There are many observers who have called 2013 a make-or-break season for Jake Locker.
With the rapid rise of players like Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton, the league no longer waits for young quarterbacks to grasp a full understanding of the league before demanding success from them.
And so it is in his third season after being the Tennessee Titans' No. 1 pick in 2011 that Locker is in a situation where the Titans need him to succeed, and onlookers around the league are watching to see what will unfold.
The Titans have retooled their entire playbook this off-season under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, simplifying the terminology and tailoring the calls to benefit Locker and the players around him.
It's something Locker has quickly taken to during the recently completed OTA and mini-camp work.
“It's allowing all of us to play fast, to go out and know your assignment and do it fast. There's a comfort level with that, and guys are responding to it well,” Locker said.
What there also appears to be a bigger comfort level with around the Titans locker room is that this is Locker's team and Locker's offense now.
Last year at this time, Locker will still trying to beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck to become the starter. Now, Hasselbeck has moved on to Indianapolis, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has been imported from Buffalo to be Locker's backup.
But make no mistake, the Titans will sink or swim this season with Locker as their quarterback.
Thus far – while off-season work is hardly the right barometer to measure progress – all things are go for Locker and the Titans.
“He always could make plays, but he's being an all-around leader right now. The offense is his,” says second-year receiver Kendall Wright, one of those weapons Locker has at his disposal. “He doesn't have to compete with anybody for a starting spot, and he's completely comfortable back there.
“You can definitely tell the difference. He's making a lot of plays out there and he's having fun while doing it..”
Veteran receiver Nate Washington, who played in Pittsburgh during Ben Roethlisberger's formative years, says Locker has the necessary characteristics to be a successful NFL quarterback in his own right -especially between the ears, where Washington says it counts the most.
“I was there in Ben's second year, and right away you kind of understood that even in his second year, he was gonna be a good quarterback, a guy that could make plays. That's the same thing with Jake,” Washington said. “He's a guy who can make plays. I tell everybody all the time, this is football, and it's a gladiator sport, but it's not a dumb man's sport.
“There are a lot of things out there that you have to learn. You're not just gonna go out there and run faster than everybody else or be the strongest man on the field and win. You've got to think with your head a lot, and especially at his position, he's gonna touch the ball every single play. He has a lot to worry about and a lot on his shoulders, but he's grown with his thoughts and he's grown with his mentality toward the game and understanding a lot, and we just have to make sure we do what we can to help him out.”
As part of the process of making sure Locker is on top of things, the Titans have even abandoned the wristband of plays he wore last season.
“It's something I'm comfortable with. We've been doing it all OTAs. It was a little bit of an adjustment at first, but I'm feeling comfortable with it now,” Locker said.
It may be a subtle thing, but it is the type of thing that teammates can take notice of in the huddle, says Titans coach Mike Munchak.
“He's calling the play and he's looking at you. You get eye contact versus the alternative. I think he prefers that. It makes you learn more as quarterback. I think it makes you learn formations. It puts more on you to have more of a feel for the offense,” Munchak said. “So I know Dowell liked it, and Jake likes it. We've cut down on the verbiage, cut two or three words out of certain plays. It is possible to do that. In the past, it was pretty hard to say all of that two times. There's a lot of ways to do things, but I think we much prefer this way.”
What is helping to set Locker apart, though, is the leadership he has shown, as well as his understanding of the offense and the game itself.
“He's a true leader. He know how to get the team pumped. He controls the huddle, and that's what you need out of a quarterback. You need a quarterback that can control the huddle and tell us where we need to get,” said tight end Delanie Walker.
That leadership will carry over even into the dead period, as Locker plans to throw with teammates in order to stay crisp when camp opens July 25.
“We'll probably try and get together. We won't try and kill each other, but we'll get out and keep some familiarity for me to be able to throw and them to be able to run some routes and be comfortable with that,” Locker said.