Can teams pass on the next Gunslinger?

Jake Locker (AP)

According to many pundits and NFL draft analysts, Jake Locker had 50 million reasons to regret his decision to follow his heart and finish what he started at the University of Washington, as opposed to coming out for the 2010 NFL Draft. The signing bonus alone would have provided a lifetime of security for his family, his children's families, and their families.

But Locker, as he has said many times, doesn't make decisions based on the almighty dollar.

"I feel like I'm a lot more prepared for this process," Locker told Jon Gruden recently for an ESPN segment breaking him down for Thursday's NFL Draft. "I'm a lot more mature as a player and as a person. I'm looking forward to it."

It's a mindset that has set him apart in this year's NFL draft; but is it a mindset that general managers are willing to look at as part of a prized package when spending their own first-round cash?

It's an honest question, and one that can't be answered easily. But there's one indisputable fact that cannot be understated when looking at any NFL draft day; all it takes is one team, one GM, to fall in love with a player to make dreams come true.

Ron Wolf understands that as well as anybody. Wolf, who was working with the New York Jets in their front office by the time the 1991 NFL Draft came around, was prepared to lay it on the line for a dusty, battling, tough-as-nails quarterback from Kiln, Mississippi.

His name was Brett Favre.

Favre, who slipped past the first round, was taken by the Atlanta Falcons with the 33rd pick - just one spot above the Jets. So when Wolf was hired to revitalize the Green Bay Packers in 1992, one of his first moves was getting Favre via trade. It wasn't as if Favre had done much in Atlanta to warrant the Packers giving up a first-round pick; he threw four passes as a Falcon, and two of them were picked off.

But Wolf had faith in his initial evaluation to stick to his guns and go after a player he felt was a legitimate game-changer. It would end up being the best move he ever made.

"You know, as I told the executive committee," recalled Wolf. "This guy is going to change the scope of things around here. His number will be famous, like Lou Gehrig's number in New York."

Whatever Wolf saw in Favre, it was the right stuff. Favre, now a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer, holds the NFL all-time records for regular season wins (183), consecutive games played by a position player (297), most yards (71,838), and most touchdown passes (508). He played 20 seasons for four teams at arguably the toughest position to play in sports.

And he did it after Wolf overruled the Green Bay training staff, who wanted to fail Favre during his initial physical because he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hip, the same degenerative condition that ended Bo Jackson's football career. The doctors said it could just be a few years before Favre experienced some serious problems.

"This is the guy I wanted," Wolf said. "They said four or five years, I didn't care. It turned out there wasn't anything wrong with him."

If Wolf were still in charge of an NFL War Room (he retired from the Packers 10 years ago), he might see Jake Locker as the next guy he wanted. It's not as if their career paths haven't taken a similar turn. Both were four-year starters at their respective colleges (Southern Mississippi and Washington), after not throwing the ball hardly at all while running running-based offenses in high school, playing on both sides of the ball. Farve ran the Wishbone, while Locker led Ferndale to a state title using the Wing-T.

Here's a quick breakdown of their career college statistics.

Name GM Comp Att Perc Yards TD's Int Rating
Favre 44 613 1169 52.4 7695 52 34 116.6
Locker 40 619 1148 53.9 7639 53 35 119
GM = Games
Comp = Completions
Att = Attempts
Perc. = Completion percentage
TD's = Touchdowns
Int. = Interceptions

Eerie, isn't it? When you note their touchdown to interception ratio, it's not hard to figure out that both were prone to making mistakes in college, but they more than made up for it with the big play. Favre is the all-time NFL leader in categories like passing yards and touchdowns, he also happens to be tops in interceptions (336), fumbles (166), and times sacked (525), ahead of Denver's John Elway, and former Seattle Seahawk Dave Krieg.

And while the man they call 'The Gunslinger' dealt with a trick hip, 'Montlake Jake' lived with his own kind of physical misery, failing to play in at least one game in three of his four seasons as a starter due to injury. Locker missed eight games in 2008 due to a broken thumb. It was a huge reason why the Huskies went winless that year for the first time since 1890. And he finished 2010 on sheer guts, pushing his team to bowl season through cracked ribs.

Physically, the two are basically the same: At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Locker measured in at 6-foot-2.5 and 231 pounds; Favre's NFL profile lists him at 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds. Locker has publicly talked about how he looks up to Favre. Basically he idolizes him. Others, including the 'Rogue Scout' - Dave Razzano - have made direct comparisons between Locker and Favre, noting their moves, their scrambling ability - even their throwing motion.

"My first exposure to Locker, watching a game on TV, I did not like what I saw," Razzano told Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports recently. "He threw errant passes and wasn't very accurate. But then I saw the tape and realized it's not him. He had more drops [by receivers] than anyone in the Pac-10, and he was running for his life – his line was probably the worst in the conference. And he still made plays with the game on the line. The guy's a winner."

Even those surrounding the Minnesota Vikings - Favre's last team - can't shake the connection between the two. "He doesn't have Brett's arm talent," said an executive in personnel for another NFC team to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com in the Twin Cities, who believes internal discussions within the Vikings' organization have them leaning toward picking Locker at No. 12. "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."

"If you're going to get compared to arguably the best quarterback of all-time, that's a great comparison to have," acknowledged Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian. So it obviously begs the question - why the drop? Why did Locker go from being Mel Kiper, Jr.'s overall No. 1 pick for the 2010 NFL Draft, to a player he didn't even have in his first round in a January 19, 2011 NFL Mock Draft?

"Being compared to Brett Favre is not easy either," added Sarkisian. "If that's what somebody expects to be getting when he walks in the door…"

A lot of it had to do with his early play as a senior - especially during a nationally-televised butt-whipping at the hands of Nebraska, where he went 4-20 for 71 yards and two interceptions. On a day when his team needed him to be Farve, he caved. It wasn't his fault - it was a true team loss in every sense - but he felt it probably more than anyone.

Even a redemptive 19-7 win over the Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl couldn't save Locker from the inevitable questions surrounding his lack of accuracy, or proficiency in an NFL-style offense. But Jake's in good company.

Favre has been dogged with accuracy questions his whole career. He completed well over a thousand more passes than the next best on the NFL all-time list (Dan Marino), but it took him 1500 more passes than Marino to get there. But in his first full season as a starter - his second as a professional player - his completion percentage jumped 10 points.

Given an NFL-sized offensive line and weapons galore, it's entirely possible Locker's accuracy could take a similar bump forward. After all, Locker's completion percentage as a senior was better than Favre's final year as USM.

If mock drafts are supposed to be believed, look for Jake Locker's fortunes to end up pretty darn close to where they started a year ago. Even Kiper, who didn't have Locker in the first round in January, now has the Vikings snatching him up at No. 12. Just in scouring the Mock Draft databases, there are some out there that believe Cincinnati might be interested in Locker with the No. 4 pick, or Arizona might go out on a limb at No. 5 and take Locker instead of trying to find an experienced free agent. Dozens of drafts have the Washington Redskins, with the No. 10 pick, choosing Locker - who has also drawn rave comparisons with their veteran QB, Donovan McNabb.

Here's what one mock draft said about Washington picking Locker at No. 10 - "Reach much? Sorry, but I actually don't view Locker as some big project like other draft analysts do. I think he's a guy who played behind a sketchy offensive line and didn't get a ton of help from his receivers at Washington. He has the size, tools, and moxie to be a star at the next level, and Mike Shanahan knows it."

Does Shanahan - who won Super Bowls in Denver with a similarly athletic, driven, and smart signal-caller - see Locker as the next John Elway?

And what does Elway, now Denver's Executive VP of Football Operations - and caretaker of their No. 2 overall pick - think of Locker? Does he dare choose another QB after the Broncos took Tim Tebow last year? Would they dangle a future pick in an attempt to nab Locker near the end of the first round - if he falls that far? If they really want him, can that afford to wait that long?

And by the way - as we all know - Denver took Tebow last year with the 25th pick. Guess who has that pick this year? The Seattle Seahawks. Would the Seahawks select Locker if he was still available? Does Pete Carroll have the cojones to pass on a Puget Sound living legend - a player who would undoubtedly prompt massive season ticket sales the day he was picked?

It's these panic-inducing queries that create endless Maalox moments for war room participants across the country. They go in with a clear plan in place, ready to invest millions on a thorough evaluation, which can quickly turn into a hunch in a matter of seconds when decisions have to be made, and others pull off the unexpected.

And it's in those moments where players like Jake Locker - quarterbacks who are true game-changers - stick in a general manager's mind like gum. And in this case, it takes more than peanut butter to get rid of them.

"I think every team has their own evaluation tools, and they look at things differently," said Washington Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier. "The great thing about the draft is all it takes is one team. And I'm pretty sure there's somebody out there that really likes Jake Locker. I know how I feel, but I'm not in a draft room, and I don't make decisions at that level. But I really believe that at the end of the day, he'll be just fine.

"I think he should be very proud of what he's accomplished and where he's at. The chips will fall where they fall. But I think he should feel great about everything that he's done to now."

I'm sure Jake feels great. He's been nothing but calm, cool and composed throughout the whole pre-Draft process. The real question now is - do general managers want to take a chance on missing out on a player who could be the next Gunslinger, a player who has shown statistically that he's on track to be exactly that?

All it takes is one team.

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