconds, which means that he is almost due for another rep of Velocity's toughest exercise: slapping the rope to the floor in 20-second increments. He lifts the rope and slams it to the turf, right and left, like he's wrestling a boa. His cheeks redden, his eyebrows arc and drop like a guitarist's during a solo, and his tongue flops out of a slight grin. A few players drop their dumbbells to watch. After all, this is a power drill, designed for offensive linemen. Today, nobody dared touch it.
Locker went first.