Dec 17, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker (10) throws a pass against the New York Jets at LP Field. The Titans defeated the Jet 14-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

3rd I Critical for Jake Locker and Successful 2013-14 Tennessee Titans Season

How good is Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker? After two seasons, Locker has much to prove in what may end up as his last opportunity to certify himself as a long-term starting quarterback. His productivity will determine whether widespread changes are made throughout the organization. A poor season could mean new players, coaches and front-office personnel.

How do outsiders feel about Locker? NFL.com writer Marc Sessler ranked his top 35 quarterbacks, 2013 rookies excluded. Locker came in at No. 27. He was placed in the group “How can I trust you?” From 25-30, this group included Josh Freeman, Christian Ponder, Locker, Nick Foles, Kevin Kolb and Matt Hasselbeck. Other notable inclusions were Andrew Luck (No. 8), Matt Schaub (No. 20), Ryan Fitzpatrick (No. 32) and Blaine Gabbert (No. 34). Here’s full list.

Outsiders aren’t the only people who doubt Locker’s abilities. Last month, Titan Sized polled readers on “Should Tennessee Titans Sign Tim Tebow?” Of 190 respondents, 73 people (38.42 percent) voted “YES: Tebow Would Be Best QB on Titans Roster.” They weren’t concerned about the circus that would ensue if Tebow were added to the training-camp roster.

Let’s take a brief look at Locker’s career statistics (ESPN):

Jake Locker: In Year 3, What Can Tennessee Titans Fans Expect in 2013?

ESPN, picture from Joshua Huffman

Locker spent all of his 2011-12 rookie season as the backup quarterback to Hasselbeck. All of Locker’s reps came in mop-up duty or as an in-game replacement for an injured Hasselbeck. Defenses weren’t prepared for the sudden change from an immobile pocket quarterback to a speedster with limited NFL reps. That helped Locker when he nearly brought the Titans back from double-digit deficits on multiple occasions.

Those solid performances—and his status as the No. 8 pick of the 2011 NFL Draft—were enough for Mike Munchak to give him the starting job during the 2012-13 season. In Week 1, Locker injured his shoulder while he was trying to make a tackle on a fumble return. In Week 4, Locker re-aggravated that injury and was forced to miss the next five weeks. While Locker returned, his shoulder was never at 100 percent. He postponed shoulder surgery until the offseason.

Evaluating Locker is a difficult process. How much of his rookie success came because opposing defensive coordinators didn’t have an entire offseason to study him (excluding college game film)? How much of his second-year struggles were due to his ailing shoulder? Were his problems due to a shaky offensive line and/or former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer?

Locker must address many questions. My primary concern deals with whether Locker can stay healthy. Ever since his days at the University of Washington, Locker has battled numerous injuries. Neck, thumb, ribs, shoulders… etc. His physical and aggressive nature puts him in dangerous situations against bigger defenders. If the Titans do commit to read-option plays, Locker must learn when it’s more logical to slide than gain an additional yard while absorbing a high-velocity collision.

For Locker, it’s all about playing smart. That intelligence will help keep him—and his receivers—healthy. Locker can’t leave his teammates vulnerable with high passes. Injury histories already follow Kenny Britt and Justin Hunter. If Locker wants to stay on the field, then he must learn when to slide. For a starting quarterback, it’s more important to live to see another down than gain one extra yard.

Stay healthy. Play smart. Both of these attributes require extensive and consistent use of the third I, “intelligence.” Locker already demonstrates good use of the first two I’s (intensity and integrity). Can he stay healthy for 16 games and avoid the reckless decisions when receivers are in coverage? Will he avoid glaring misreads such as this three-step hitch route that Indianapolis Colts cornerback Cassius Vaughn returned for a pick-six?

At least fans can trust that Locker will attempt his best, not do stuff like this.

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