Pelissero: Don't be surprised if Jake Locker is Vikings' man at No. 12
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It's difficult to accept anything at face value in the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft, but take this to the bank:
The Minnesota Vikings like Jake Locker. His makeup has yielded comparisons internally to Brett Favre.
And while it's too soon to peg Locker's spot on the Vikings' draft board -- team officials begin nine consecutive days of draft meetings on Monday -- there is a growing sense around the NFL they're preparing to pounce on the Washington quarterback at No. 12 overall.
"He doesn't have Brett's arm talent," said an executive in personnel for another NFC team. "But of this group of quarterbacks, if we were going to a park and go play, you'd pick Brett Favre and you'd probably pick this guy (Locker). He's such a tough-ass football player."
A year ago, toughness wasn't the primary attribute on Locker's side. He was coming off a junior season in which he completed 58.2% of his passes for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns, putting himself in the conversation as the No. 1 overall pick.
Then, Locker returned to school, took a beating on a rather horrid Huskies team and saw his numbers (55.4%, 2,265 yards, 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions) go to pot along with his mechanics.
"His motion was off," the NFC executive said. "His release point was all over the place. So, guess what? Now, it's pretty good. He worked on it, fixed it in the offseason."
According to NFL sources, that fundamental improvement has been evident in a series of recent workouts that left scouts thinking they'd seen the 2009 version of a talented playmaker whose athleticism, intelligence and competitiveness never have been in doubt.
"Old-school guys remember how Dan Marino fell (to No. 27 in the 1983 draft) because of a subpar senior year," an AFC personnel director said. "You have to go back and look at the whole body of work and if you feel comfortable, because if a guy shows you he's got the ability, he's got it.
"The guy (Locker) didn't become less intelligent. He didn't become less athletic and all those things in the course of a year. You just have to figure out if the reason for the lack of production or the struggles is something that you're comfortable with and you buy into. So, that becomes a matter of opinions.
"Put it this way: I don't see any reason why somebody would not consider him there (at No. 12)."
That doesn't mean accuracy -- particularly within the pocket -- is a nonissue for Locker, who completed only 53.9% of his passes over four college seasons and threw 35 interceptions against 53 touchdown passes. (Incidentally, Favre completed 52.4% of his passes at Southern Mississippi with 34 interceptions and 52 touchdowns.)
One NFC area scout who identified himself as "a Locker fan" nonetheless pointed out the Ferndale, Wash., native was "stroking 'em in some games, and there's some games where he's played like a dog."
The Huskies lost three games at midseason by a combined 108 points, including a 53-16 rout against national runner-up Oregon when Locker was sidelined by a broken rib, but rallied to win their final three and then upset 18th-ranked Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
"To (Locker's) credit, he had to carry them, which in a sense is what you need to do at the next level," the area scout said. "So, he's already done that and made some decisions. Obviously, he's athletic. He has all that, the moxie, the intelligence that you're looking for off the field. He's a good piece to build on."
The question for the Vikings is how good Locker can be -- and how good all of the NFL's other quarterback-needy teams think Locker can be as well.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 overall to Carolina. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is regarded as a virtual lock for the top 10 as well. Beyond that, consensus is hard to come by on a group including Locker, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Florida State's Christian Ponder, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, TCU's Andy Dalton and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.
"If you polled all 32 teams," said an AFC personnel executive who has studied this year's quarterbacks closely, "I bet you the next group of three to five quarterbacks -- the Malletts, the Lockers, the Kaepernicks, the Ponders -- the grade differential would probably be all over the bottom of the first (round) to the second to the top of the third.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You've just got to find the guy that you think that you want and you target him."
One popular theory suggests the Vikings -- who have conducted private workouts with several quarterbacks, including Locker on March 15 -- might trade back from No. 12 and take Locker later in the first round. That'd be one way to get back the third-round pick vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has said he wants to recoup from the Randy Moss debacle.
However, after watching Locker's "lights-out" campus workout last month, one NFC decision-maker speculated he could go as high as No. 8 to Tennessee. The Washington Redskins, who want to replace Donovan McNabb, are another possibility at No. 10.
The unusually high number of teams with holes at the most important position is a complicating factor when it comes to trading back in Round 1 or trading up from Round 2 as well. Buyers figure to outnumber sellers, and the volume of potential threats raises the risk associated with praying for a targeted player to fall -- potentially compelling desperate teams to overpay.
"Coming back at the top of the second round, there's still a gauntlet of quarterback-needy teams ahead of Minnesota (at No. 43)," the AFC executive said. "If they don't get one in the first round, you've got to watch what they do, because Arizona, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Buffalo and the list goes on with teams that need them. Maybe they have to make a move."
Spielman acknowledged on Sunday that the odds of hitting on a rookie quarterback plummet significantly after the first round. But he reiterated that reaching for a quarterback "could set your organization back" and said the team has identified "12 or 13 blue chip-type players, which is more than normally out of any other draft."
The Vikings' process over the next nine days will include narrowing a field of seven or eight quarterbacks to perhaps as few as two, Spielman said -- then figuring out what needs to be done to land one of them.
"I think it's a deep quarterback class," Spielman said. "I think you'll be able to get some players even through your second and third rounds. But each of them have a hole or a flaw in them, and you've just got to try to make the right decision on what's going to best fit for your organization, what's going to best fit for your offensive system."
At this point, it would be no surprise if the Vikings' answer to both questions is Jake Locker.