“If he committed himself to baseball, he could be a Hall of Famer”- an anonymous scout quoted by Baseball America
“Scouts believe that if he concentrated on baseball, he could be a speedier Matt Holliday.”- Baseball America’s 2009 draft report on Locker
Entering the 2010 NFL Draft, football scouts were drooling over Jake Locker‘s abilities. Baseball scouts had already been drooling for years- but knew deep inside that his potential on the baseball diamond would go to waste.
Coming out of Ferndale High School in the state of Washington, Jake Locker was one of the top prep quarterbacks in the country, winning state award after state award and being one of the top 5 quarterback recruits no matter who you asked. But he was also an impressive baseball prospect who pitched and played the outfield. On the mound, he threw 93 MPH consistently and hit 96 MPH in the Washington State playoffs. But he stood out even more for the reasons that made him such a promising quarterback. His athleticism was off-the-charts, his speed was an easy plus, and he wasn’t one of those football players playing baseball and having no idea what he was doing, flashing tremendous bat speed with solid patience. If Locker was committed to playing baseball instead of to the University of Washington as a quarterback, he would have been a surefire first round pick. Locker said repeatedly that football was his focus and passion and that he would not be pursuing a professional baseball career, even declining an invitation to the Area Code Games to showcase his baseball abilities. The Angels took a flier on him in the 40th round of the 2006 MLB Draft, but it was always clear that he was going to attend Washington to play footbal.
As a redshirt freshman at Washington in 2007, Locker was inconsistent but his potential was tantalizing. He managed just a 47.3% completion percentage and threw 15 interceptions compared to 14 touchdowns, but he passed for 2062 yards and ran for 986 yards and 13 more touchdowns. In a loss to Arizona on October 27th, he passed for 336 yards and ran for 157 more, throwing 2 touchdowns through the air and running in another 2. He was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and set several Washington freshmen records, including passing yards and touchdowns, and he set the Pac-10 record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 986. His star in football was getting brighter and brighter.
In the summer of 2008, Locker decided to join his cousin Brady on the Bellingham Bells in the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League, playing baseball for the first time in two years. He gave scouts a taste of his unbelievable baseball potential, holding his own to a .273/.341/.424 line with 2 doubles, 1 homer, 3 RBI, 4 of 5 stolen bases, and 9 strikeouts versus 4 walks in 10 games. He was Baseball America‘s top prospect in the league, displaying, of course, the athleticism, speed, and intangibles that made him a great quarterback, but also flashing quick hands, big raw power, and even a sound approach at the plate. But of course Locker went right back to football following the experience and evaluators could only shake their heads even more over the fact that he wasn’t going to play baseball.
Locker’s sophomore season at Washington in 2009 was a complete disaster as he played in just the first 4 games of the season after breaking his thumb. The Huskies wound up going 0-12 on the season, the first winless season in NCAA history by a major college football program. Over the offseason, Locker kept his focus on getting healthy and improving as a quarterback, declining to play baseball again. Nevertheless, that June he was selected by the Angels once again, this time in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB Draft. Then something shocking happened- he signed. Locker agreed to a $300,000 bonus with the Angels as part of a two-sport contract- but never said anything about actually playing baseball, referring to the contract as only a fallback if his football career didn’t work out. The deal provided no monetary guarantees- Locker would have to return the money if he chose football over baseball- except for the fact that the Angels would pay for the rest of Locker’s college tuition because the signing made him ineligible for a scholarship. The Angels would hold Locker’s baseball rights until 2015. The chances remained long, but at least the Angels had the framework in place to retain Locker if his football career did not work out. Angels GM Tony Reagins said that he expected Locker to play in their minor league system at some point in 2010 and Locker even spent a few days doing baseball-related workouts at the Angels’ complex in Arizona.
The Angels had all but lost hope that Locker would ever join their ranks when Locker did not end up playing any minor league baseball in 2010 and then delivered a huge junior season for the Huskies, completing 58.2% of his passes as he threw for 2800 yards and 28 touchdowns versus 11 interceptions and he also rushed for 388 yards and 7 touchdowns. Washington had an uneven season, going 5-7 but picking a pair of big victories over ranked opponents, including beating then No. 3 ranked USC. Between his size (6’3″, 231), athleticism, arm strength, improved accuracy, and leadership, Locker was considered a top prospect for the 2010 NFL Draft, with one anonymous NFL GM comparing him to Hall of Famer Steve Young when talking to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. ESPN’s Todd McShay had Locker him as the number one overall pick in his mock draft before Locker announced that he would be returning to Washington for his senior season.
After it was nearly universally predicted that Locker would be the number one overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, he did not have a great senior year, passing for 2265 yards and 17 touchdowns versus 9 interceptions as he completed just 55.4% of his passes. He did also rush for 385 yards and 6 TDs. There was speculation after the season that Locker might fall as far as the second or third round of the draft after his poor performance, and another issue complicated things even more and gave the Angels one last glimmer of hope: the NFL lockout. If the NFL were to locked out for any significant period of time, the Angels hoped that Locker would pursue his baseball career. Instead, Locker declined to report to spring training, continuing to work out for NFL teams in anticipation of the draft. On April 28th, 2011, the Tennessee Titans surprised the football world by drafting Locker 8th overall, signing him to a 4-year contact with 12 million dollars to be their quarterback of the future. Locker didn’t start any games for the Titans in 2011 but has been their starter this season and played well- but he missed 5 games after fracturing his shoulder in Week 4. When healthy, Locker has completed 59.8% of his passes for 903 and 6 touchdowns against 2 interceptions while also rushing for 103 yards on 8.6 yards per carry.
No matter what happens the rest of his career, how can you blame Jake Locker for his decision to choose football? It’s his passion and it’s something he’s incredibly good at. He had a chance to be a special player in baseball- but the same is true in football and if he had chosen baseball if wouldn’t have given him the same satisfaction. Locker hopes and believes that by the end of his football career this discussion of “what if he chose baseball” will turn into a John Elway-esque situation where we laugh about how he would have done in baseball because he was just so good at football. He made his choice and has never second-guessed himself, and you have to give him a ton of credit for that.