SEATTLE -- Washington quarterback Jake Locker is the early consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, according to fans and the media, but scouts have given Florida State's Christian Ponder an identical grade as both players enter their senior seasons.
|Florida State's Christian Ponder 'looks and carries himself like an NFL quarterback,' says one scout. (US Presswire)|
Scouts from many of the NFL's 32 teams convene in Florida each May to review the incoming senior class of prospects. National Football Scouting, an organization comprised of roughly half of the league's teams (including the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints) and the organizers of the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, gave Locker and Ponder grades of 6.7 on a scale of 1.0-8.0. The late-first to early second-round grades are similar to ones given to last year's top-rated quarterbacks -- Florida's Tim Tebow and Texas' Colt McCoy.
Locker's high grade comes as no surprise after he chose to return to the Huskies for his senior season. Scouts of several teams in the top 10 of last April's draft told me he warranted that high of consideration. Locker, remaining healthy for the entire season for the first time in his career at Washington, completed a career-high 58.4 percent of his passes for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions. Some league insiders believe the St. Louis Rams would have strongly entertained the idea of taking Locker over Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick.
The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Locker offers a tantalizing combination of athleticism, a strong, accurate arm and grittiness rare for the position. It is a combination that has led to incredible hype for the soft-spoken Locker, even drawing comparisons to Hall of Famers John Elway and Steve Young -- though in three seasons as the Huskies' starting quarterback, Locker has yet to earn even honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors or lead UW to a bowl game. In 28 career starts, Locker has thrown for 36 touchdowns against 26 interceptions and holds a career completion percentage of only 53.4 percent.
However, as one front-office executive told me on the condition of anonymity, Locker can't be analyzed strictly on numbers.
"Locker is an exciting talent. Every year there is a running quarterback you have to consider because he has an arm," the executive said. "With Locker, he has the arm and the accuracy -- and his running ability is much different than a Tebow or Pat White. He can put his shoulder down like Tebow or make guys miss like White, but he can also run right by them. He's even faster on the field than he looks. And the gains he made last year as a thrower ... He stills misses too many throws for starting as many games as he has, that's true, but he showed in the USC and Notre Dame games [in 2009] the ability to make big-time throws in critical situations. That's why he's the higher rated guy on my board -- this kid played his best when the lights were brightest. He could be special."
With talent like Locker's, scouts from other sports were bound to notice. Locker has twice been drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, most recently signing a six-year deal with the baseball club after being selected in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft. He's technically considered a walk-on by UW, as the Angels (and not an athletic scholarship) are paying for his time with the Huskies. Locker has stated on numerous occasions that football is his priority -- he hasn't played organized baseball since 2008 -- but his dual interests are sure to make him a riskier proposition in the eyes of NFL scouts.
Ponder, 6-2, 220 pounds, isn't as big or athletic as Locker. And his rather pedestrian career numbers (28 touchdowns/20 interceptions in 22 career starts) hardly opens eyes, but he's considered the more polished passer. It doesn't hurt that he has taken his academics incredibly seriously. While Ponder's academics hardly compare to former teammate Myron Rolle's Rhodes Scholar award, Ponder has already finished his Master's Degree in finance and is taking classes toward his Doctorate this fall.
And, as another longtime NFL evaluator argued, Ponder's underrated combination of accuracy, athleticism and intelligence makes the FSU quarterback's high grade well deserved.
"I like Ponder," the scout said. "Obviously, he went down with the injury late in the year and that has to check out OK, but he's got legitimate talent."
Ponder's 2009 season ended prematurely when he suffered a Grade 3 separation of his throwing shoulder Nov. 7 against Clemson. The injury, which occurred when Ponder tackled safety DeAndre McDaniel following an interception, cut short a breakout campaign in which the Seminoles quarterback was leading the ACC in passing yards (301.9) and total offense per game (321.8) while completing 68.8 percent of his passes. He had thrown 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Ponder provided evidence he has healed from the shoulder separation and subsequent surgery with his play this spring. He was named FSU's Most Valuable Offensive Player for the spring camp and completed 16 of 34 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, as well as rushing for a 3-yard score in leading the Gold over the Garnett in the spring game.
Like Locker, who made significant gains as a passer and student of defenses under Steve Sarkisian in 2009, Ponder has made consistent strides working under Jimbo Fisher. Before taking over as head coach for the legendary Bobby Bowden this spring, Fisher had served as FSU's offensive coordinator. He previously held the same title at LSU, where he coached, among others, former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell.
In Ponder, Fisher says he has a talent capable of matching Russell's meteoric rise up draft boards.
"I'm not trying to put pressure on [Ponder]," Fisher said. "But he has the talent and ability to -- by far -- be better than anyone I've ever coached at the position."
The scout agrees.
"Ponder is more accurate than Locker. He's not the same athlete as Locker, of course, but he can hurt you with his legs, too. I'd personally rate him below Locker, at this point, but based on last year's tape, I'd give him a second-round grade. He looks and carries himself like an NFL quarterback. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him move into the first round."