Washington quarterback Jake Locker will be the first player chosen in the 2011 NFL draft, according to draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

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For anyone worried that Jake Locker was endangering his draft status by returning for another season at Washington, Mel Kiper Jr. says not to bother.

Kiper, an ESPN draft analyst generally considered the leading authority on the topic, said emphatically in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Locker will be the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

“If you had to ask me right now who is going to be the number one pick in the 2011 draft, I would say it’s etched in stone it’s going to be Jake Locker,” Kiper said. “You can mark that down. Jake Locker, if he’s not the number one pick, it’s an upset.”

Kiper made the remark when asked a question about Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, who is also likely to be a high pick in the 2011 draft if he declares, saying that the top three QBs will be Locker, Mallett and Stanford’s Andrew Luck.

Kiper didn’t elaborate on Locker, but he threw out the idea that the Pac-10 could yield two quarterbacks who could be taken among the top four in the 2011 draft, Luck being the other. Luck will be a third-year sophomore next season and eligible to declare.

“If he plays to the level of what we expect to see based on how he performed this year for Jim Harbaugh, Andrew Luck comes out early and he’s the second, third or fourth pick overall,” Kiper said.

When Locker decided in December to return for another season, some wondered if he wasn’t taking a risk that his stock could drop. It was likely he would have been the first quarterback taken in this month’s draft had he decided to declare, and among the top 5 to 10 players selected.

But barring a significant injury, draft analysts say, there’s little chance of that happening.

Pro Football Weekly draft expert Nolan Nawrocki also held a conference call recently and said he would have rated Locker as the top QB for this year’s draft and that he expects Locker to be just as valued next year.

“If you go back and look at the tapes, it’s very clear the progression that he made,” Nawrocki said. “He took big strides. To me, he was considerably more gifted than (Oklahoma’s) Sam Bradford (generally considered the top QB for the 2010 draft). Sam Bradford’s Pro Day was exceptional, the accuracy is what you want in a quarterback (he completed 49 of 50 passes and the one incompletion was dropped).

“So he’s got everything you want and is going to be a solid pro. But if it were me making the decision and I had to pick, Jake Locker is the guy I would feel more comfortable with. He has more raw talent, is just more gifted physically and with his character and that he’s a big, strong leader and super competitive, he would have gotten consideration with that first overall pick.”

While draft analysts ruminate on his future, Locker insists he’s worried only about the present.

Locker said that as a football fan “I can’t lie to you and say I don’t follow (the draft).” But he said he isn’t thinking about where he might have gone this year, or how it will play out.

“No, not putting myself there,” he said.

Instead, he’s spending the spring working on, he says, “the little things.” Now in his second year in coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense, Locker said he feels “a lot more comfortable,” allowing the offense to run more crisply.

His main task remains to refine his throwing accuracy, footwork continuing to be a key, as well. He said he’s up to about 230 pounds after playing last season at 226.

Tuesday, in UW’s first full-pads practice, Locker showed why Kiper and other draft analysts are so high on his ability. On one play, he was flushed out of his pocket and scrambled to his left, then stopped and threw about 40 yards downfield to receiver Devin Aguilar, something few other quarterbacks could probably pull off.

“He’s playing at a very high level,” Sarkisian said.


• UW returns to the field for its fifth spring practice at 4 p.m. Thursday at Husky Stadium. The Huskies will have a full-scale scrimmage at 1 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium. All spring practices are open to the public.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com