A year ago Jake Locker was tabbed by most NFL draft analysts as a top 10 pick had he chosen to forgo his senior season at Washington. He elected to return with the goal of taking his college team to a bowl game. His senior season didn't live up to high expectations statistically and though he made good on leading the Huskies to a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, he was just 5-16 passing in the game for 56 yards with 83 yards rushing including a 25-yard touchdown run. Since then his draft stock has resembled a roller coaster with less than 10 days until draft day.
For the most part Locker has still been pegged as a first-round talent. Among the most athletic in the draft class at the quarterback position, Locker has also faced criticism with respect to his accuracy in the pocket. He's been called a "movement quarterback" with a steep learning curve.
NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi went so far as to call Locker a project quarterback.
"I think he's a project," Lombardi said. "I think he's a potential starter. I don't think you can believe, if you draft Locker, that he can be the guy to come in and turn your franchise around next year. It's going to take time, and you must have the patience to handle the project to get him to where he is a pro quarterback."
Lombardi went even further saying on his twitter account that Locker in his mind is "not a first-round quarterback."
For Locker, criticism about his accuracy and other aspects of his game is nothing new.
"It was something I knew coming into this (pre-draft process) would be one of the big points of questions and so I was prepared for it and ready for it," he said.
Ironically, Locker believes going back to school for his senior season helped him develop a thicker skin to the negative comments about his game.
"As a player and a person I'm a lot more prepared for this process," he said. "Being comfortable going through this process I don't think I would've been as prepared for it last year. Going through the workouts and having confidence in what I was doing personally. I feel a lot better after having another year playing with the coaches I did and in the system that I did. I'm very thankful for that."
While one NFL Network analyst is clearly down on Locker, another is not. Mike Mayock believes Locker's talent level is among the best in the quarterback class this year.
"From what I saw of him it look like he hit that back foot and got the ball out," said Mayock, who witnessed Locker's combine workout. "There are four quarterbacks with first round talent in this class, Locker, Cam Newton, (Blaine) Gabbert and (Ryan) Mallett. I'm not saying they're first round quarterbacks at the end of April. I'm saying first round talent."
Though Mayock might not be convinced that Locker will be drafted in round one, some draft prognosticators feel otherwise. Some have even gone as far as predicting Locker to go as high as the 10th overall pick to Washington, especially with reports surfacing recently that the Redskins see Locker's mobility as a good fit for Mike Shanahan's system.
"I think that I'm able to bring good character into a locker room," Locker said. "Somebody a guy can trust and believe in. I also believe I have the opportunity to improvise, create with my legs and extend plays, give guys the opportunity to work downfield. One thing is no secret, but moving in the pocket and throwing in the pocket is something I'm working on and will continue to work on."
Fully aware of the criticisms his game has faced, Locker has spent most of this pre-draft period working in Irvine, California with a former member of the famed quarterback class of 1983.
"I've been working with Ken O'Brien," he said. "I love the game of football. I'm very passionate about it. It means a lot to me. I'm going to put the work in that it takes to be successful."
Convincing NFL clubs of that fact could prove difficult. Drafted twice by Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Angels, Locker signed a six-year contract with the club in 2009, with the provision that he be allowed to pursue a career in football over baseball. He's reportedly topped out at 95 miles per hour as a pitcher by MLB scouts.
There's no question that Locker has some things working against him, but Mayock believes his pure talent is likely to convince enough teams that he can be a successful quarterback in time.
"He has first round ability, but hasn't always shown that," said Mayock. "It'll be interesting to see what (NFL team) evaluations of Jake Locker are because that's a really talented kid who has first round potential, but has struggled in the pocket. A lot of people are writing him off, but I'm not."
As Locker sees it, he's just eager to have an NFL destination so he can get his pro career started. Only then will he be able to prove his doubters wrong.
"Right now I'm going to control what I can," he said. "I'm going to put my best foot forward and deal with things as they come. I'm going to show all the teams who I am both on and off the field. Wherever that puts me, I'd be happy to go to any team that wants to draft me."
Throughout the month of April, we are running 2011 NFL Draft prospect stories each week. In addition, Bills fans can vote in the Bills and M&T Bank Draft Day Challenge who they think will be the Bills first pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and have the chance to win a Bills Game Day Experience to remember. Five grand prize winners will get sideline passes, M&T Bank Club tickets that include food and beverage, a Bills Alumni meet and greet and a Bills helmet. Click here to vote.