The Tennessee Titans report for the start of training camp Friday so each day this week the Nashville Post will look at a significant issue that faces them as they prepare for the 2014 season.
Today: The need for Jake Locker to stay healthy and play well enough to get the Titans back to the playoffs.
• The issue: Locker, the team’s first-round draft pick (eighth overall) in 2011, has been the starting quarterback for two seasons but has started just 18 games. He has missed time with three different injuries and has spent time each of the past two offseasons recovering from surgery. Heck, even as a rookie, he missed several plays during a relief appearance against New Orleans because of injury.
• Plan B: Unlike the previous two years when veterans Matt Hasselbeck and Ryan Fitzpatrick served as his backup, Locker now has four and half times the number of NFL starts as the other three quarterbacks currently on the roster combined. Charlie Whitehurst has started four times in eight NFL seasons and won just one. Tyler Wilson and Zach Mettenberger never have started. Thus, if Locker misses any significant amount of time this fall it will be a problem.
• Historical perspective: One important aspect of the Titans’ 1999 Super Bowl season was the presence of veteran backup Neil O’Donnell. He went 4-1 as a starter when Steve McNair was sidelined by back surgery and when McNair was healthy he ran the scout team offense so effectively and competitively that it prepared the defense about as well as possible for what it would see in the game.
Also, 1999 was McNair’s third season as the unquestioned starter. Unlike Locker, however, he did not miss a single game in 1997 and 1998 plus he started six other times (he won four) in the two seasons prior to that.
• Statistically speaking: The first six quarterbacks drafted in 2011 all have started more than 20 games. Locker was second only to first overall pick Cam Newton, but his eight victories as a starter are fifth and his 22 touchdown passes tie him with former Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert for fewest among that group. On the positive side, his 1.47:1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions is comparable to those of Newton (1.52:1) and Andy Dalton (1.63:1) both of who have started all 48 games of their NFL careers. So it seems Locker’s decision making is ahead of his experience.
• What to watch for: With a new coaching staff and a new playbook, Locker won’t have the luxury of sitting out the preseason to make sure he’s healthy for the start of the regular season. One thing to look for when he is on the field, therefore, is his ability to sense the pass rush and then get the ball or himself out of trouble. He is a great athlete who runs well. He has not, though, shown elite pocket presence and he tends to keep his eyes down the field in hopes of making a play rather than rely on outlet passes to relieve pressure.
• No contest: Typically, the most interesting training camp issues are the battles for jobs. No one will be watched more closely in the Titans’ camp than Locker, who has to compete with injuries, inaccuracy (his career completion percentage is 57.2) and inexperience rather than another player.
• Prediction: If Locker plays 14 or more games, the Titans have a chance to make a playoff run in a division that looks like it could be one of the league’s worst. Yet it is impossible to imagine he will do so until he actually does it.
He’s going to get hurt again this fall. The Titans just have to hope that the law of averages works in their favor and that whatever ails him this time won’t cause him to miss more than a game or two.