As is our wont, we begin our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position with a look at the state of the quarterback position as we head into the 2013 league year.
When I wrote the preseason positional analysis just over six months ago, which man would start Week 1 for the Titans at quarterback was unclear. Jake Locker ended up being the Week 1 starter and held on to his starting job the entire season, though injuries, particularly a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder suffered Week 4 against the Texans, caused him to miss five games and be pulled in two others once they became uncompetitive.
I broke down Locker's play against the Dolphins in Week 10 in some detail, and more recently expatiated on his play at some length before the season finale. He ended up 177 of 314 passes, a 56.4% completion percentage, and threw for 2,176 yards, an average of 6.9 per attempt. He threw 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and was sacked 25 times. He also had 41 rushes for 291 yards, including a score. He fumbled four times, losing all of them (bad luck). He finished the season ranked 32nd (of 39) passing in Football Outsiders' per play DVOA metric and 31st in the cumulative total value DYAR metric. His reasonable efficiency when running lifted him to a 24th ranking in ESPN's Total QBR. By average NFL quarterback standards, he finished the year below average by yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and sacks per attempt.
Barring strange and unexpected things, Jake Locker will be the Titans' starting quarterback come Week 1 of 2013, and that's how things should be.
It's no secret the Tennessee Titans experienced a great deal of offensive dysfunction in 2012, and the problems were found throughout the roster. Part of the reason Locker's sack rate was so high was an offensive line that ended the season injury-riddled and unused to working with each other. I cautioned them against it, but the Titans early in the season ended up doubling down on offensive inconsistency, pairing the inexperienced Locker with a boom-and-bust back in Chris Johnson. When one or the both of them produced big plays, as Locker managed in Week 3 against the Lions, the Titans were capable of having a somewhat productive offense. When they didn't, as in Week 1 against the Patriots and Week 2 against the Chargers, slow starts and big deficits (partly the result of a porous defense) ensued.
When the Titans selected Locker with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, they were getting a player who was far from a polished passer. I said before the draft, though it seems not here, that I would have been ecstatic with the Titans taking him with the eighth pick in the second round and hopeful but very cautious were they to take him where they did take him. The main concern was his poor collegiate completion percentage, a near-certain harbinger of NFL disappointment to come. Two seasons into his career, Locker's ability to complete passes remains well below average, and even his completions too often are far from the pinpoint precision required to be a high-level NFL quarterback of the sort you hope you get with a top-ten pick.
Compounding Locker's below-average (for an NFL starter) accuracy is his lack of other high-level quarterback traits. His reading of defenses beyond his initial look remains spotty. He improvises poorly. His movement and ability to reset within the confines of the pocket, even a good one, is below-average. He is a see-it, throw-it passer, waiting for receivers to come open or win before releasing a pass, and does not throw with anticipation. He has trouble identifying and reacting to blitzers at times, particularly defensive backs coming off the slot. Glover Quin's sack of him in Week 4 where he injured his shoulder was the most prominent example this year, but was far from the only one, as I noted in my review of the season finale.
Are there any bright lights to go with the above paragraph of unrelenting gloom? Well, a few. When he escapes the pocket, he is a more accurate passer. He has the arm strength to threaten defenses vertically, especially in the deep middle of the field. Some passes are thrown well. As an NFL passer, he wasn't nearly as bad at leaving plays on the field as a player like Tim Tebow (all-22 and Tebow dropbacks is not a pleasant experience). I've said this before, but as a runner, he's faster than you think. He reminds me a bit of VY (before his hip injury), in that he doesn't necessarily look like he's moving that fast, but he gets from point A to point B quicker than you think, though also like VY he's not an agile NFL runner in the style of a player like MIchael Vick.
As a high first-round pick, Locker's contract is fully-guaranteed, which means he's on the Titans cap for $3.4 million and change this season (including a salary of $1.5 million-plus) and $4 million in 2013 (salary close to $2.1 million). The Titans are not to eat that salary, nor does it make much sense for them to do so. With Locker basically guaranteed to be around for two more seasons, giving him another year as a starter is the right thing to do. In a different situation, once where the Titans have a top-level defense and an offense that just needs average or a bit above quarterback play, it would be worth looking at other options. Given a boom-or-bust back, an interior of the offensive line that needs rebuilding, a receiving corps filled with question marks, and a defense that ranged from the okay-at-times to the utterly abysmal in 2012, the Titans can and should hope for an unexpected mass improvement in the still-inexperienced Locker's game in 2013.
Locker's backup in 2012, and the man who seems poised to remain his backup in 2013, is Matt Hasselbeck. At this point in the game, talking too much about Hasselbeck feels unproductive. His game is fairly well-known, as a veteran quarterback best-suited to work the 3- and 5-step game on short and intermediate routes. As he did in 2011, he finished above-average by completion percentage, interception percentage, and sack rate. Due a base salary of $5.5 million, the Titans could look to renegotiate with him, given his near-certain backup status. His well-publicized (and apparently actually correct) excellent, highly collegial relationship with Locker, combined with the Titans' available salary cap space, make me think it very likely he returns in 2013 in the same backup/mentor/injury fill-in role he saw in 2012.
If the Titans do part ways with Hasselbeck, Rusty Smith is the presumptive favorite to be the backup. The 2010 sixth-round pick was on the gameday active roster for only the 5 games Locker missed and saw 7 snaps in 2012, all at the end of the Vikings game. He looked at least moderately competent there and in the 2012 preseason, or at least a lot better than he did against the 2010 Texans in the game he started as a rookie. After that game and Mike Heimerdinger's untimely passing when the belief he was Dinger's pet project, I never thought he'd stick around for the new regime. With Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator and heading into the final year of his rookie deal, his fate is again a question mark for me. If Locker was better and had shown a better ability to stay healthy, he might be the backup. If Hasselbeck is to fill that role and with Rusty not under contract beyond 2013, the Titans may look elsewhere for a third quarterback or simply look to carry two.
Jake Locker will be with the Titans in 2013, and will almost certainly start. He also should be the starter. Beyond his slot, the backup position is more uncertain. I believe they should and will retain Matt Hasselbeck, even at a rate above what they'd ideally pay him. More questionable for me is the third-string quarterback; will they retain Rusty, or might they look to add a different young quarterback? I think it's a reasonable possibility.
I do not expect the Titans to add a veteran quarterback in free agency. If they, I expect it to be a player with only a moderate amount of experience who is available very cheaply. Though I'm not sure Rusty Smith will be a member of the Titans come Week 1 2013, I do not expect the Titans to cut him this offseason. Like every team, they'll add at least one rookie quarterback, if for nothing more than to be a rookie camp arm. I do not expect them to do so, but it would not surprise me if they spent a low draft pick, in the sixth or seventh round, on a quarterback.
Really, though, as I said last offseason, the quarterback position for the Titans in 2013 in all about Jake Locker. I'm hopeful, but I'm still not optimistic about that.