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Shutdown Corner

Youngsters start to emerge in NFL quarterback battles

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Jake Locker is still getting the hang of the pocket. (Getty Images)

While the first two quarterbacks selected in the 2012 NFL draft --Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins -- have their starting spots sewn up on a no-matter-what basis, there are other young NFL quarterbacks looking to separate themselves in crowded rotations and depth charts. After the success Cam Newton enjoyed with the Carolina Panthers in 2011, the clock starts on still-evolving signal-callers sooner than ever before. Three such players are starting to make their marks.

The Underdog

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Russell Wilson is used to uphill battles. (Getty Images)

There are those in the NFL who firmly believe that if former Wisconsin and current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was 6-foot-2, he'd have gone before Ryan Tannehill (picked eighth) in the 2012 NFL draft, and perhaps been a top-5 pick. However, Wilson's actual stature -- 5-foot-10 5/8 -- set him down to the third round, where Seahawks general manager John Schneider was more than happy to make him a sleeper pick.

"We've heard already about the guys that were going to take him right after us," Schneider said after the second day of the draft was done. "That's reassuring to hear that, in a sense, that he would not have made it through the round by at least two counts. So we did what we thought we had to do to get the guy that we thought was an extraordinary player."

Through practices, and even back to his rookie minicamp, Wilson appeared to consistently display the attributes that made him a star at Wisconsin in 2011, and at North Carolina State before he took an unsuccessful shot at a baseball career. His familiarity with the two-back sets and heavy packages from his days with the Badgers, and experience with the West Coast offense from N.C. State, make him a near-perfect fit right out of the box for Seattle's power running and intermediate passing game.

Wilson's improvement has been graphic through minicamps and into training camp, but as Seahawks quarterbacks coach Carl Smith recently told Shutdown Corner, it wasn't always so.

"Really, he's working through a lot of things," Smith said. "Rookie minicamp, he threw eight picks, OK? But he's whittling away at a huge mountain of little things, and he's doing it at a terrific pace. Working in the classroom, working on the field, and he keeps chopping [the problems] off. I'm really happy with his work ethic."

In his first preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, Wilson benefited from Braylon Edwards' ability to get vertical on a 39-yard touchdown pass, but it was the pass play before that -- a 14-yard completion to Charly Martin -- that summarized Wilson's skill set. Flushed out of the pocket to his right, Wilson ran around and found space to throw, and threaded the needle to the third-year receiver. Wilson's knack for improvising when the play breaks down is a specifically important attribute.

As far as Wilson's mechanics, Smith said that there haven't been many adjustments. In college and through the preseason, Wilson has shown an innate ability to find gaps in the line with in-pocket mobility, and he'll find throwing lanes he supposedly shouldn't at his height.

So, what has Smith told the kid? "Nothing. Just play ball. Just play like you do."

Right now, Wilson's the third man in a quarterback competition involving himself, Matt Flynn, and Tarvaris Jackson. Flynn has the lead by dint of his salary, and Jackson may be out the door. Wilson, never one to shy away from a challenge, has acted like a starter all along.

"You take one step at a time, one day at a time, one rep at a time and you just improve," he recently told Seattle radio station KJR-AM. "You respect the process and that's the biggest thing ... just respecting the process and taking one day at a time and just learning as much as I can. I'm on a constant quest for knowledge and just trying to gain as much knowledge as I can, so when I do get that opportunity I just keep growing. I know there's going to be ups and downs, it's a process like I said, and always in a process there's ups and downs, but as long as I keep moving forward, that's the key."

Wilson's not a "Rudy" -- he has legitimate starter potential -- but he may have to wait a while. There's far more pressure on a rookie in Miami.

The Raw Future

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Ryan Tannehill endures a silly NFL drill. (Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins hadn't selected a quarterback in the first round since Dan Marino in 1983, and after a generation of false starts at the position following Marino's retirement in 1999, the new regime of head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman pulled the trigger on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick. Sherman had familiarity with Tannehill as the Aggies' head coach, but there's the small factor of Tannehill's relative inexperience as a quarterback against anything approaching elite competition -- he started just a season-and-a-half under center for Sherman.

When Tannehill did get his real shot in 2011, the results were definitive. Not only did he set single-season school marks for yards (3,744), attempts (531) and completions (327), but he became the only player in FBS history to post a 400-yard passing game and 200-yard receiving game ...  AND the only player in FBS history to total more than 4,000 passing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in a career.

So, he's an athlete. However, the college film showed equal parts tantalizing potential and exasperating inconsistency. Tannehill can make every throw ... including all the bad ones. Had he played four years at quarterback under Sherman, whose education as a quarterback developer is tied to the Mike Holmgren tree, he'd most likely have many more of the "little things" down -- the timing on a third-read seam route, putting the right amount of air on the ball for a boundary fade route -- but as it stands, Tannehill will have to get those finishing points down in the NFL.

Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 of the preseason, Tannehill showed flashes of his future -- he's got the arm and athleticism to make a real difference in time -- but there were too many instances of miscommunication or simple inaccuracy for the Dolphins to get anything going with Tannehill under center. For every impressive pass to Julius Pruitt (a 22-yarder on Tannehill's first drive) or touchdown to Roberto Wallace, there was a helium ball that was a combined function of newness to the game and, at times, Tannehill's own inconsistent mechanics. Still, a 14-of-21 day for 167 yards and a touchdown is a pretty good way to start your NFL career.

Sherman, who would know better than most, thinks he's got the future of the team in his hands. "I think he has steadily gotten better on decisions he makes," the coach recently told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. "Any mistakes he has made early are probably overconfidence to make every throw on the field. I've been a part of that before, and it's just a lot of confidence in your ability; you don't want to take that away, but we have to minimize the risk factor. I think he's done that and he's minimized his mistakes."

With David Garrard's recent injury, Tannehill has just Matt Moore in front of him in a quarterback battle that may be hampered by limited personnel on offense. Philbin and Sherman inherited an offense which thinks that the no-huddle offense -- one of the most prevalent recent NFL trends -- is kind of a big deal.

So, it's baby steps -- for Tannehill and for the offense he'll permanently run at some point.

The Golden Child

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Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck have forged a bond in competition. (Getty Images)

Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker was the Ryan Tannehill of the 2011 NFL draft class -- a great athlete trying to learn the position, with limited experience in an offense that resembled anything he'd eventually see in the NFL. Having suffered through two years of whatever it was that Ty Willingham was trying to do at Washington, Locker finally got on the right path in 2009, when the Huskies hired former USC and Oakland Raiders assistant Steve Sarkisian as their head coach and quarterback guru. In 2010, Locker got past prior inefficiencies and threw 17 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, capping off his collegiate career with an upset over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. For a quarterback and team that suffered through an 0-12 season just two years before, it was a fairly miraculous turnaround.

Locker's athleticism wowed the pro scouts, and he was taken eighth overall in the 2011 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. Yes, just like Tannehill, he was taken at that spot based as much on potential as prior performance. Locker didn't start a single game in his rookie season -- he instead learned at the foot of veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who used to play for the Seahawks and had known Locker for a while.

"He has as much on the field, as off the field," Locker said earlier this month, when asked if Hasselbeck had been an influence on his career. "I have just been very fortunate to have him as a part of my life -- both as a player, and as a person. I been going through a lot of things personally that are new to me that he has already gone through. He just has a lot of great advice; on how to deal with stuff, how to handle things. That's what's great about it, and I think people might not realize is that it goes beyond football. I am very thankful to have had him for the time that I did, to share his knowledge with me."

That's all warm and fuzzy, but the Titans sped Locker's process along when they selected Baylor receiver Kendall Wright in the first round of their most recent draft. RG3's primary target in college is a speed slot player with a knack for getting open deep upfield, and requiring throws Hasselbeck can't consistently make. It's said that teams will tell you where they are with personnel by the personnel they add, and the Wright pick seemed to indicate a changing of the guard to Locker's specific strengths.

"Locker has a stronger arm than Hasselbeck," Greg Cosell recently wrote on the NFL Films blog. "When his feet were set and his lower-body mechanics were balanced, he threw the ball with velocity. Locker's delivery was compact, and he was able to snap throws off with arm speed and high RPMs. However, he also tended to rush his footwork in the pocket. That impacted his balance and led to accuracy issues, a flaw that has carried over from his days at the University of Washington.

"Locker was occasionally impatient and indecisive in the pocket. His feet must be calmer; there was too much unnecessary movement. He was also quick to leave the pocket, playing slightly fast and frenetically. All this was to be expected from a quarterback who was not a natural pocket-passer. Locker has always been more comfortable and efficient outside of the pocket, and that proved to be true in all five games he played as a rookie. On a positive note, he threw the ball extremely well on the move, with velocity and more consistent accuracy than he showed from inside the pocket."

And that's Locker's challenge in 2012, just as it was at Washington. Sarkisian adapted his West Coast offense concepts to meet Locker's out-of-pocket style, but you can't succeed in the NFL without the ability to make decisive throws under fire without bailing from the pocket. Titans head coach Mike Munchak recently said that Locker is "closing the gap" to start, but in his return to Seattle for the Titans' preseason opener, Locker still displayed developmental issues. When in the pocket, Locker often struggles with his footwork, leading to inaccurate throws without pressure. But when he was able to move in the pocket and set his feet in motion, or roll to his right, Locker showed an arm capable of zinging the ball to all areas.

"I thought he sat in the pocket nice and he made some good completions," Munchak told the Tennessean after the Seahawks game. "It was pretty solid. He had some balls that were dropped. He had a ball that was tipped. Overall, I thought he did a good job with what we asked him to do ... Eight or nine of his plays were almost in a hurry-up mode. You want to see how they handled that with the commotion, the huddle sometimes, the hurry-up, getting off the line of scrimmage, getting the ball spotted, calling timeouts … all that kind of stuff. [Matt Hasselbeck] has done that forever, but since Jake has gotten here he has a good feel for that."

Locker will start Friday night's game against Tampa Bay, which will pull him one step closer to his ultimate goal.

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