While every quarterback stepping onto the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium this week has something to prove, Washington's Jake Locker and Florida State's Christian Ponder may have the most in the balance. For Locker, this is the first chance he'll have since an iffy Holiday Bowl performance to prove that his quarterback acumen can match his pure physical talent. Ponder is the more developed player, but injuries have dimmed his star, and he's got three months before the NFL draft to prove that he's got what it takes to be a first-round talent.
Jake Locker, Washington
Christian Ponder, Florida State
Pros: Excels in a sandlot format where he can roll out and make plays with his great mobility and agility. From a raw perspective, he brings a young John Elway to mind on the run. Has the arm to make every throw with no hesitation, and when he does put the right touch on the ball, he looks very much like an NFL-ready quarterback. A great runner in the open field; he brings toughness and escapability to the degree that he's a legitimate rushing factor on third-and-short and goal-to-go situations. Has a natural pro-style motion with a compact delivery that doesn't break down; inaccuracy is often the result of decision-making and lack of experience as opposed to bad mechanics. Natural leader who came back for his senior season despite possible top-5 draft position to go to a bowl game and win, which he did, helping the Huskies upset heavily favored Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Will get a relative pass on some accuracy issues because his supporting cast was less than stellar: Locker is Washington's first draftable offensive player in years. Isaiah Stanback(notes), a wide reciever drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 draft by the Dallas Cowboys, was the last Washington offensive player drafted.
Pros: He has a compact, easy delivery with a pro throwing motion and can accurately flip the ball downfield with minimal effort. Has a very good feel for short spaces and tight windows with underneath routes and coverage, and the right touch to get passes in underneath to receivers coming into view. Can repeatedly make the deep seam and sideline throws with touch and accuracy. Has a killer touch with back-door fades in the end zone. Experienced with play fakes and play action, mobile enough to get downfield quickly after leading defenders the way he wants them to go. No issue standing in the pocket and making throws downfield; generally doesn't bail out too often under pressure. Decent open-field runner who will go after defenders looking for the extra yard when he should probably slide, given his injury history. He was the first FSU quarterback to run for more than 400 yards in a season since Charlie Ward in 1992. Respected as a leader, and he takes that challenge willingly.
Cons: Spent his last two seasons in a pro-style offense under Steve Sarkisian, but was severely hampered in technical development by previous coach Tyrone Willingham (Washington was 0-12 in 2008). Accuracy when throwing in the pocket is still very questionable. Touch on longer throws comes and goes. Tends to revert out of optimal setup and release points in the pocket under pressure; he'll balk and escape too early because he's still learning how to use his feet in the pocket instead of just running around. Wildly inconsistent as a thrower from a play-to-play perspective – he swings between hide-your-eyes horrible to completely amazing and back again very quickly and far too often.
Cons: Injury concerns will dog Ponder through the pre-draft analysis process; he missed three games in the 2009 season with a Grade-3 separation of his throwing (right) shoulder, and a sore right elbow in 2010 required two surgeries and affected his accuracy throughout the season. When throwing deep, will occasionally start falling away from his passes, resulting in less-than-tight spirals and balls that hang in the air. Has not proven the ability to process multiple reads; he generally ran a one-read-and-go offense, and when he didn't, he ran into trouble.
Conclusion: Locker has as much to prove – and as much to gain or lose – as does any player through this year's Senior Bowl/NFL scouting combine/pro-day process. He has the kind of basic skill set that most draft-eligible quarterbacks can only dream of, but he's probably two years away from being able to start and produce consistently in the NFL. The fact that he seemed to regress in his second year under Sarkisian, when more was expected of him, speaks to the fact that he simply isn't there yet from a playbook perspective.
He is likely to star in the Senior Bowl week, and especially during individual workouts. It's quite possible that a great series of workouts could have NFL general managers drooling over a kid who can run a 4.5-40 and make the repeated 35-yard post corner throw at the combine. In that case, he would very well go in the top 10. But if he fails to break the stigmas surrounding his accuracy and consistency, especially with better running backs, receivers, and linemen around him, he could drop and stay in the low first round.
Conclusion: With the right kind of pre-draft workouts and medical checkups, Ponder could find himself as the No. 1 prospect on the lists of those teams looking for a future franchise quarterback running different strains of the West Coast offense. Florida State's game plan put Ponder in many situations where he was taking the ball under center, exhibiting good footwork, and making quick throws to areas instead of receivers. As a result, Ponder figures to have to make fewer changes as he transitions to life in the NFL. Also, there's no problem with his intelligence; he's got a Masters in finance and is working on his doctorate (future contract negotiators, beware).
The little things he needs to work on can be taken care of with a year of experience in the right system, and there's no indication that he wouldn't be able to make the required leap. The question (and it is a big one) revolves around his injury history.
Pro comparison: Rich Gannon, Oakland Raiders (if he checks out, health-wise)
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner