Washington quarterback Jake Locker might no longer be a sure first-round pick in the NFL draft.
It was against California a year ago that Jake Locker turned in the performance that did the most to create his status as an apparent No. 1 draft pick whenever he decided to turn pro.
It’s against Cal this week that he has to begin to earn that reputation back, according to one draft expert.
Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, published an updated prediction this week for the first round of the 2011 draft, as he has done regularly throughout the season.
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But for the first time, he did not include Locker’s name, saying that he thinks there is now a question whether the Washington quarterback will go in the first round, let alone be considered as a top pick, which at one point seemed a given.
“I don’t know anymore,” Rang said Tuesday when asked if he thinks Locker will be taken in the first round. “I have argued long and hard that he would be, and I think there is still a chance that he will because he’s got so much upside. But at some point you’ve got to see him be more consistent with his accuracy.”
Rang says his evaluation isn’t just his own but also is based on what he hears in talking to NFL scouts.
“If he had come out last year, there is no way of saying he would be a better NFL player,” Rang said. “But the belief then was more widely held in the scouting community that he would someday be great than it is right now. Now there are a lot of concerns, and it’s those concerns that are going to drop him down.”
Rang says most of those concerns involve Locker’s passing accuracy. Locker tantalized scouts last season when he improved his accuracy markedly, completing 58.4 percent, roughly 10 points better than his combined average his first two years.
He capped off his 2009 season with a stunning performance in a 42-10 win over Cal, completing 19 of 23 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns without an interception while also rushing 14 times for 77 yards.
It was after that game that speculation grew that Locker could be a high pick if he declared for the 2010 draft. Locker, however, quashed the talk quickly when he decided less than two weeks later to return for his senior season.
Still, the Cal game resonated, and when draft experts like Mel Kiper Jr., of ESPN.com later made comments that it was “etched in stone” that Locker would be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, it was that performance that was on the top of the mind.
“He had never played so well before and you thought, ‘OK, this is the No. 1 overall pick,’ ” Rang said. “He had improved so much and in his final game he was so spectacular that you thought, ‘OK, he is really just scratching the surface of his potential and it’s about ready to happen.’ And then when it hasn’t happened this year it’s, ‘OK, is this all it’s ever going to be? Is he never going to take that next step?’ “
In fact, Locker is completing 55.4 percent of his passes this season (148 of 267), down from 58.4 last year, and nowhere near the goal of 65 to 68 percent UW coach Steve Sarkisian set before the year began.
Some around the program say there are other reasons for Locker’s decreased completion percentage. Notably, injuries and defections from the receiving corps (tight end Kavario Middleton was kicked off the team in the summer and projected Nos. 2 and 3 receivers Devin Aguilar and James Johnson have battled injuries); dropped passes by receivers; and struggles by the offensive line to give Locker the needed time.
Locker has also battled injuries, specifically a broken rib that held him out of the Oregon game before he returned Thursday against UCLA. Sarkisian said this week he thinks that injury has impacted Locker’s accuracy in recent games, predicting that it should improve the last two weeks.
“The more healthy he gets, the more comfortable he feels with the rib and the injury, the more comfortable he will be in the pocket,” Sarkisian said. “And ultimately, his feet will be better, his decision-making will be better, and his accuracy will be better.”
And Rang says if that happens, there is still time for Locker to reverse the course of his draft status. Washington has to win its final two games at Cal and WSU to get to a bowl game, and Locker will also play in the Senior Bowl in January.
“What’s always been most impressive about Jake is that when it’s been time for a critical throw, that’s when he’s often been the most accurate,” Rang said. “When they beat USC last year and this year, he made some critical throws down the stretch that really won them those games. So when scouts see that, that’s where he still has that promise. So he still has an opportunity. They are fighting for a bowl game and if he makes a couple of those kinds of throws down the stretch, he can still turn this thing around.”
• With classes canceled due to snow, UW moved up its practice time to 2 p.m. and also went into the Dempsey Indoor facility. The temperature is expected to be in the high 50s Saturday when UW plays at Cal.
• Starting defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu did not practice Tuesday due to a sprained ankle suffered against UCLA. It is hoped he can return Wednesday. Redshirt freshman Chris Robinson replaced Ta’amu in Tuesday’s practice.