NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time since having foot surgery last November, Titans quarterback Jake Locker participated in full team drills on Tuesday.
Locker said the right foot is completely healed from a Lisfranc fracture suffered in a Nov. 10 loss to the Jaguars. He is back to full speed in time to participate in remaining workouts leading to training camp in late July.
"It felt really good moving around out there," Locker said after Tuesday’s workout, the first of the team’s 10 organized team activities sessions over the next three weeks. "It’s the first time that I have been able to go in team periods 11-on-11. And it felt comfortable today."
Locker’s return to participate fully in team drills is well ahead of a rehab schedule that possibly had him not returning to full workouts until mandatory minicamp in mid-June. But the fourth-year Titans quarterback said he wasn’t surprised at his quick return.
"Not with how I am feeling the last week or two," Locker said. "I told you guys from the start that I expected to be back a little quicker than maybe anticipated. … It’s just kind of managing the stiffness and soreness that I might get from doing it. But barring any big setbacks, I hope to keep moving forward and make it something of the past."
With first-year Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt installing a new offense, it was paramount to get Locker back under center as soon as possible. He participated in the team’s instructional sessions and was on the field for a veteran minicamp four weeks ago, but there is nothing like taking live snaps in a full-blown practice, albeit with players wearing only helmets and shorts and no pads.
"With rehabs, you can’t always say what the schedule is going to be," Whisenhunt said, "but it depends upon when they are healthy. It’s a credit to Jake for working hard, but obviously it is good to get him out there going through the team (drills). That was an important piece of it, but it is just the first day, so we’ve got to continue to see how that progresses."
Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who was second on the team last season with a career-high 60 receptions and a team-high six touchdown catches, sure noticed the difference with Locker again running the offense. Those duties had fallen to backups Charlie Whitehurst and Tyler Wilson during Locker’s absence.
"Getting Jake back out there running the first team, that’s what we need," Walker said. "We’ve got to get together and get our timing right. We’ve got a new playbook, so it’s basically everybody starting all over again."
Beyond just learning the offense, Locker’s return also re-establishes himself as the offensive leader. He missed nine games last season — two with a hip injury and the last seven the foot injury — but played well when he could find the field. Last season in seven games, Locker completed 111 of 183 passes (60.7 percent) for 1,256 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He had an 86.7 quarterback rating.
But this offseason, the Titans did not exercise the 2015 option year on Locker’s contract that was to pay $14.6 million next year. That puts Locker in the final year of his initial Titans deal and having to prove he can be the franchise quarterback going forward that comes with being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Locker, who guided the team to a 3-1 start last season before being injured late in that fourth game, said that his learning curve for the new offense is also on target.
"At first, having that veteran minicamp, although I didn’t get to participate, going through all the mental reps of it really kind of forced you to learn it quickly," Locker said. "And now it’s kind of going back through that stuff that we installed in those three days. It was a good opportunity to really kind of have a crash course on it and now go back and refine some of the finer details of it. I’m really feeling confident in what we’re doing."
While the Titans had the opportunity like many teams to draft Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel with their 10th overall pick, they instead selected LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round as a development project. Locker said he thought the team might draft a quarterback in the later rounds. Locker expressed an obligation to help Mettenberger any way that he can in his development, although one day he might take his job.
"I have been so fortunate having played three years, this being my fourth, to have guys that done that for me every season that I have been in the NFL," said Locker, who as a rookie sat behind starter Matt Hasselbeck, now a backup with the Colts. "That’s part of your responsibility," he added. "That’s part of your duty as an NFL player, to educate the guys that come in after you and help them be comfortable playing as well."
Locker is also aware that Whisenhunt is a head coach with quarterback coaching expertise.
As former Steelers offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt helped quarterback Ben Roethlisberger get his career started, jumpstarted the career of veteran Kurt Warner while head coach of the Cardinals, and last year, as Chargers offensive coordinator, was instrumental in the resurgence of quarterback Philip Rivers.
"The one thing that I felt thus far," Locker said, "is that there is open discussion like, ‘Hey, do you like this? How do you feel about this? Have you done something similar?’ So, there is open dialogue on both sides to find a comfort zone with plays that they like calling and plays that I enjoy running and feel confident running. I think it is going to be a comfortable collaboration between the both of us to find something that works for everybody."
As for Whisenhunt, implementation of the new offense is still in its early stages.
But he did like what he saw of Locker today during his first day of participating in team drills full time.
"There is no substitute for getting the work on the field," Whisenhunt said. "But even seeing some of the drills today, you’re seeing (Locker) make progress with his footwork, some of his progressions. I’m excited about that."